At Work on a Self Portrait

Colin has taken to drawing self portraits: simple sketches with lines on the face to align the proportions, bright wide-open eyes, a long body and short legs, and always a dark lump on one shoulder—his school backpack. To me this signals a stronger sense of an emerging self.

Another signal: Colin breaks a lifelong pattern of waking us when he wakes. Since his birth, Colin has served as the family alarm clock, a few mornings bursting into our dark room at four o’clock, flicking on all the lights—“Rise and shine!” I’m awake. You should be awake. The neighbors should be awake. The whole world should be awake. So one recent morning when he decided to break this pattern, the rest of us finally woke at 9:20, on a school day, a work day, caught entirely off guard, in a mad race to shower and dress. Colin was downstairs, reclining on the sofa, reading. Suddenly, we were responsible for ourselves again. And Colin was one step closer to his independent self.

From that day it seems something had changed. He returns to a combative, tantrum phase of five years before. Now resisting us more than ever, shouting and bursting into tears. Even when we agree with him, he stubbornly resists the very thing he was screaming for the moment before. Resistance is all that matters. He’s like a man who suddenly wakes in a room full of people whispering in his ears and shouts—“Stop!” For too many years teachers, parents, neighbors, and peers have been riding him, pushing, encouraging, prodding, and reminding him. And he’s done with it. He hasn’t stopped needing the help, but he’s done. And so the dilemma: we try—against our own well entrenched habits—to back off, when he plainly still needs guidance. This may be the near universal pattern for every teenager and young adult on earth? But we’re talking about a nine-year old boy who, oblivious to all, and runs across the ball diamond at his brother Quinn’s baseball game, even right behind home plate, nearly hit by a pitch and then a swinging bat. I chase him down. When it starts to rain, he puts a plastic bag over his head and puts on my oversized jacket with sleeves dangling, and he’s out on the playing field again, running around like a scarecrow come to life. With the bag over his head, he can’t see where he’s going. The bag balloons out with the wind. He’s all over the field, laughing and hollering. The game comes to a stop. I chase him down again. And he’s not happy about it, not one bit.

Now, let’s also note that Colin’s new phase brings moments of serenity and pure concentration. Between tantrums, he is more at ease with who he is and what he wants. He punctuates his speech with a sound like a crowd cheering him on—a breathy Ahhh!

Hey, Mom, Let me tell you a fact . . . Ahhhh! . . . The vermillion paint that Van Gogh used contained toxic levels of mercury—Ahhh! Or, Dad, I love to dance and twist and spin like this. See? Ahhhh! This habit of speech is so much of his own making that I suspect it will persist for years. For me it signals his contentment—the times when he is the most himself. It’s a gesture that can turn me from petty irritation to adoration in a second.

He has also renewed a fierce attachment to a five-inch square doodle board. He must know at all times where it is. When the doodle board is lost, all comes to a halt while we search. At church or in the risers at Quinn’s baseball games, Colin draws miniature street maps, space weapons, strings of numbers, the names of friends or relatives, treasure maps of imaginary desert islands, alien species, dream cities, super heroes. And again, this new breed of self portraits. He draws out these fragments of thought, these images, and lets them exist for a few seconds, then swipes them away and starts over. This is a boy in hard pursuit of himself. But like all of us, he has miles to go and he should not be disappointed to never entirely arrive.

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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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One Response to At Work on a Self Portrait

  1. Ron Sawdey says:

    Steve, you write very well. I know that raising a kid with any sort of disability has got to be tough, but your ability to see the good in the experience is wonderful.

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