by Matthew Echan
Again, I'm fooled. It's officially Autism Awareness Month, and seven years later, I'm still waking up with the hope that maybe the Autism will be gone today. Nope. I know it as soon as I hear him asking for some "ceweall." I pat him on the head and kiss his forehead. I just want him to know I love him. He doesn't really seem to care, but I've learned not to take it personally. He pushes me away and points downstairs. I squeeze him into the trash compactor and shake him until his smile pops out. "Now give daddy a real kiss." His eyes roll back into his head as he tilts back with pursed open lips.
I'm just happy he's talking now, and I smile as we proceed with the morning routine. Breakfast, Bathroom, Train Station. School. No different from any other morning. I show him again how to use his napkin to wipe his chin, again how to pull his head through the whole of his shirt, again how to brush his teeth and hair. Though we both teeter in and out of frustration, we are each more patient with the other than the previous day, and we high-five several times to that. I tell him I'm proud of him and give him another squeeze before we shove out the front door. He doesn't really seem to care, but I don't take it personally. This is progress.
Because my radiator has seen its day, we are forced to make the commute with the heater on full blast. Neither of us complain about it though. We just turn on "New Jerusalem," our new favorite album, roll down the windows and press on like today could be our last. I tilt the rear-view so I can watch him try to contain his excitement. Something about the wind against his face gets him all worked up. I swear he thinks he's a hummingbird, hovering completely still as the busy world swirls around him. I watch as people slow down to observe him as they pass by and I think about what it means to be normal. What would it be like to be inside Josiah's brain for one day? Then I slip off into some daydream where him and I are having some meaningful conversation about where we go when we die.
As we circle the fountain at Orange, Josiah clasps his hands together over his mouth, nervously pushing his thumbs against his teeth, his eyes the size of silver-dollars. The bell starts ringing, the red lights flash and the giant candy-canes lower. We wait for the train.
"I see tain," Josiah mumbles through his hands.
"I hear a train."
"Yeah. I hear tain."
We pull up just as the Surfliner whistles through the intersection. Josiah studies it nervously, and when it finally glides to a stop at the station, he pulls himself up by the passenger headrest for a better view. I stare into his big blue eyes, wondering if he remembers we did this yesterday, wondering if he will ever catch a train somewhere. Trying his best to contain his excitement, he looks over at me with his contagious smile and says, "I hear tain."
I'm just happy he's talking now. This is progress.
The closer we get to his school, the more he starts mumbling to himself. I watch him talk out the window and I can tell he's not happy about it. I can't make out everything, but his bottom lip is hanging low and he keeps repeating, "Yeah. After tool, you can play ba-ball, but you can go to tool."
"You want to play baseball?" I ask rhetorically.
His hands clasp together and his face lights up.
"Yeah," he says, like it should be obvious.
I pull into the school parking lot, turn around and look at him. He's pressing his hands against his teeth, hanging on my answer, entirely lost in the moment. It's no big deal to play hooky for one day, but I can't shake the notion that his future depends on it. If he doesn't learn his letters, shapes and colors, how will he ever learn to stop at a red light? Or differentiate between a men's and women's restroom? Or catch a train someday? On the other hand, I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to be in a relationship with someone who constantly pushes you to be different from what you are, and I want to connect with him somehow, let him know I love him. I wonder if I'm too aware of Autism, and if I've forgotten about my son. Does he have Autism, or does Autism have my son?
Josiah turns his attention to Alisa, a non-verbal 7-year-old that gets a rise out of hitting him throughout the day. She bounces from her mother's grasp through the front door.
"Awyssa," he says, watching the door close, his smile long gone.
"What do you say we go to Boomerz?" I ask, ready to seize the day.
"Boomerz!" he says, clapping, reminding me it's never too late to make a lasting connection.
"The rules work for us," I say, throwing the car into reverse, knowing that one day he'll understand.
This is progress.