Mary Jane White
Hi, I’m a retired trial lawyer who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970’s. This long poem is a plain chronicle about raising my son with autism, now 26, a roboticist at UCSD. I’m looking forward to spending the first six months of 2018 in San Diego to escape the weather of wonderfully-loony Northern Minnesota—where (even in early May! at present!) it continues snowing.
DRAGONFLY. TOAD. MOON.
A practiced love of sameness:
As in this wild flapping and pacing . . .
Grunting is how he speaks to me.
A thing he wants is somewhere
In the world—find it! by
Everywhere. At all cost, avoid his tantrum.
A persistent love of sameness:
As in never move the salt and pepper . . .
As he does not speak to people, do not move
A thing in his world.
This will avoid his asking
This will avoid his tantrum.
A perseverative love, of sameness:
As in do not change anything . . .
As he does not speak to people, even me,
A thing in his world
He may love—but whom he will avoid,
Elsewhere. And avoid his tantrum.
To wash his hair was some danger.
He might thrash the tub wall with his
Head. How hard he hated any wetness,
Or to change his shirt: led me to drip water
Down his back, on purpose, once. This,
More than once. More than once. I remember:
Once he cut himself on bottle-glass,
And no more felt the pain than if his blood
Were water: was how I learned this.
Blood was nothing until its wetness would
Somehow bother him, and he’d undress.
To free himself from what?
Nor run for comfort, nor cry, but only wet
Made him return, complain—not the cut.
My son toddles to four swings,
Pushes them until he brings
Them into a severe alignment that pleases him.
How long his own severity attends him;
How little he notices or cares for other children--
Except their play disrupt his careful pattern
Of empty swing and empty swing,
Of crossing arc and arc of thing
And thing, two pairs doubling
That leaves three other children out,
but leaves him sing.
Stick and Strings
One morning his crib is an open handful of pick-up sticks
Around his fallen mattress. In how many nights?
He has unwound the metal bolts and nuts and washers
And drawn out the several rods that help hold it together . . .
A waist-high web of string
Meets me this morning, but
Where is he gone now? Sleeping
Or walking with a string’s end in his fist?
I see he has walked from doorknob to doorknob
To cabinet door to doorknob to cabinet door, every one on the floor.
His pattern of walking is woven behind him, so hard and carefully knotted
At each knob and handle and drawer pull, there is no advance possible
Toward him. It is a morning’s work to undo this
And a tantrum and a resistance not to be
Met with, I hope, too very often.
I hope he does not repeat this.
As I fear he will repeat this.
I do not want to repeat this.
We could not go out. He would not dress,
Or be clothed, or stay clothed, or tolerate
So much as a sock, or stitch, or suffer
A single thread to cling upon his skin.
Nor eat, nor let us eat, or sleep--
Either of us . . .
Having wrestled with my angel
Forty minutes, or more,
To our mutual exhaustion,
Having dodged a curtain-rod
He’d thrown at spear-like
Speed off a stairway landing--
My heart pounding,
And his head soaking wet--
The sweat of his exertion
Brought up baby-curls--
I thought, as swaddling might
Calm a jittery newborn,
That same might work
In this pinch—with a still
Naked toddler: so
Having done that, I hauled him
Several blocks, downtown--
To our Café,
whose cheerful waitress
Observed we must have been
Swimming . . .
Summer, so I agreed . . .
I just wanted to order
Something . . .
I did not sleep. When
That bedtime came and he banged
His crib, paced all night in there,
Babbling one syllable in his trance,
Happy it seemed to me, but oblivious
(I learned--oblivious), I read: the stacks
And books ordered in—in what scrap
Of time—by mail . . .
Echoing Kanner, Bettleheim wrote:
Mute autism was all the child of the family’s
Whose refrigerator mother—nice sound
Bite, that!—stands humming in the kitchen
Corner . . .
For such damage done by language
Should Dr. B. not be
Marched out in blindfold?
Sign that he was simple, blind—no,
Enough that he wandered: free to plagiarize
Other subject—harmless ones,
Old European fairy tales,
And carelessly . . .
You cannot imagine what all I heard,
What little got back to me--Mary Had A
Little Lamb--and this likely only
A little of all it was—gossiped about
Our single stoplight, rural town:
Forty hours’ work a week, face to face,
Across a red-blue plastic table--adults
And nothing but a baby in tiny plastic chairs.
Do this, do this, do this--the clean, clear repeated
Invitation to imitate—and No! (this is
Information, child), and again this: Do this:
Sit, look, clap, touch your nose, your unseen
Ears, pillow, window, color “yellow.”
Fifty-two weeks a year—two solid years
With no Christmas, Easter, summer,
And with this, he began to speak . . .
Like a parrot trained to talk
As the evaluating speech clinician carped . . .
This was training my loved and long-awaited child
Like a seal
--better by half, with less than
Half a chance, than the alternatives--
Than six-year-old, precocious
A boy with his hands padded in bandages,
Harmlessly battering his helmeted head
Or the unsocial male and female
Teens, seated on a common bench
In summer, oblivious to each other,
In their large, unlovely adult bodies--
Gazes averted from each other,
And from the relentless cameras;
Or the starched-faced toddler
First tracing sun-motes in her palm,
Making an identical gesture—in super-
No change in her behavior, her solitary
Leisure in her thirties, in the quiet or noisy,
Clean or filthy State Hospital--
Court-ordered to be no more of . . .
Or the young man later busy looping yarn
To hook in canvas, seated on the common sofa
At his group home—the ones there are
So few of . . .
Forty weekly hours’ healing work was
Better by half than the available alternatives:
Public school authorities wanted
To teach him sign—that beautiful,
Fluid language of the deaf, that fleeting,
Moving language drawn upon the air--
Which makes a picture in the mind . . .
Which he could not do, nor
Attend to—when his attention fixed,
But upon a concrete picture, or solid
Nor would he be expected
To speak to me that lovely, fluid way
As there was no thought, no plan
To teach his mother to see, or listen,
Or imagine from the air, and after all
We were not deaf--
Yet, out of caution,
I let them take him off to school--
Just three—so they could play with him.
A video camera stationed in the dunces’ corner showed
He was not prompted to mouth a single word.
The stubby bus brought him home,
After six hours’ day of school,
Two women, in two three-hour shifts,
More on weekends, taught him
To speak our common language, and
How to think in common ways:
Do this, do this, like a puppet, first:
Woodenly—at each request;
Woodenly, at first . . .
As woodenly, first, his father sat
Before me in his despair of our ever
Teaching him everything?—when?
There began to come a few
He became quietly common.
Over one more year’s working time, and
Entered Kindergarten . . .
. . . which, of course, was not
The end of it—as he approached
Each potential playmate with his
Single, commanding salutation:
Friend, Come play with me!
Up from whatever thing
Held his fixed attention
until with further,
Careful teaching: Touch Joe, touch Jim--
We taught him—from photographs--
Snapshots arrayed across his desk—each
and drummed upon
The odd, to him, abstract notion
That in our common world--Some
Will be your friends, and some
Will not . . .
Latency: the beautiful, quiet
Years of going back and forth to school--
Simple enough, so:
In science, in school,
I, too, loved repeating it--
A simple miracle:
Down a string--
From someone’s pencil:
Down a tall jelly-
Printed with simple
Line-drawn scenes of
Wheels, and passing
Piled curls—the jelly-
Eaten up and gone--
Solution of sugar--
Shoveling it in:
Pale iced tea, and
At the holiday-
Crowded dining table—and
Stirred and stirred
Away to blur--
That worked as well
Back then we saw the house that is our home now. Stepping into the car, with a realtor. And pointed it out.
If I had my choice, I’d make my offer on that one. It. The brick mass. On the corner.
Ah, yes, admired the realtor, that one will never be for sale.
And said straight out, If it were, you could not afford it.
Autism intervened upon this story . . .
Then, as life re-righted, when anything could happen again,
I thought, What else could I make happen?
My son, then six, went with me.
He said it was like walking into a church.
Whose interior walls were white. Every wall we saw.
Second visit: we got no further than the glazed-over terrace at the back door.
The woman of the house could not walk, and was seated there.
Surgery on her heel.
We glimpsed a dining room, behind the man of the house. He was very gracious, of course, but unyielding.
So wonderfully solicitous of his hobbled wife.
Third visit: my son and I stood under a low stucco outcropping—a second floor nursery, as it turned out, supported by two limestone columns—ornamented, but unclassically—carved with a double band of tulips:
A band of buds, below a band of stone, open cups.
We walked through the whole house, once,
Once, room after room, all white, all with stunning windows . . .
Of metal bar, each bore a central medallion—more tulips—bound by a narrow, narrow border of green-acid glass:
Crackled clear glass that looked like winter ice, or falling rain.
And sleet, a pebbled opalescent white.
A bronzed opaque black.
A little real green,
A little pale yellow.
Then it came to us, our white elephant.
It came as four apartments. My son and I could only afford to live in one of them—downstairs.
My son slept in the library, a north room with no closet.
I slept in the original kitchen, another north room, without heat.
Its attic—crow’s nest—was empty.
The maid’s room was occupied--Do Not Enter—my renter’s storage flickered under a loopy neon ring, serviced by a run of stapled conduit.
My son, my renter and I were in the basement, waiting out a tornado warning. I opened the subject of buying a house—her own home.
Then it was empty enough to touch, to enter the master bedroom and linger before the octagonal bay of four double casements, twin to a formal dining room below.
My son wants this room. I want this room. It is becoming our house now.
We do not always act as if we were in church.
My twelve-year-old walks into his summer dorm room at physics camp. He is sullen. He says it is an ugly room. It is.
He needs to live here, just a week.
He appeals to me pointedly: It only has white walls. This is an argument he’s heard, and knows should sway me.
They might have put a little color into it.
I sit on the low, narrow bed. To talk.
I say everyone who moves into a dorm moves away from home.
I suggest now he could buy posters?
He doesn’t care to.
I suggest his roommate might bring posters.
I remind him he will only sleep here.
I insist it will be dark then.
He is not philosophical.
Summer’s end: my twelve-year-old and friend are camped on the second story side porch, with cats.
They are eating up there. They have even dragged up the cat bowls.
Also, a spool of kite string, and their colored plastic wheels, with snapping plastic sticks.
One end of string loops down, across the yard, to a fence.
There is an elegant second string attached, to facilitate retrieval.
All afternoon the plastic wheels of a changing contraption travel back and forth, up and down, the singing string they call their zip line.
There are no proper places in this house for televisions.
All the proper places are taken by fireplaces.
I take down our latest volume, to read a chapter aloud to my son and his fidgeting friend.
Now that the renter’s entry is closed up . . .
Now that the stairwell is opened . . .
Now that the hallway is free of odd doors . . .
Now that the doors are back in their appointed places, and open . . .
Now, anywhere I choose to sit in this house, I can see out the windows of other rooms.
Living room—sitting by the south wall’s fireplace, my eye travels easily out the north windows of the library—to the cool, purple rhododendron—each spring.
From the dining room’s octagonal bay—low sun strikes the tiny, red iridescent corners of a sideboard’s glazed upper cabinet doors.
Above a table, the central white petal of each glass tulip glows—a steady white flame—as the sky darkens.
At dusk, the glass becomes, burns opaque.
This is dinner hour, on the western prairie.
As I wrote, this was latency.
And then, he
Was never going to learn to spell, although
We spent every breakfast working at it.
Dyslexia--another awful word,
At twelve, just past Christmas, at the age
English cabin-boys signed on
The Royal Navy—the age—we researched it--
Marquette left his wilderness home
For college—for Quebec--
He moved away to board in Massachusetts.
I drove to see him, once or twice a month.
Two years’ school, in blazers and khakis,
And school-colored ties, he learned to listen
To his laptop computer—read for him--
And how to talk—slowly, in phrases, please--
Into his headset microphone—so his own
Words would rise up in seconds flat
Upon his steady laptop’s screen: he learned
To mimic Steinbeck and Hemingway, and
To print his papers, by pressing Print,
And learned to ski—a flashing solitary--
Down night-lit Berkshire’s Black Diamond Trail,
To hike Monadnock, and the gentle Linden Hill . .
Beyond The Name
You were born
To grow into
This Christian name,
Which will be
As a shell
To the tender foot
Of a snail; in it
Your heart will
Go on beating
Beyond The Game
After the cards
Are all fallen
After the pure
You will see
With the hearts;
With the spades.
Water will erase
Your name, your
Will carry you
Who ever loved
Or do nothing--
Or go before you,
The same way.
He learned to play
Within a baseball team,
The year his teachers’
Boston Red Sox,
Won the Series.
Baseball and golf! became
His own preferred, predictable
Games of discrete events:
Do this, do this: these allowed
Him ample room for individual
Acts, feats of skill . . .
while avoiding still,
And still ignores, the social fluidity
Of soccer, or basketball . . .
Refractory: All Three
A Benedictine wearing a teal-blue and yellow, short, down-jacket,
And below that, a black scapular, his fore-apron and back-apron,
And the brisk skirt of his cassock. A blue and rather chunky bicycle
Propped at the innermost, blue door of the courtyard. Another
Unmoved bicycle with wide-winged handlebars in the monks-only,
Quadrangle garden, into which we may only, but openly, gaze:
These are The Rule’s customs of privacy and un-simple welcome.
Our square refectory table placed at a window that opens onto
The dead garden. Our son, their student, and we, are here—are guests here,
And this is their hospitality: Order, Benedictine of the Knights Hospitalier,
Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Order of the Knights of Malta who fled, fled
To the Imperial Russian Navy, that extended them all a certain, welcome
Hospitality in the East, as Napoleon moved against them. A welcome
Of ancient and heroic tenor: One who comes so as to please another.
At fifteen, he is become our perfect scholar,
With good behavior--yet--
As caution finds its expression
In this part of the Midwest . . .
He’s come nearer home at least--
This warm, odd, dry winter of
Russet-grey twigs of denuded sumac—uppermost
St. Croix, along the Great River, St. Paul, St. Michael, St. Cloud--
Off I-94—the hourly bells—ringing out from Marcel
Sculpted concrete banner (spiral back stair) and honeycomb
Hand-sized pairs of red squirrels’ busy to-and-fro pattern:
Whether winter proves warm and odd, or dry, the same
Dark-grey, small, square offset paving tiles everywhere,
Over these, each weekend, I enter guest rooms of the Abbey
Monastery . . .
He works his hardest, as he ever has,
Under strict, kind Benedictine tutelage
Of black-robed monks and lay oblates
Near Minnesota’s German-American
(God is laughing) St. John’s Abbey.
And so am I, as I love, have my living Isaac:
Who is learning ordinary, ancient Algebra,
And new helical, chemical Biology--
Dictating his assigned paper—on Fragile X--
One genetic disorder I remember
He was tested for--
This makes me laugh and sigh . . .
As I am reading him Darwin’s
in an alcove, Old Seminary:
As much as ease—as any odalisque,
His bare ankles, his long feet,
My down coat—full length—the fat, green sofa.
Long fingers—cradling a pillow . . .
We go back to where he fell asleep . . .
Don’t stop! . . . No, I heard you read that. Leave
His head lie propped on a cushion--
Heels—easily beyond now—the other arm’s end.
Hell! Greek and Roman history are hard enough
For anyone—to dictate well, or spell.
Practical lessons in how to make time
For some activity you love.
Ceramics: where he likes most to work,
At length, entranced, seated at the wheel--
Functional, centered spinning—his kicking, kicking
Heel—shaping lightweight cups, a set of plates,
His glazed, shallow dish for loose pocket change,
A vase that flows out and, breathing, closes in
Upon what is now—a nearly perfect lip.
Fall again. We hike on marshland
With his camera. He found
A dragonfly at first,
And then a toad, the exact
Sandy brown of the pathway’s
Ground—to draw attention to.
Though I missed them,
Digital captures in his camera
Showed me—the dragonfly--
Slow, old, or hurt perhaps,
It crawled, flipped over, righted,
Wandered off into the grass . . .
His toad was hard, solid,
Still and small. Still,
He saw it, and placed it gently
On a bleaching leaf, for a good
Background, for contrast,
As if it were an old, green
Screen for the cursor—when
A cursor was how we taught him
What a finger is to do in pointing:
Make a path for the eyes of two,
Or more, to follow. It dawned
On me that night—the first
My shoulders down to bring
My eyes between the leaves
To turn them toward the moon--
A crescent at his fingertip . . .
At one, and two, and three,
We’d lost forever that wonted,
Pleasing show—of his
Early childish lisp--
His beetle in a haystack--
But, O, and yet, had this--
No--would find these:
Dragonfly. Toad. Moon.
© 2017 Mary Jane White
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