The wind whips over our clasped hands as we navigate the obstacle course of cars in the parking lot, washing over our windbreaker-sheathed arms like so many ripples on the sea. We’re braving the gusts because my youngest son Zachary, who has mild autism, has begged me to come to the park today. Against my better judgment (because it’s cold as hell out) I’ve conceded, mostly because he asked so nicely, and with such enthusiasm. I glance down at him as we run and ask him what he wants to do first, i.e. the equipment, or just jog around the park and exhaust his mom. He smiles up at me and says “Mommy, the stage first, and you will tell me a play.”
A story’s not good enough for this kid. He wants action. I’d better deliver.
We approach the tiny amphitheatre quickly, and I watch as my small son takes the stairs two at a time, with his mother following at a more age-appropriate pace. I’ve been conjuring up plots in the few minutes I’ve been afforded to “get creative”, and for some reason Ali Baba is stuck in my mind, and I know I’ll build the story line around him. Zach instructs me where to stand and shows me the place from where he’ll be watching, a random spot too close to the lip of the stage for my comfort. I gain his attention, and ask him to adjust. I begin to spin a story of a brother with six sisters who try fruitlessly to render their sibling more like them, and how our protagonist rebels in protest. An evil crone is thrown into the mix, spells are cast, a renewed sense of appreciation for those who are different is discovered.
I know, it’s a running theme with us. Nothing like a good cross-over tale.
At first Zach is striding pell-mell across unforgiving concrete, straying close enough to the edge to be cause for concern, until I instruct him that the rest of the play mush be conducted while he’s stationary. At one point the plot I’ve constructed no longer requires movement, and we end up reclining within feet of one another, Zach rapt with attention, his mother cold but animated in the telling. Minutes pass, and I realize as I reach our fairy tale’s denouement that my son has inched his small frame ever closer to my larger one. Eventually his arms are draped around my shoulders, his face nestled in the crook of my neck as he leans into me. He is secure in that sacred spot where both of my children always seem to fit, no matter what their age.
I conclude my little spiel, one with heroes forged from frailty, and wickedness banished to the farthest realms of a kingdom. Zach remains still and silent for a few minutes longer, cuddled in my embrace. Although I watch the wind whip up dust in the eyes of moms, toddlers and dogs attempting to traverse the park, we are protected he and I, left undisturbed by this structure meant for performance. It hits me that these afternoon interludes are numbered, as he’ll most likely enter a full-day kindergarten program in the fall.
I pull him a little closer.
It also occurs to me how far he’s come in the almost four years since that terrible autumn, a period in which my husband and I witnessed him losing most of his words, watched his gut become a battleground, saw the spark leave his eyes. I would give anything to be able to go back in time and tell those devastated parents of the leaps and bounds he would make, the milestones that would be conquered. I’d inform them that eventually those coveted words would return in full force, with “why” predominant among his ever-increasing vocabulary. I’d say that his inner spark for life would return in full force, an undeniable fire that cannot be quenched. I’d share that his creativity continues to astonish us, that there will be hard work for him ahead, but no limits on what he can do. Most importantly, I’d reassure those parents that he’d once again be happy, would revel in his childhood, which is all I’ve ever wanted for my sons.
Then, I’d give both of us a really big hug.
Fairly soon the moment concludes, with my child offering his hands once again to be warmed, his extremities in complete opposition to the content of his heart. Soon we will rise and descend those stairs to unyielding tarmac, but for a few moments more, we are content. My son whispers in my ear “thank you Mommy”, and I squeeze him more tightly, conveying my message with sinew and strength, not words.
Zachary, my love, all the world is your stage.