Chapter Four

The next years were hard. My parents were very sad. Losing a brilliant daughter and finding out their son was autistic was a double whammy which really floored them.

It was around this time that I began to realize I was part of the problem, and maybe the whole problem.

My father dragged himself to work in the morning, looking exhausted as he walked out the door with his briefcase. My mother looked haggard as she took me to school, and when she picked me up her face was drawn.

The tragedy was complete, it was the only air we breathed. Oh, they tried not to show it. They tried pretty hard. But you can’t hide grief. It puts a mask over your face that anyone can see.

There was nothing I could do to help.  Bethany was gone, and I wasn’t normal. I needed special treatment that was expensive. My parents were hard up for money.

I heard my mother talking to relatives on the phone in a strangled voice. She was asking for money. On other days I heard my father talk the same way.

“I guess at a time like this you find out who your real friends are,” he would say at the dinner table.

It was a nightmare. The three of us were locked together in our pain, and there was no way out.

THEN, gradually, I began to make a difference.

As I told you, I’m smart in school. But after Bethany died I made a conscious effort to do well, to make my parents proud of me.  I wanted them to feel that things weren’t quite so terrible, that there was hope.

They came to conferences with Carol, the head of the school, and she gushed about how well I was doing.

“Max is learning so fast, we can hardly keep up with him. In a couple of years, if he goes on this way, we’ll think about mainstreaming him.”

“What’s that? my father asked.

“Sending him to public school.”

“Really?” My parents were impressed.

Audrey knew the bind I was in at home — all good teachers of autistic kids make sure to learn about the home situation — and she encouraged me. “A little more each day, Max,” she would say. “The sky is the limit. You’ll see!”

Sherry Smith was also an incentive for me. She liked working with me and playing with me. She was getting bigger now, her legs were getting longer, and I thought she was prettier than ever. I taught her some of the games Audrey taught me, and we always had lunch together. I could feel that she was proud of me.

One of the teachers called my mother and suggested she and I pay a visit to Sherry’s house. “Sherry’s mother is aware of the special relationship Sherry has with Max, and she would like to meet him.”

My mother called Sherry’s mother, and we drove over to their house one afternoon after school. It was a cute little house in an older neighborhood. It had a one-car garage, a tiny upstairs, and a lawn with flower beds. The flowers were obviously someone’s hobby. They were beautiful, and laid out very artistically.

Mrs. Smith greeted us with a big smile and took us into the kitchen. It was a very old kitchen, with cabinets and fixtures from another time. There was a little woven picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall.

“I’m so glad to meet you at last!” Mrs. Smith said.

“Me too, I’ve heard all about Sherry.”

They sent us up to Sherry’s room with a plate of cookies. Sherry showed me her coloring books, her dolls, and a few toys which also seemed antiquated to me. Perhaps they were hand-me-downs. In a vague way I began to suspect that the Smiths were poor.

I loved being alone with Sherry in her own room. It was so much more intimate than our times at school. Everything in the room was hers, and she was sharing it with me. I could see in her eyes she was excited to have me there.

When we went back downstairs I was surprised to see that Mrs. Smith was not smiling any more. She was talking to my mother very seriously, and her eyes had a haunted look that seemed familiar.

I saw my mother reach out a hand to touch Mrs. Smith’s arm. Mrs. Smith smiled weakly. Tears welled in her eyes.

All of a sudden I understood. Sherry’s autism was as much of a tragedy for her parents as mine was for my parents. This was a revelation to me. I thought I was the only kid in the world who was such a terrible burden to his family. Now I realized that the parents of every autistic kid I knew had the same problem, and suffered the same anguish.

This was sad, of course, but it lifted me up and made me feel better. The burden on me wasn’t so heavy any more. I was part of a community. Sherry must be feeling the same guilt I felt. All the kids in the class — all the autistic kids in the world — must feel the same way.

I looked from Sherry to her mother. For the first time in years I began to relax.

One of our field trips took us to a scenic overlook of the river. It was one of the longest rivers in the country. It came from Minnesota, and it went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was very fast where we were, and you could see branches hurrying along with the current. Its color was different every day, depending on the sun, the clouds, and the forest on either side.

I had a feeling about it that I couldn’t communicate to anyone. It stayed the same because it was always changing, always moving. It didn’t change, because it was change.

It kept moving things from one place to another, moving itself from one place to another, and it would do that forever.

I would hold Sherry’s hand when we looked down at the water, and it seemed to me that our future together was as flowing and permanent as the river.

Then I thought of Bethany. If the river went on forever, always carrying things away, one day it would be here and I wouldn’t be here. It would carry me away, or something would carry me away, and I wouldn’t be here any more. Neither would Sherry, whose hand was warming my own as I thought this.  That frightened me. I could clearly see the world without me in it. The river would be just as beautiful, just as unchanging — and I would be gone. Like Bethany.

Have you ever heard that philosophical riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, has a tree really fallen?” I think that’s stupid. The tree is real, the tree will still be there. It’s us who will be gone. Look at the stuff in Bethany’s room, the books, the notebooks, the dolls. They all lasted longer than Bethany.

Nowadays I spend a lot of time in her room.  I can still smell her on her clothes, on the bedclothes. I can still smell her skin on some of the books she read.

But Bethany is gone. Completely gone. Her stuff is just a reminder that she isn’t there.

The river goes on, but not the human being. I guess I had to learn this sometime.