Every Saturday, my wife and I alternate taking Sawyer to a nearby Petco as volunteers for Purrfect Pals, a cat rescue and adoption organization that borrows space from the pet store to showcase a few of its many cats in need of homes. Though he often gets nervous before he goes to Purrfect Pals, and though he is always deep in the middle of a video game when it is time to leave for our shift, Sawyer has never once complained about going or asked to skip it. It is his best chance to mix it up with the rest of humanity, an experience he both craves and dreads, but in the end mostly craves.
On our last shift we were visited by The Wander. She was an older woman whom on first glance I thought might be homeless. She walked with a cane whose foam handle was eaten away to the stalk on half the grip, her right shoe was patched with duct tape, her pants were frayed at the hem, she appeared to be missing most of her teeth, and her cheeks had that wind-burned look I associate with panhandlers. I let her in past the gate we use to contain the cats when they’re out of their cages, and she headed straight for Sawyer, who was sitting on a bench at the far end of our area resting a broom between his knees and staring gloomily at the floor.
Sawyer was often gloomy these days. Conversations could turn quickly into a series of complaints about the world – the bad movies, the bad video games, the social injustices, the school system. “I understand you don’t like any of those things,” I’d say, “but what do you like? You’ve got to start focusing on what you want instead of what you don’t want.” Unfortunately, being his father, I know I often sounded to him like the adults in Peanuts cartoons.
“Don’t beat no cats with that broom!” The Wanderer said as she approached Sawyer. For a moment, protective thoughts crossed my mind. What reason would she have to head straight for this fifteen year-old boy whom she has never met? These thoughts were replaced by something else as I saw Sawyer nodding and listening to her talk. Normally I worried about Sawyer and what personal questions he might ask strangers. I had no such worries with The Wanderer.
Her lesson complete, she found and began petting a cat curled in a cat tree near the gate. Sawyer followed her and shared some of her story with me. He told me how she had had forty-nine operations on her back and how she still had seven more to go. He told me how some strangers had beaten her up. The Wander smiled as Sawyer told her story.
“When I was born,” she continued, “my grandparents on both sides told my mom to get rid of me because I had a harelip and cleft pallet.” I could see the scar now from the operation. “Said get rid of me because I was punishment for my mom for breaking one of God’s Ten Commandments. She’s 85, and I’ve been punishing her for 62 years.” She laughed.
Sawyer was outraged that anyone would beat up an old woman, and that The Wanderer’s grandparents had wanted her mother to get rid of her. The Wanderer smiled and winked at me. Sawyer returned to his station at the rear of our area, and our new friend turned to go. She paused at the gate and lowered her voice. “What’s his diagnosis?”
“Autism,” I said. “It’s the only word they had. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She nodded. “They said I was mentally retarded when I was two because I wasn’t keeping up with my twin.” She shook her head, and then glanced once more toward Sawyer. “I told him stay positive or I’ll come back and kick his butt.” She winked at me again. “Stay positive,” she called out, and then was gone.
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Like all parents, having a child was a journey I was born prepared to take. I did not know this at the time, however. In fact, like most parents, I felt wholly unprepared. When I held my first son in my arms, it seemed possible that some mistake had been made. At thirty, I still felt much like a child myself – a thing curious and learning and quite willing to shirk dull responsibility for a bit of pleasure. This little fellow needed an adult through-and-through, not a man-child adroit at imitation.
Trying to teach yourself to do something you already know how to do when you have simply forgotten that you know how to do it leads to some contorted lessons. Sometimes I would hear myself barking out instructions or reprimands and wonder why I sounded so much unlike myself. Was this what adult Bill sounded like? I hoped not; I didn’t like him.
Part of the problem is that my children came along right when I needed them most, meaning, as I was very busy unlearning what I had been born knowing. I did not think I was unlearning anything; rather I felt I was learning how the world worked. I had to figure out how it worked so that something I planted would grow, so that something I built would stand. I would stare and stare and stare at the world, at all its pieces, the vast machinery of it, believing that somewhere in that glittering and tarnished and rusting heap of stuff was a great pot of gold waiting for me if I could just learn how to untie the complicated knot of the world as my eyes beheld it.
Then came Sawyer, the most stubborn person I had ever met. His demand upon us – my wife and I – was this: I must be all right as I am. Flapping and humming in the grocery store must be all right. Talking to myself in public must be all right. Not taking tests at school must be all right. In fact, not succeeding at anything must be all right. My world is within me, he said. The machinery you wish to master means nothing to me.
He spoke to us in the truest language he knew – his attention. When we thought he was all right, he gave us his attention; when we thought he wasn’t, he withheld it. As I said, he was very stubborn. His demand that we love him no matter what he did or did not do was infuriatingly non-negotiable.
When you get used to being contorted, you call discomfort normal. When you get used to being contorted, you mistake effortlessness for laziness. It cannot be that everything, including me, is as it should be. The world my eyes beheld, the loud and violent machinery, appeared anything but. Yet that is exactly where the journey I was born to take would lead me, with a little boy who talked to himself as we walked ahead of me on the path.
My son Sawyer recently found himself taking an Internet quiz to determine how disadvantaged he is. According to the quiz’s reasoning, because Sawyer is white, and male, and American, and heterosexual, he has no disadvantage, which left Sawyer a little irked. Without some kind of identifiable disadvantage, you see, one is not allowed to participate in the conversation about human suffering.
“You could have played the Autism card, you know,” my wife pointed out.
I had been thinking precisely the same thing. Though I dislike the word and what it has come to mean, Sawyer will toss it out sometimes to refer to certain habits of his behavior, both ongoing and from the past. As he uses it, the word is always tinged with self-loathing, that undesirable part of himself that he must embrace the way one must embrace, say, a lame leg, as it will be with you forever whether you want it or not. If you’re looking for disadvantage, you need look no further than that.
“I know,” he said. “But when I went inside I knew it wasn’t true.”
I was glad to hear this, though not in the way I was glad when the first neurologist we’d taken him to told us he wasn’t Autistic. At that time I feared this word, seeing it like a death sentence of sorts, for I believed that anyone cursed with it would live only half a life, sealed off within their disease from any definition of true happiness. Later, he would receive the diagnosis of Autism from the University of Washington Autism Center, but by that time I had come to understand that the word was a catchall to describe an increasingly broad spectrum of behaviors.
What the word did not describe, however, was a disadvantage, though it certainly seemed at times that Sawyer and his pals in the Special Education classes had far fewer tools than their “typically developing” classmates. This was merely a misperception. To call any state of being a disadvantage presumes to know both the future and every shape a meaningful life must take.
If life were merely a game where winning meant having the most money and the biggest house and the most admirers and the most political power, and if winning meant happiness and losing meant unhappiness, then some people certainly have advantages. Fortunately, this is not so. Fortunately, life is a game you win the moment you surrender to the truth that you want to be exactly who you are, that you have never wanted to be anyone else. Who would exchange their life for another? Who would give up everything they have seen, every kiss they’ve received, every meal they’ve eaten, every thought they thought and dream they’ve dreamed just to live in someone else’s house, drive in someone else’s car?
No one, of course. And so how can there be a disadvantage in being anyone? I know that, like Sawyer, by current definitions I too lack any identifiable disadvantages, but this has not kept me from pitying myself and my unlucky life. How I suffer when I think this way. What could be worse than believing you are broken, that you as you are simply aren’t enough? What is the point of doing anything if this is so? There would be no point, and yet everyone keeps doing something, despite all evidence of advantages and disadvantages, everyone keeps moving from moment to moment, making plans and choices, trying and failing and starting again, appearing to remain interested in life just as they are living it.
A couple I know has a son who was recently diagnosed with Turrets Syndrome due to certain behavioral ticks he developed over the last few years. At a Fourth of July barbeque, the father described to me with noticeable relief a conversation he’d had with his son’s neurologist. The neurologist explained that no one really understood why children developed these ticks nor why these ticks often abated; he explained the predictable pattern of symptomatic evolution, how the symptoms begin around age five, increased in severity through preteen-hood, and then usually taper off around age fifteen. As an afterthought, he added that anxiety likely plays a part in the onset of the syndrome as much as any chemical or neurological factors.
I am not a doctor, but I would suggest that anxiety had everything to do with the onset of this syndrome, that anxiety, in one form or another, is at the root of all odd human behavior. It is certainly true for me, and I came to understand it was true for my son Sawyer. Sawyer was prone to some odd behavior, all of which was the product of him trying, in his young way, to cope with anxiety. When, as parents, we stopped focusing on the behavior and started focusing on the anxiety, the behavior—albeit very, very gradually—began to change naturally.
Yet it wasn’t until recently, as I looked more closely at my own anxiety, that I came to see that all anxiety is simply the belief in or the attempt to solve problems that don’t exist. The human mind is incredibly resourceful. It can turn anything into a problem. It can turn rain into a problem and sunshine into a problem. It can turn sex into problem and it can turn abstinence into a problem. And by a problem I mean a circumstance that I believe stands between me and happiness. I cannot be happy if my son keeps talking to himself and so it is a problem. I cannot be happy unless I sell this book and so not selling it is a problem. I cannot be happy unless everyone at this party admires me or thinks I am attractive. The list is quite literally endless.
As I describe in No One Is Broken, being Sawyer’s father taught me that nothing actually stands between me and happiness. Love and happiness are one and the same, and love is always unconditional. No event or circumstance can cast a shadow across the light of love, only the story I tell about those events or circumstances. The doctor changed the story my friend had been telling about his son, and he – the father – was no longer anxious himself for his son’s ticks were no longer a problem, just a process of life. So it goes.
I would like to tell you that, having come to this understanding, I have stopped telling shadowy stories about life. Unfortunately, I tell them daily. No matter. I am a storyteller by nature, and every story contains by necessity a little shadow so that it’s light is that much clearer. I become anxious when I believe my story has ended in shadow, that I am condemned to dwell forever in a valley. There in the darkness, full of bitterness and disappointment, I try to manufacture light with the meaningless pieces of the world. It is only when I have exhausted these that I decide to travel on anyway, despite what I had called an end, drawn by a light I cannot actually see but only remember—until remembering and seeing are the same.
I’ve been teaching a lot of memoir writing recently, which is always a lively mix of craft and therapy. The memoirist usually begins believing she will tell her story; in fact, her actual work is to learn to retell her story. Inevitably, she comes to learn that the old story she had told herself filled with villains and victims, with bad things and good things, simply will not do. She must learn to see her life differently in order to tell a story about it that will be both interesting and of use to other people.
This new perception nearly always includes forgiveness. I don’t know anyone who has not at some point in their life felt wronged. The absent parent, the abusive boyfriend, the schoolyard bully. Such characters seem to wield enormous power—the power of cruelty—a power so great we are forced to condemn them in our imagination to the prison of villainy. In real life, they won: they beat us, or ignored us, or mocked us; but in our imagination we arise victorious, for we are virtuous and they are forever evil. To forgive them would be set them free and lose all the power we claimed by their imprisonment.
Yet forgive we must, because it is not their freedom that is at stake but ours. A world full of villains, of broken men and women bent on cruelty for cruelty’s sake, is an unsafe world. Yet the act of forgiveness is not to decide not to hate cruel people, but rather to learn to perceive those people we called cruel as like ourselves. Or in other words, forgiveness is the act of learning to see people as they actually are, not as what they have done.
Once it became clear that Sawyer was going to need some kind of special attention, I had to begin my forgiving. First, I had to forgive life itself. It is easy enough for me to call life unfair, to see it as a cruel engine of chance doing this and that to me for no reason. This was not a life with which I was interested in living, and so I had to forgive to see life as it was.
Next, I had to forgive Sawyer. I was constantly forgiving Sawyer. When we say a child is “on the spectrum” we are always talking about behavior, or what he is doing. If I only looked at what he was doing, Sawyer could turn into my enemy, an inscrutable child whose actions left me feeling like a powerless failure. Day after day after day I taught myself to focus the lens of my perception past the flurry his behavior to the stillness of his self. I am still teaching myself to do this.
Finally, I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive myself for ever hating him, for ever wanting him to just act like everyone else, for ever not knowing what to do. I say finally, but all the forgiveness in the world is useless without this foundational forgiveness. If I am wrong, if I am broken, then the world and all its inhabitants are wrong and broken as well. I am the prisoner and the warden, locking myself up and setting myself free as the lens of my imagination turns.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.