What I Can Only Be Told

My parents tell me when I was an infant I didn’t cry in the morning but waited quietly in my crib humming and playing with my toes until my parents arrived. On random Saturday mornings when my father didn’t have to work and my parents wanted to sleep in, I slept in, too. Remarkably compliant, I would look over my shoulder just before I dipped my hand into a forbidden drawer for an ink bottle or some other irresistible object, as if I hoped someone would see me and stop me. My grandfather had never seen anything like this: “Is it possible something’s wrong with this kid, because he doesn’t act like other kids? I’m telling you.” When my younger sister was born—six weeks premature, only ten months after I was born, and nearly dying of pneumonia—she joined me in the small nursery, howling through the night hours. I slept through it all. At age three I closely observed and mimicked my adult models—once stretching out on the sofa with the open newspaper held above me. Another time I packed a suitcase and marched out my grandmother’s front door determined to rescue my father from basic training in San Antonio, Texas, 600 miles away. Well into my third year I would wait in my crib until my younger sister crawled out of her own crib, crawled into mine, and helped me escape. I was, in my parents’ words: “no trouble,” “a dream,” “a piece of cake.”

Of course, I knew all this couldn’t possibly be true: the drudgery of parenting slips the memory of most. But their words came back to me thousands of times during my son Colin’s first months and years, when suddenly, and for the first time, it felt essential to know these things—what I had been like as an infant, as a toddler, a boy of two or three. I couldn’t remember. I had to be told.

Our son Colin was a beautiful baby boy and my wife, Maura, and I loved him wholeheartedly, even with abandon, from the first moments. We both waited longer than many to be parents (me 42, her 36). At first it didn’t matter that he was so different from what I had been told all my life about myself. Many nights Colin woke screaming, sometimes inconsolably. The pediatrician called it colic, which, as the months went by, seemed to describe any intransigent infant ailment that defied treatment. We fell into a rhythm, took shifts, and got used to it. We accepted the crying and sleeplessness as simply “the way it is.” As our first child, he offered the only real experience we could claim. To know what it feels like, or to get even the first glimpse of what it means, there was no substitute for actually being a parent. In her essay, “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard compares the difference between kissing a man and marrying him to the difference between flying in an airplane and jumping out of one. And so it seemed to me with parenting: No amount of babysitting, observation, classes, reading, or even my own childhood could begin to prepare me for the experience itself.

Then, as the first months and first years passed, the differences between my son Colin and what I had been told about myself steadily piled up. Intense and unpredictable tantrums were unlike anything Maura and I had witnessed. Colin chattered and trilled ceaselessly. He waved his fingers in front of his eyes and turned his head to watch us from the side, often refusing to look at us directly, even if we held his head in our hands. When he did look straight ahead, he looked through us. He was distracted by patterns of light and shadow to the point of deep trance: moving leaves, wind in the grass, his reflection in the bath, water running from a tap. He would turn his head to look at these images with his peripheral vision, too, as if even water and light looked back at him with disapproval if viewed straight on. Nothing short of physically removing him from the distraction would break the spell.

Colin’s apparent attempts to escape the world and our opposing struggle to keep him in it became excruciating. One night after pacing the floor with Colin, doing everything she could think of–changing his diaper, bathing him, feeding him, checking his temperature, Maura finally calmed him down. She said to him, “Oh, sweetheart, you’re feeling better aren’t you.” He didn’t respond. That same day at church a woman seated next to Maura struggled for close to an hour to get Colin’s attention, but no amount of cooing, or tickling, or peek-a-boo, or face-making had any effect whatsoever. Maura found herself apologizing for Colin’s behavior and realized how many times, hundreds of times, she had done this. So in the middle of night Maura came back to our bedroom in tears. She was first with the courage to say it out loud: “I don’t feel like I even know him. He has his needs and we meet them. But I don’t think we really exist for him.” In my dreamy way, I imagined Colin was seeing a vision of some other, far more enticing world and resisted a sustained connection to our worn out substitute and to us. I feared the only way we could save him was to make him forget what he sees, what he senses, and block out his other world—or other worlds—so he could live in this one with us. And, I had to ask: What gives us the right to do that?

About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
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