Adam is loved, by the adults of the school anyway, who always talk about his big smile, the dancing joy on his face when he comes in from recess. Though hes still, at age nine, capable of the occasional inexplicable tantrum that embarrasses everyone, he can also be magically uncomplicated: offered the promise of a gumdrop or a chance to listen in on afternoon band practice, he nearly explodes with delight. No, really? hell say, a new favorite expression. No really? A gumdrop? In the middle of an elementary school full of children aging too rapidly, dressing like pop stars, carrying cell phones, Adam is, for some of these grandmotherly types, the perfect eternal childhappy with the mundane, a pile of wood chips, a tuft of dryer lint, nothing really. One year, even the principal, sensible Margot, with her boxy orthopedic shoes and terrible crocheted vests, ended an IEP meeting by saying, Adam is a jewel, Cara, and we all love him. I just wanted to say that.
Cara has always taken such comments as hopeful beacons for the future. Adults love him, and one day hell be an adult, too! The implication, in her hopeful hearts logic: loved then, too! Appreciated by people who are his age, not thirty years older!
Its a stretch, though, and it requires more work every year to stay optimistic about Adams future in the face of the growing gap between him and his peers. Hes in third grade now, and the list of things he cant do grows longer every year, more exacting, and in her mind more ominous. He cant tell time, cant grasp abstract time concepts: yesterday, tomorrow, next week. He cant play card games, still adds two dice by counting dots. Shouldnt he be good at this math stuff? a teacher once asked, thinking obviously: Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman. Hes not, Cara said in a rare curt moment. Autistic kids are all very different, and math is Adams weakest subject. Hes fine with reading. Fine. Grade level. She said this emphatically, though there was actually some question about this, too, a lower score on comprehension than hed gotten six months earlier, which she has to investigate but hasnt gotten around to because there are so many gaps, so many deficits now, countless questions that run through her mind every night: Why worry about reading when the math is so low? Why worry about math when he is still, three days out of seven, not dressing himself? Why worry about any of these things when it has been nearly a year since hes had a playdate? Recently she has been falling asleep every night stewing about playdates, thinking: Ive got to try another one soon. Kids like Adam well enough, or at least they dont mind coming over and playing with his things. Sometimes shell get the type who will spend the whole time talking to her and shell watch sweet Adam in the corner, hands clasped in joy at the ease of this get-together, how smoothly it is going, as if he wants to say, I love my mother and look! So do you! Afterward, she will have to go over it all, remind him that one has to talk to people to be their friend, has to answer questions, has to, for instance, say hello. And Adams face will fall slowly, take in what she is saying in piecesthat it hasnt really been a success, that friendship requires something more complicated than standing in the same room, among the same toys, though Cara, with her own history of failed friendships, can hardly say with any certainty what this should be.
The whole enterprise makes her sad, unable to think about the great gray morass of Adams future. Math isnt his weakest subject, really. His weakest subject is life, and everything about moving through it. Last week, lost in his own thoughts, Adam very nearly followed the wrong woman off the bus. Cara had to reach out, snap his coat hood, and bark, Adam, look up. Oh, oh, oh, he said, his face awash in gratitude and relief: Almost lost and then saved! He pressed his forehead against her chest, gasped and giggled and almost cried as he said, over and over, Youre okay, youre okay. Nine years old and in a panic, he still reverses his pronouns, still echoes words of comfort exactly as theyve been given to him. You are okay, she said, ruffling his hair as he stood rocking beside her, her baby boy, her preteen, his cheek pressed oddly to the side of her breast.
Excerpt from EYE CONTACT by Cammie McGovern. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from EYE CONTACT Copyright (c) Cammie McGovern, 2006
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