My day-care provider, Donna, came by with a good friend named Doris, a woman in her seventies. They both knew children, knew them exactly the way farmers know to read the wind, the signs of frost. Doris and Donna knew illness, too. Forty years earlier, Doris had lost a newborn in the hospital. They took it away from her and never let her see it again. She had raised two healthy sons and now worked at the school as a crossing guard. Donna had a son who was mentally retarded. Now in his twenties, he called her nightly at eight o'clock from his group home. First one and then the other of these two women held our baby in their arms and cried. I was reassured. If Doris and Donna could cry from happiness because of this baby, maybe this baby was going to be all right.
Still, concern, worry, came in hot little flashes. Toward the end of my five days in the hospital, I confided to my friend Monica that I didn't feel that the baby was "born yet," even though, of course, he was out. A woman with strong spiritual convictions, Monica suggested I pray he come into his body.
"Have a name yet?" asked the nurses. The truth was, Cliff and I hadn't been able to decide on a name before we had arrived at the hospital. We were both acutely aware that a name is synonymous with public identity. We wanted our son to be able to be whatever he wanted: musician or organic farmer or auto mechanic or mime, or, of course, president. But the process of naming seemed fraught with ill auspices. Choosing a name seemed arrogant, a dangerous alchemy; it was choosing a future. Finally, we decided on Walker after Walker Percy, philosopher and author of The Moviegoer. It seemed strong, philosophical, unique, which is what we hoped he would be.
Yet what he was, or was going to be, seemed to elude us, even as we committed the name to paper. Even before we sent the "name" form back to the hospital, Cliff and I had one of those talks that mark history for couples. Not a week after Walker was born.
I waited until the baby had fallen asleep, and whispering into the darkness, I spoke words I knew were treason for a mother to speak. I told Cliff I was worried something was wrong. It wasn't just that the baby looked pinched, ill at ease. He wouldn't look at me.
"People keep telling us that babies don't focus at first," said Cliff.
"It's not his focus, it's something different," I insisted.
I grappled for words to describe what was missing but ended up sounding melodramatic, like a disappointed lover. There was something missing in the "connection," none of those "oceanic feelings." The world hadn't "turned on its head."
Cliff's voice was serious. He spoke in a whisper and said, "I agree. He doesn't seem especially interested in us. I don't understand why he doesn't cry very much." He talked about his fear the moment the nurses fought to make the baby cry. "I don't understand why we have to wake Walker up to feed him," he added. We were quiet for a few moments, and he began to speak again. His tone was different this time, tender, his framing of the idea oddly artful. Cliff is not one for dramatics, yet he began, "But let me tell you a story." He described a boy who sometimes felt he was the black sheep of his family. Quiet, the brother of an outgoing sister, the shy boy spent a lot of time playing by himself in his room, reading and musing. He'd felt awkward about his quietness, his need for solitude, unfavorably comparing himself to his pretty, effervescent sister. Of course I knew Cliff was talking about himself.
"So, he'll be an architect," I said, feeling some relief, chuckling in the dark. "Just like you."
We had an explanation--one that seemed to make a lot of sense. Yet even if it wasn't the right explanation, I knew that Cliff was profoundly wise to be protective of our son's identity. We wouldn't want to judge our baby--wouldn't want to judge any of our children. And so I promised myself to be patient with this child, promised never to push him to be anything more than he was.
From The Boy Who Loved Windows: Opening the Heart and Mind of a Child Threatened With Autism by Patricia Stacey. Copyright Patricia Stacey 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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