Lately my world feels like life under siege.

Last Saturday morning Rascal our Australian Shepherd crashed open the door to my upstairs studio, apparently to roust me from peacefully writing.  He didn’t flop down on the floor with his usual “I am so fed up with being ignored” doggy sigh.  He stood dead center in the doorway, looking at me with his one blind old doggy eye.  Trouble. I just knew it was Owen.  I was being summoned.

I had left Owen in a warm bath in a warm room, earlier that morning.  Too early, since he rises at crack of dawn every day of the week.  I gave him a plate of snacks and he brought along some favored plastic bottles, plus his arsenal of plastic toy guns, which to Owen are more like objets d’art.  A crowded but contented bath. Seemed to me like a good moment for some Saturday morning writing, while Edward snored peacefully recovering from his busy week.

But naked Owen had ditched his tub, and was downstairs.  Into things. Oh well.  I thanked Rascal, and called Owen up and began to help him dress, when the two pieces of shopping card in his hand stopped me. Oh. No.

Racing downstairs, I found my purse sitting on the chair beside the phone, right where I had left it–but under a fluttering mound of papers.  I dived into them, flipping through the mound of folded bills and tickets that fluttered to the floor.  “What did I do to make you do this?” I asked of Owen, God, and the universe as I searched back and forth through flyers and grocery receipts. “Didn’t I run a nice warm bath?  and get you a plate of snacks this morning?–  WHERE are those credit cards?  where are ANY cards?–Don’t I constantly wash your clothes?! Cook your food?! –No cards at all – I clean up your stuff! – tidy house! – daily make your bed up clean and fresh!!”  There were  no cards in Owen’s collection drawer – no cards on the kitchen counters.  “Edward!! help!” I howled as I carried on my interior rant and prayer–“Is this pay backs Owen? for going out with Dad last night? leaving you home with a sitter? good grief–- Please not the driver’s license! let me not have to hassle with MVA– Or am I reading in unnecessary motives? Is the sheer delight of hacking up enough incentive all by itself?”

Edward found them.  A fat handful of chopped cards in the bottom of the little trash basket in the study.  Credit cards, ID cards, bank cards, gift cards, health savings account card, insurance cards.  Bonanza. All chopped into large pieces. No– not all.  Owen left me my driver’s ID and one credit card intact. Maybe Mom’s face on the driver’s license was enough to protect that one. Some prayers were answered. He must have been working fast though – no time for mutilation. But, his bloodlust not yet assuaged, every little plastic card on Edward’s key ring was cropped too.  Later on we found a few recently potted up hosta plants un-potted, and languishing under a bush, beside their empty pots.  Wow. He really needed to send a message.

But what, exactly, would that message be?  What, and also Why?

Pointless questions, Wystan.

Something has to be done.

Besides helpless outrage.

And tightness in the chest.


Because I grew up in a home where such a breach of etiquette as chopping up your mother and father’s credit cards almost certainly would have resulted in outbursts of rage and corporal punishment, I have a strong urge to yell and spank or smack to let Owen know that he really REALLY REALLY can’t do this kind of thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  My primal self wants to solve this problem as I have seen it solved, and the primal part of all humans that responds to the law of “an eye for an eye” tells me that this might just drive the message home.

Years and years of experience I have taught me otherwise. Yelling and hitting doesn’t communicate much to Owen except “oh oh storm warning! hide your head she’s angry again.”  And the better, higher part of my mind believes that violence is not actually the best solution to any problem.

BUT WHAT THEN ? yell my thumping pulse and beating heart of the caveman part of myself.  THERE HAS TO BE A CONSEQUENCE!!

Yes I think wearily. There will have to be a consequence.  But what?  Situations like this tax my creative thinking, in my role as police officer, judge, jury, and warden.  Edward supports me, we work as a team, but the weight of “what to do” and the implementation of it rests heavily on my shoulders.

Whatever the “consequence,” it’s not likely to stop Owen from doing this again. The only way to do that is to hide my purse. First of all, he doesn’t understand the crime.  Not really. We let him cut up bottles — but then not bottles that “belong to someone else.” What does that mean? He will be praised for grabbing plastic bottles out of the woods, but if he grabs up someone’s soda at lunch and pours it out on the floor, or makes a move to hook the driver’s tempting green bottle on his way out of the van in the afternoon, he will be seriously scolded. But what’s the difference between this piece of plastic and that one?  I am pretty sure that Owen knows that he is not to go into my purse, but he has no real idea why – and the fact that it is forbidden only increases the appeal. What he wants to do, he does of couse, and whenever he possibly can.

Don’t you?

In the end, I confronted Owen and kept my temper, letting just words out come through my mouth, mostly not yelling, and not hitting except for one thwack on the top of his head.  For this I am grateful, I thank the Lord, and I credit respite: getting out with Edward the night before for some couple time, and getting my writing time in that morning, even though this made it possible for Owen to sneak out of his bath at all.  Getting respite is critical to caregivers, keeping us elastic, able to bounce instead of crack under pressure.

We “grounded” Owen to his room for an hour that morning, since that was something different to try to get through to him.  I have hidden the scissors (again).   I told him no scissors for three days. You have your plastic to cut – those are YOUR things.  You cannot cut MY things. No scissors if you cut MY things. 

Still I know that “MY,” (such an important word in human vocabulary), is hardly meaningful to Owen at all.  He doesn’t do pronouns. “MINE” and “YOURS” aren’t concrete words. They are abstract. What does “mine” look like? Owen lives in a very innocent, very small, very physical world, of which he is the star and center player.  He likes people, but his relationship to them is distant – he can only vaguely connect to their doings, their thoughts, or their wishes.  He has less concept of “property” than a two year old child, although I continuously talk to him about it.  He knows “I like this” and “I LOVE THIS!” or “I want” and “I WANT” but I doubt these feelings are framed in words, and a constant for him is near inability to express any of those desires to anyone else. He will say “no fank you,” or push my hand away, to indicate the opposite.

Strangely though, sometimes Owen is very sensitive to others’ emotions, and at unexpected times he will suddenly lovingly woozle someone (sometimes a near stranger) just when they need it. Just not their property I guess. His innocence is really ignorance, that also sometimes seems wise.

*                                         *                                               *

Looking back on Saturday’s Shark Attack from the vantage point of my writer’s desk,  I  see now that the cause was almost certainly connected to doing the “Art Walk” at Bronwyn’s school the Thursday prior.  Walking into art galleries with Owen is an act of unbelievable bravery – kind of like juggling eggs.  I managed it that evening by directing Owen toward the little pile of student artists’ business cards at every stop.  He liked that a lot.  Even with two hands full, selecting another and anoth– (“Hey! Just ONE, Owen!”), he managed to work them, folding them into origami-ish disarray.  I am always struck by how quick and deft those hands can be, other times so limp and powerless.  And again other times how powerfully destructive!  Once he cut into a construction helmet with shears…


Anyway, it’s always hard for Owen to let go of an obsessive interest.  And it’s hard for him to see any kind of boundaries. I suppose I lit a fire and should have been on the watch for it to keep on burning. Handing him little cardboard cards, reminds him how very much he likes the nicer plastic ones – and inspired on a Saturday when his mom’s back is turned, the adventure of going to hunt up some up for himself is an irresistible challenge.  The appeal of being in trouble is almost irresistible anyway.  The worst thing in life is being ignored.

Isn’t it.

Working the bottle Mom chopped for him

PS – Thanks Rascal, my blind old dog. Although I cannot ask you about it, I have to guess that you heard Owee cackling hysterically as he chopped (heh-heh-heh!), and you must know as well as I do what that means.  You put two and two together, and I am still impressed that you came to get me.

Saying Goodbye

Reades Plane
Photo by Kyle Genzlinger

A few weeks ago something unexpected and terrible happened to a friend of ours. Our friend was a pilot, and a very good and careful one.  But on this afternoon, suddenly, unexplainably, Reade’s plane crashed into the Wyoming mountains – and he was gone.

Watching his wife and children stand up in front of the huge group of friends attending his memorial service to speak of their father and husband, I thought (selfishly) of my own losses.  Owen’s uncles, Keith and Chuck, who passed on suddenly and unexpectedly years ago, and  Owen’s grandfathers, to whom we also had to say goodbye before we were ready.  How do you cope with loss of a piece of your life?

How do you get to be ready to say goodbye?

Walking with Owen and the dogs a few evenings ago, I ambled from the fields to woods and into the cemetery of our local church.  As we wandered through it, I found myself wondering idly where I might want my plot.  Now, I have every expectation of living to be something like 96, as my grandmothers did.  There is no real hurry to think about such things.  Still, it seemed it might be nice to have a say about which way my mortal remains are facing. Over there, I thought — as Owen went in hopefully under the pine trees in search of discarded plastic — under the tulip poplars, at the edge of the farmer’s field.

I don’t have a way of explaining to Owen that someone is gone, and not coming back.  I know that Owen knows who his extended family is, because of the way he acts when the great huge mob of us is together – for instance the semi-annual Simons Thanksgivings.   During events involving large groups of cousins, aunts, and uncles, Owen behaves differently than say, at weddings, or other occasions with large crowds of people milling about.  In general, he is more relaxed.  In this way I know that he recognizes his family, his peeps, the group that belongs to him.  He has some internal conceptual framework explaining why all these people are suddenly in his space.  The mayhem of other gatherings is un-orchestrated noise and confusion – the mayhem of family is warmer, and something he enjoys.  I think. But as far as explaining why someone isn’t there anymore, I have no way to bridge the gap between life and his understanding of it.

When my dad suffered a sudden stroke one December morning eight years ago, we took Owen with the rest of the kids and drove up to Philadelphia to say goodbye to their Grandpa.  It was an unexpected, shocking event, and one of the ways I coped was to worry about how to fit Owen into that situation, at the hospital, with other relatives, their expectations, and their unknown level of tolerance for Owee behaviors in such a situation.

My father had been a man who loved order, and beauty, and peace, so the introduction of an Owen into his life was no doubt always a challenge for him.  After all, he already had a son with special needs, who tested his patience fairly regularly.  One of my sisters has video footage from a Gladish family reunion meal in which little Owen is massaging Grandpa’s head, face and neck in a sort of extravaganza of sensory exploration.  My father looks to be cheerfully grinning, possibly gritting his teeth – he was always a team player – while the family laughs and chats about the attention he is receiving.  He does not look what I would call relaxed.  I never saw this encounter until I saw the footage, years later, since I was buried in the kitchen cooking at the time (coping with large numbers of people in my own way).

When we arrived at the hospital, my brother-in-law stayed downstairs in the hospital lobby with Owen while the rest of us went up to see Dad.  But it felt strange to me, not to have Owen with us. Down the hospital elevators I went, and brought Owen up. His grandpa lay on a hospital bed, an oxygen mask obscuring most of his face.  He was on a ventilator, and didn’t seem to be very much present, if at all.  We all touched him, and said things to him, and he was unresponsive.  In an effort to connect Owee to what was happening, I put his hand on his grandpa’s foot and told him to say goodbye to grandpa.  But this time Dad twitched  – several spasms passed through his leg.

My first response to his twitching was as if my unconscious father had said “Yuck! Don’t touch me!” This seemed like something he might have felt, in such a situation.  Owen almost figures unpredictability, uncertainty, and my father was certainly no lover of chaos.  I wryly smiled, imagined him thinking, “Did you wash that kid’s hands?”

But I also wondered if his twitching meant something more.  Reflecting on it all these years later, I see that could just as easily have been a tremor of goodbye.  My dad had a generous, loving heart, and a good sense of humor, and those traits formed a larger part of him than his desire for order, or his impatience with mental slowness or with noise. Dad did not know to say some things, articulate and urbane as he was, that Owen nonverbal and uncommunicative in a different way, says with touch.  Maybe on his last day on earth, Owen’s grandpa responded to a touch he that couldn’t appreciate before.  Maybe a nonverbal human is more receptive to other energy waves than those of human words through the air, or human thoughts moving through nerve synapses.

Or — maybe not.  All I know is that Dad didn’t respond to anyone else.  Only Owee got the spasm.

What did Owen take away from saying goodbye to grandpa?  It seems so often Owen’s job with us is to be a conduit for things that he himself does not understand.  He generally doesn’t understand. He copes.  Earth and its inhabitants’ ways are a mystery to him. There is a kind wisdom of in that – so much we don’t know about the ones we love. Owen brought us a last experience with Dad – one last response, perhaps a goodbye.

As one who understands death – or at least understands that she does not understand it – I salute the passing of our friend Reade this winter, and thank him for bringing thoughts of other lost dear ones. Life is rich with all kinds of knowing, all kinds of speaking, and all kinds of love.