acceptance, apophenia, autism, choice, comfort, family, grief, grokking, Hannah, illusion, journal, loss, love, memory, metaphor, motherhood, quote, robert heinlein, serendipity, slice of life, thinking out loud, zen
Journal entry, August 28, 2014
Cleaning house yesterday, on a forgotten shelf I found a shirt of Hannah’s. A stretchy Goodwill t-shirt, powder blue, with folksy flower-seed-packet art on the front. Minor stains, of course, plus a hole in the back collar where someone (I?) had clumsily lopped off the tag. [Shirt tags made Hannah itch.] I held the shirt to my face and breathed it in like an idiot seeking the flowers. But no, it was just that the shirtfront–and then the shirt’s inside–was the only part that hadn’t been exposed to nine years of dust.
And I believed the shirt still smelled like Hannah, believed that I could know–could grok*–her presence, her self, merely through these greedy inhalations of not-quite-random air. I sat on my bedroom floor and pulled the shirt onto my head (think of a blind bank-robber), and then, to a point far past absurdity and fast approaching asphyxia, I breathed in and out its ineffably Hannah smell. (Must, dust, detergent, every mundane staleness, but something of her there too–something.) I chose to feel myself awash in her essence. As in the many dreams I’d dreamed, hope-caught, throughout her life, I felt free once more to slip beneath the surface of Hannah’s embryonic, oceanic world, and to breathe, however feebly, underwater.
I chose to feel–and to believe–all this on such a primal level that the mind had no clue of the choice till it was made. But with a shrug, quite used by now to the heart’s vagaries, the mind humored us both. I nuzzled for one last deep second against the thread-worn seams that defined the shirt’s armpits. Then I pulled the shirt off and held it awhile. I dusted it, refolded it, and–ah, my darling girl, now what to do? Replace it on the forgotten shelf? Cleave it into rags? Throw it away? I couldn’t, can’t, decide this yet.
Ah yes, but still, how well I know: let go, let go, let go, let go.
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.
July 7, 2004
When I say goodbye–when I try to say goodbye—they put their arms around me, one from one side, one from the other. And they cling there. Henry says, Okay Beck, here’s the plan—we don’t let go and she never gets away.
Becky had a dream–she and Henry were chasing me.
It takes such courage to let me go—I must have done something wrong. It should be easier than this. Their lives shouldn’t suspend themselves in midair when I’m out of sight. It all makes me very nervous—I hate the goodbyeing. The long drawn-out process, the hug I have to wrench myself away from, the sad faces, hurt faces as if I’m betraying them by wanting something separate. I can’t walk into a room without their watching my every move. Today Becky tells me her tale of woe. Then Henry walks in and says, “When she’s done complaining to you, I get to be next.”
(a found poem: Henry’s description, verbatim, of what he’d just noticed out our window)
There was a young man crossing Excelsior from
east to west, and he was—first, he was in a
t-shirt and shorts in this weather; then, he was
limping, so that, I don’t know if he had a cast
on his foot or sprained or something, and, then,
he was carrying a large bag of ice. Um, so he’s
obviously going to a party to get drunk. So you
had a whole little story just in watching this guy
cross the street. It’s a story I know well from just
having finished grading their personal narrative
essays in composition, so I really was in that
world, for hours and hours, yesterday.
One Thing I Know For Sure
This happened on what, by our standards, was an ordinary night. It was maybe a year after the diagnosis; Hannah was four years old. We were in the living room, and I was holding her, rocking her, in the La-Z-Boy. In those days she still liked being held, at least by me—I’d kept her used to it, I guess, by all the nursing, which was something she still loved so much that I’d given up the habit of bathing very often, because I knew how much she enjoyed breathing in my sour, mammalian smell. But right now I wasn’t nursing her. We were just rocking slowly, and watching TV, probably one of her Sesame Street videos, I don’t know. We were alone—I don’t know where my husband was.
I was talking to her endlessly, just absently commenting on the action of the video, or singing along with the songs. It’s what they tell you to do, of course—you’re supposed to keep talking and talking to an autistic kid, trying to make some little connection, elicit some tiny response. It came to remind me of how, if your ship is sinking in the middle of a dark empty ocean, you keep sending up flares anyway, just in case someone else might be out there, invisible to you.
We felt cozy that night: we both liked the Sesame Street videos, and we both liked rocking, and I think it might have been winter outside, because being inside felt more than usually luxurious. I leaned in close to Hannah’s ear, and I whispered, “I love you, Hannah.” And as we kept rocking I added, “Now you say, ‘I love you, Mommy.’” And it was just one of my rituals—I had so many in those days. I didn’t expect a response. I didn’t expect anything. It was just another of those things people told you to do, like waving goodbye when she boarded the pre-school bus, or trying to coax her into blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.
But on this particular night, just like that, as if it were the most everyday thing in the world, Hannah actually turned her face toward mine and said, very plainly, ‘I love you, Mommy.’”
Or maybe she didn’t turn her face. Maybe she just stared into space as she said it. It happened so fast, and it was almost twenty years ago. I’m not sure I can trust my vision of it. I can’t remember the tone of her voice anymore, whether it seemed heartfelt or just mechanical, parrot-like. (‘Echolalic’—that was the term they all used.) Just seconds after it happened, in fact, the whole thing fell apart, started to feel completely unreal, like a scene from one of the thousands of dreams I used to have in which Hannah talked.
So by now, some five years after her death, the only way I know the thing happened at all is that I made a point of remembering it. I said to myself—right then, as I held Hannah in the chair, and we watched Sesame Street, or whatever it was—I told myself that I’d have to hold on to this moment. It might be the only time I’d ever hear these words, I thought, so I’ve got to carry them with me forever, and they have to be enough.