To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them.
The day before my son was born, my four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and I were sitting in her room looking out at the treetops. That afternoon, mid-October in New England, the leaves seemed almost burning with color-yellow, orange, and purple-and I was trying to explain to her how something, before death, could be so glorious. At that moment I wanted to tell her everything, about the science of trees, about the odd and mysterious cycles that make up this life, the paradoxes. I had the perverse idea that she might want to know that the trees themselves were choking their own leaves of chlorophyll, but Elizabeth exclaimed, "Oh, I just have to be there--out there!" She ran down the stairs. I followed slowly, hefting my stomach, breathing like a geriatric. (By then I couldn't even see my feet.) Outside, the wind was up, a hundred leaves seemed to be raining toward us and she held her hands in the air, the way kids do on rainy days, as if she wanted to catch every living and dying thing in the sky. Afterward, I pushed her on the tree-swing and she jumped high into a pile of leaves, laughing and falling so deeply she almost disappeared.
What she didn't know those moments of that day in 1996, what I couldn't have known either, was that our lives were about to change forever. She didn't know that by six the next morning someone would put a needle into my spine, that I would flinch, that a doctor would urgently grab me by the arm and insist, "Now listen. Don't move. I've got to do this again. We've only got ten minutes to get that baby out." She wouldn't know that a baby boy, wrapped backward against my spine, would be pulled out and handed to his father who would be standing next to me. How could she ever imagine that when I saw her brother for the first moment, I wouldn't feel what I knew I should?
When does one begin to know a child? It seemed to me we had known Elizabeth from the moment of her emergence. I had been stunned by her gaze the second she came into the world: all head, pupils, awareness-pure consciousness. "The eyes!" "The eyes!" the nurses, doctor, and even a technician had all called out at once. She grabbed my husband's finger and hasn't let go since.
Yet Walker's birth was different somehow. Nothing seemed right. He didn't cry when he was born. The nurses tried to make him but succeeded in producing only a whimper, and then, when they'd handed him to Cliff and he lay in his father's arms, he looked like a small, skinned ferret--bloody, arms awry.
Did other mothers of newborns feel the way I did?
I remembered that my former boss had once said of his daughter: "She looked like hamburger when she was born!" What struck me was the absolute affection, humor, joy with which he delivered the information, as if to say: "My wet little wad of gristle was really a swan."
Even though the doctor told us that Walker was normal--that his Apgar scores were high--I was troubled less by how this baby appeared and more by some quality in his awareness. He had looked past me the first moment I saw him. In fact, his gaze became an obsession of mine in the hospital. He wouldn't look at me as he lay in the small plastic bassinet. He wouldn't look at me when he nursed, either. It was as if he didn't notice either Cliff or me, or Elizabeth, who, beaming, sat on the extra hospital bed, holding him in her lap. I felt an emptiness. The word that came to mind, a word I never told anyone, was "scarecrow." My baby, our baby, had a scarecrow quality--thin, loose, vacant.
I quietly decided that the way I might be able to find reassurance or cause for concern was through other people, through their reactions. I watched his visitors intently, studied them.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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