In the center of our parking lot at Meadowbrook Apartments stands a lone pine tree. It must have endured some kind of trauma in its young life, that chopped out or stunted the center top. Its Y shape branches salute me every morning and every evening, as I come and go from our temporary home here. The tree feels to me like a sentinel or a messenger. It isn’t an old tree. But it has seen a few things, already, and hasn’t let hard luck of being planted in tiny strip of grass in an acre of macadam crush its spirit. An old spirit in a young body. “Chill out lady. And smile, ok?”
My temporary home is his permanent one. The apartment complex, like Casablanca in the famous movie, is a place people come hoping to get somewhere else. People from all over the world are perched here, various languages spoken. Moving trucks come and go frequently. And some also call it home.
Like the pine.
Everyone wants peace. How do we find it? Where do we find it? Today in the parking lot, outside unit 503.
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.
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.
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.
“A boy,” says Owen and mom high fives him. After a long period without any words, words are so good to hear.
We are getting dressed again. Owen’s custom is to remove all clothing for his most productive encounters with the toilet.
“A boy? What’s his name?” I inquire, trying to encourage him, to keep the lanugage going. I pick up Owen’s shirt.
A look of pause. Blocked circuit.
“Jack? Jack in the beanstalk?” I ask, bending to retrieve Owen’s undies. Undies are first off, and so bottom of the clothing mound on the bathroom floor . I look into his face. “Or is he Owen? Is the boy Owen? Owen Simons?”
“Jack in de Beanstalk.” He stretches his arms out across the small bathroom, wall to wall. Communication. Who knows what he really wanted to say – and he has probably only echoed me. But he said something, and I understood the words. That has to feel good.
A week or so later, Owen comes up out of his morning bath full of words! Nouns! pouring out of him as the water runs off his body –
“Lemons!” “Lemons.” (Owen has been eating lemons…)
“BJs” (did he really say that?)
“A pumpkin. A pumpkin.”
“Jack. Jack in de Beanstalk–”
There are many more. I try to commit them to memory, no paper or pen here to capture them. My brain is reeling, trying to make meaning of them all, trying to hear them, and him. Owen seems as surprised as I am, his eyebrows raised, riding the tidal wave of words – a stream of nouns, of thoughts, of statements perhaps. There is an urgency to the way he delivers them, quiet emphasis, as if, the gate having opened, he has this chance now to tell me – everything! Some words I have never heard him say before this moment, some are familiar old friends, and just as mysterious now as they were every other time he said them.
What is he trying to say? What flipped the switch so that he could access words at this particular bath time? It seems important to enjoy the gift rather than worry how to interpret it or how to make it happen again. Owen’s body is a complex malfunctioning machine that neither he nor I can control, either by desire or environmental management. I spent a lot of years trying. Trying to understand body rythms, and words. Writing pages and pages, words filling journals, longing to understand so I could control my child. Sanity was to let it go.
Whether I could understand or not, I loved this bath time outpouring. I hope it happens again.
Just in general, words can be good or bad. It’s been difficult falling into this fall, with the decreasing sunlight, and the emptier house. My frustration level tends to run high. My emotions generally run to words coming out my mouth, or onto paper. Life in the care of a nonverbal person can be lonely. Caring for a nonverbal person who’s feeling mulish is lonely and irritating as well.
I feel sorry for my neighbors these afternoons, as Owen and I and the dogs try to get started on our quasi daily walks. We have trouble making it down the sidewalk, then the driveway, Owen stopping, balking, the dogs pulling in every direction, their leashes wrapping our legs. A dramatization of my mental state – stuck, tied, trapped. The words flying from my mouth are complaining and cross, and they grate on my own ears as they rise up out of my psyche – bitch, bitch, bitch.
Walks like these ones start out rough. But generally they end pretty mellow, thanks to the influence of trees and moving air, and sandy dirt under our sneakers. Thanks to the silent communication bodies make, moving in the same direction, a tacit unison of muscles and bones. Thanks to the blood circulating, wordlessly, carrying away the tired old from the cells where it was stuck. Clearing, cleaning. Stuck is bad. Movement is good.
Over the past two weeks Owen’s sisters Freya and Bronwyn packed up and left for college. And this year even his little brother Oskar is packing up, going away to school in Pennsylvania. All week there have been suitcases. And mom crying. Luckily most of the crying isn’t when Owen is home. His program continues, he catches his van at the end of the driveway in the morning, and arrives home at the end of the driveway in the afternoon, just as always. Who knows what he does in between. I am pretty sure his program is very boring. For now I just say a prayer over him, and put him on that van. For now I need someone else to keep him, so I can cry and help everyone move out. So I can process the thought that frightens me – being left alone eventually to care for Owen. Caring for him each morning and each night, and each weekend in silence. Our meals in silence, his busyness and intensity in silence, calling for him and hearing silence, without any of my comical and tender Simonses to make it funny when it isn’t, without that support group of “we” to share the really funny, or tender, or surprising things that happen in life with Owen. That’s what I have been afraid of since Owen was about 5, when I began to realize my baby wasn’t growing up. That’s what I lived one summer, alone with 11 year old Owen at a clinic in Atlanta.
But I want my children to go, and to grow. Oskar has been a wonderful last kid to have at home these past years, sharing the chores and telling us about his day – we thought we’d be unbearably lonely without the girls, but we adapted, and there was great satisfaction in being four. Now Osk has other fish to fry. He has grown too big for his nest. He must shed the old skin, and find out what lies beneath. They all need to get out and explore. I hope all my tears are not selfish, I tell myself, as I fold towels, help carry boxes, and iron name labels against Oskar’s will into his pants and shirts. I hope I have loved them for them, not as slaves to do my will. Not just as a security blanket against being alone.
Late yesterday afternoon, exhausted from crying and nonsleep, I took Owen and the dogs for a walk in our woods, when I should have been making supper. My tired husband began to cook for us, and I wandered out into the woods still lit up golden in the dying sun. Owen was happy – his wonderful Wednesday afternoon sitter Kathie had taken him to the Goodwill, and Owen picked out a Ken doll and Halloween bucket there. Ken’s arms were in Owen’s pocket, and he grinned for all of these reasons. He held Rascal the dog’s leash, and we walked the dogs over the familiar paths, over the roots and mud. The woods were darkening with the coming night; I knew we should have taken our walk an hour sooner. But the huge brown trunks of tulip poplars drew my eye upward, and way, way up the sun glowed in leaves gorgeous vibrant living green against the blue sky.
This morning, as I soaped Owen up in the tub, his gesture drew my attention to a tiny bit of wood floating in the water. Owen reached under the water, focused on picking up that tiny bit, and I stared at it too. Life slowed down in that moment … water swirl… light shine… and the bit, Owen’s fingers under it. It’s the small things, the details, that Owen notices. That’s his gift. He doesn’t see or understand the big picture, but the tiny things – the tiniest wood chip. A bit of leaf. A bit of trash. The simple rhythms – of taking apart, but also putting things away. If something has a box, he wants to put it in that box. Well, sometimes. Maybe this helps him to make sense of a world in which people come and people go, and he may not know why.
There’s something peaceful there.
Starting next week it will be Edward, Owen, and me around the supper table. Just Edward and me to share the chores – cooking and the clean up, the bathing, and dressing, the watching of Owen, the doggy walks and gardens and closing up the chickens at night. Just three of us on a weekend outing. It will be lonely at first, but probably it will be ok. And at least as Edward said last night, suddenly there are a lot fewer dishes to do. What we cannot see is all the ways that Owen may grow to help us, that we may all help each other.
There is something more, behind this week’s tears. There are always more layers. Someday there may be just two, Owen and me. This is surely the scariest thought of all, the root probably of my grief in this week of leave-taking. But if Time calls Edward to leave an old tired out body behind, I wouldn’t want to stop that flight of freedom either. You love people, and do not want to hold them too tightly. Actually, you do, but you don’t. And so when the moment comes, you will let them go, trusting that your paths will entwine again, later on.
For each goodbye, always there will be crying. And then — then there will be the light swirls, the bit of something to draw your eye and hold your attention, suspended. The gorgeous golden green alive in the tree tops, if I just tip back my head, and look up. Breathe. Smile. And hold Owen’s hand.