“Metaphorical Children” by April Salzano

April Salzano

METAPHORICAL CHILDREN

An Essay

Only a few years ago, I would have said parenting affects my poetry by preventing it. Then, one day, inspiration almost literally struck me.

I never fully understood the term “become the pain” until it was too late for an epidural, just minutes before my second son, Thomas, burst into the world. I knew that if I focused every fiber of my being on that pain, that very specific hurt, isolated and at the same time spreading, I could contain it. I could process it only for what it was, simply a feeling, neurotransmitters sending a message, synapses firing, causing a physical response, a signal, nothing more.

When Thomas was two, he was diagnosed with autism. My older son, Nate, was only four and my marriage had been ending for the past two years. Our home became headquarters for agency people who crawled all over like FBI agents examining a crime scene. Early Intervention, Vocational Psychological Services, you name it, everyone but my husband was trying to help. He was … elsewhere. It seemed everything that meant anything was replaced with the task of parenting Thomas, going to evaluations and meetings, implementing services to help him communicate and function. I felt I had nothing left to put on the page. I know that only in retrospect because at the time, I didn’t even try.

Though I didn’t acknowledge it until years later, I had made an unconscious decision to stop writing. Up until “D” day, I had always thought that when my boys were old enough, I would again find time to resume my writing, which had always been my passion. Poetry had been my way of at once distancing a feeling and simultaneously bringing it to the foreground for examination. Why was I not applying this act of healing to the most difficult and painful time of my life? I blamed lack of time and inspiration, fatigue, depression, but in truth, I was afraid. Afraid to attempt to convey what I was feeling about autism, its finality, its power to teach, to awaken, but also its power to hurt and to disappoint. I know now that the negative aspects of parenting a child with autism are what make the positive aspects even more powerful. And vice versa. Extremes of emotion are not reserved only for the child who is on the autism spectrum. They come for his family as well.

“It never stops being humiliating,” I think to myself as Thomas slams me into the side of my Jeep with a force well beyond what it seems a six-year-old should be capable of.

We are in front of a crowd of onlookers at the park where Nate has soccer practice twice a week. It is the last day of school, a day I had been praying for since September. Today Thomas finished kindergarten with his non-autistic peers. And though his report card has more minus than plus signs, he has one. He did it. We had spent the afternoon playing in the yard and drawing with sidewalk chalk. Most of the day was giggles and smiles.

Until now.

It started raining, and though the soccer team kept practicing to display some semblance of dedication, most of the parents and siblings fled for their vehicles to wait it out. Thomas didn’t seem to notice the rain at all. He just kept running back and forth in the path he had worn in the dirt. He talked and laughed at whatever thought was occupying his mind. I had attempted to coax him to the car. Five minute warning, then two, then one. “Okay, let’s go sit in the car until the rain stops. Then we’ll come right back.” He had come willingly, holding my hand. And now this.

I hit the side of the jeep with my back. I bounce off the driver’s side door and right back against Thomas’ outstretched hands. He grabs a handful of my face and tries to rip it off. I slap his hand. Mistake #1. He is stunned, but only momentarily. He rubs his hand. And then he’s twice as mad.

I regain my composure, dismiss my regret and guilt. I hear a voice coming from my mouth that I don’t recognize. “Thomas, no. Nice hands. Do you need a time out? No hitting.” Somehow I am blocking what feels like three sets of hands, all reaching for my face my hair my throat. I can’t see. I block, I turn, I dodge, all on pure instinct, all while still trying to talk him down. He slams into me again, emitting a growling chhhhhhhh sound that means he has left his body, been mentally hijacked, checked out. He is not in there anymore. This is not Thomas, not my baby boy who had just today brought me to tears with pride when he handed me that report card, that token of joy, a testament that everyone had been wrong. This is someone else. Pure amygdale, acting on primal fight or flight. And he is fighting like his life depends on ending mine.

I manage a joke to the soccer dad unloading his five kids from the minivan, something stock like, “If he gets much bigger, he’ll be able to take me.” It’s a stupid thing to say because Thomas is already winning. The guy’s kids are staring in pure disbelief. The older kids respectfully avert their gaze. The younger kids just gawk unabashedly, taking mental notes for later.

Most times I am able to stay on my feet, even when Thomas is hanging from my hair and his own feet are off the ground, even when he succeeds in grabbing hold and pulling me downward. Duck and weave only works to an extent as does the “extended arm block” I learned in restraint training. “Do you need a time out?” Yes. “Ok. Sit in the car until you are calm. Are you calm?” Yes. “Ok.” Then it starts all over. Back in the car. Back out. Back in. I take off my hoodie and tie it around my waist. Mistake #2. He lunges from the car and grabs hold of the sleeves and whips me around like a rag doll. I almost lose footing. I grasp his shoulders firmly. “Nice hands. No hitting.” Back in the car.

I stand against the open door, attempting to catch my breath. All I have to do is tell him he can go play in the rain (I’m soaked now anyway) and this is all over. All I have to do is give in and he will come right back from the place he’s in. He will laugh and run and play. But somehow the judging stares of the woman in the car next to mine fuel my determination. All done soccer. All done soccer. “No, we’re not all done soccer. Calm down and you can play.” Chhhhhhhhhh! Attack. My whole body aches.

“First calm. Nice hands and nice feet and then you can play,” I hear myself say.

The woman in the car next to us is pretending to read a book, sneaking glances when she thinks I won’t notice. I can hear her thinking What the fuck? just as loud as if she’s spoken it. And I wish she would. It would be easier. And it might give me a place to deposit all this adrenaline that I am forced to do nothing with. I have always maintained that if you are not going to offer help, or at least ask if I am ok, you should mind your own business and stop fucking staring. I see you. It doesn’t help matters. I give her a look that says I know what you are thinking, and wish for a lull in this battle long enough to pull my pants up a little higher. I feel like I am standing here bare naked anyway; my entire soul is as exposed. But dignity has no place here so I leave my crack hanging out and untangle Thomas’ hands from my hair. Yeah, why don’t I cut it? my eyes say to the woman. My hair is a mane of thick curly tresses down to my waist, truthfully an unnecessary amount of hair, but to me it is also a symbol of my resilience. My will. It is also one of the few things that age is allowing me to retain, and I am rather proud of it in moments other than these when I feel admittedly, well, impractical. I can tell Thomas loves my hair. He’s never said so, but I know by the way he brushes it off my face when I “eat his tummy,” and when he hides under it and giggles. Just like I know he likes the loose skin on my stomach—though he has never articulated that either—that it reminds him of Play-Doh. It’s what makes me me to him, trademarks of Mommy.

Thomas sits perfectly still in his car seat. “Good job calming down, Thomas. Look, the rain stopped. Now you can go play. See? We were just waiting for the rain to stop.” Have I accomplished anything? Probably not. I am sure that my Behavioral Specialist Consultant would say that I somehow reinforced a negative behavior. I did at one point bargain with him I think, offering his hoodie as a stipulation to playing. I was ready to give in there for a second, wasn’t I? I can’t remember what I said. I hold his hand as he jumps out of the car. He lets go and runs toward the swings. He is talking about something that is probably relevant somehow, but I can’t translate what he’s saying, lines from a movie preview mixed in with what sounds like, “Now you can play.”

I would like to say that there isn’t a moment when I don’t love this kid, but that would be a lie. I am frustrated and I am tired and I am in pain every day. Even during days with no aggression, I am hurting inside from the rollercoaster of emotions that is autism. Somehow that cliché fits better than any other, fresher language. The beautiful moments have an intensity unmatched by any I have ever shared with not only my non-autistic son, but also with any other human being. The extra special sense of pride and love for the simplest of gestures: eye contact held for an extra fraction of a second, an unrequested hug, an implication of a joke, an acknowledgement of my presence while I sit in the periphery, always waiting, always longing to be in his world. It feels like homesickness, or like missing someone you never knew. The reciprocal conversation you wish you could have on a verbal level, the unactualized potential of everything that he is, it’s all there, but can’t seem to find its way out. And I know it will in time, so gradually I won’t notice much of it until retrospect allows. Each day he moves closer to mastering some concept as yet undefined, unlike the ABA programs or the rote memorization that has its good and its bad sessions, but more like a step closer to some other, bigger goal, something that vaguely resembles normalcy. It is a place he will never fully inhabit, but I hope will visit for moments at a time. Realistically, I shouldn’t hope for more, but I often find that I do. Against every other realization to the contrary, it could just happen that way, couldn’t it?

Sometimes I think I could be so far gone myself that I may not be there waiting for him when he arrives, yet other times I feel like that place is going to be something akin to the common conception of Heaven: we will know it when we get there and not a second before. An awakening. An epiphany. A realization that we were never as far from home as we thought, and always headed in the right direction. Nothing marks the end of a struggle. It just is. And then it isn’t.

In the introduction of her memoir, My Father’s Love, Sharon Doubiago quotes Carolyn Forche as saying, “Surely all art begins in a wound.” Furthering that notion, Doubiago writes, “The artist is our modern day shaman. In ancient worlds the shaman was the one who, torn apart, put herself back together again for the community in order to tell the community how.” Though Doubiago writes of sexual abuse, the notion of translating pain into poetry to tell a community “how” really hit home for me in the last couple of years when I finally started writing about my son’s autism. What returned me to writing was ultimately the attempt, finally, to join the voices of other parents with children on the spectrum. Through our stories, poetry, essays, we hope to enlighten each other on the heartbreaks and joys of this distinct type of parenting. When we are torn apart at the park in front of a crowd of judgmental strangers, we put ourselves back together, and at best, tell the world how to do it. At the very least, we tell them how it felt.

Once I gained the courage to write about autism, with it came the courage to write about parenting in general. I figured out, finally, that the two are inseparable. Along with it came the strength to examine my feelings on the end of my twelve year marriage. Writing on all other subjects began reappearing, falling into place. I returned to writing wholeheartedly, not just about autism, not just about parenting, or my broken heart, my anger at my ex-husband and autism, but also nature pieces, humor poems, short stories, essays, started coming. Finally, I began what will hopefully become a full memoir on raising a son with autism.

My biggest epiphany was that if I continued waiting for peace, quiet, and inspiration, the Pegasus of creativity, to appear and carry me into the perfect world of perfect poetry, I would never write a word. Now I make notes in my phone, often writing entire poems while my boys play in the yard or while I wait for the potatoes to boil. I am even guilty of writing poetry while my students take a quiz. Moments to write will never be given. They must be stolen. Guilt is no longer an option. The “room of my own” is a tiny corner in my head reserved for art. It is not a place where my children are not allowed, but a place from which their commotion and chaos is observed and recorded, stored for later if necessary, to be transformed into poetry, more valuable than any snapshot. My children are my metaphors, fixed to paper, broken into lines, made into art.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

__________

April Salzano teaches college writing in Pennsylvania. She spent two years of her life as a single parent, before marrying the one person she felt worthy of her two sons. She recently finished her first collection of poetry, for which she is seeking a publisher. This essay was taken from the memoir she is (slowly) writing on raising a child with autism. Salzano also serves as co-editor at Kind of a Hurricane Press.



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“Single Dads of Daughters” by Russell Rowland

Russell Rowland

SINGLE DADS OF DAUGHTERS

If you join our fraternity, in time
you too will have to pick your daughter up
after dance class. You’ll step with diffidence
into so feminine an environment,
filled with leotards, book bags, and moms.
At sight of you, some girl will giggle, “Woops!”
and run from the room, while you find the floor
interesting.
                    You will not postpone forever
your first trip (not your last) to the drug store
for menstruation-related products—
from which trauma you return to be informed
you must exchange them for the kind with wings.
Back you go swearing, in a cloud of smoke:
Let them fly to us, like homing pigeons,
if they have wings!
                              Can your daughter attend
the all-night cast party at a stranger’s house,
on the other side of town? It is your call,
there’s no spouse to blame the decision on.

Your penance is to give her away to one
who will make familiar-sounding promises—
and keep them better than you did.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

__________

Russell Rowland: “A middle-aged poet will have gathered a fair amount of moss on the northern side of his consciousness. Divorce, which both giveth and taketh away, made of me a single parent with physical custody, a better man, and a poet with some lonesome valleys to write about. I had to walk them for myself, but now I can write about them for you, and you, and you.”



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“In Response to Anyone Who Asks” by Josh Rathkamp

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Josh Rathkamp

IN RESPONSE TO ANYONE WHO ASKS

She has grown wild
curls flaring from behind her ears.

She prefers blue
bears and crayons.

When we walk through the airport
people smile. On the plane,

a woman sitting next to us
tells me how the puzzles and pictures

I downloaded on my iPad
are a sign of good fatherhood.

And at once I want to ask her
to write a testimonial, to tell

whoever needs to know:
my daughter

the whole way home, all twelve
hours of layovers

in the Minneapolis airport,
the repeated tram rides

and trying ten dollars
worth of the grabber machine

to lift the blue bunny I felt so bad
I couldn’t reach,

I couldn’t make the claw
wrap tight, but still

my daughter looked up, told me
next time, Dada, next time.

What about that makes me good?
Aren’t I the opposite, begging

to believe that a man like me
is good for a girl like her,

a girl who drives around the block
in a yellow convertible.

If I flip a switch
on the dashboard, I get to remote

control my daughter, turn her around,
make sure she doesn’t stray

into intersections when she plays
with other kids across grass

and class and gender.
We sit back and watch

or get involved—throw a ball,
bend down as far

as our bad backs allow
to draw hopscotch squares

against the driveway. Every word
out of my neighbor’s mouth is “no.”

Every word out of my own is “Shit,
I don’t know.”

What about that makes me good?

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

[download audio]

__________

Josh Rathkamp: “When I was a kid I begged my parents to let me write a poem or a story for my allowance instead of shoveling the driveway or mowing the lawn. Now, as a parent myself, I can’t believe they walked out into the freezing cold or walked lines behind an engine that wanted to eat everything it saw. That had to be sacrifice. I can only hope it was for a greater good.”



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“Mothering Solo” by Khadijah Queen

Khadijah Queen

MOTHERING SOLO

An Essay

Mothering is the ultimate convergence of public and private. From the moment your belly swells, the fact that you are/have been sexually active becomes publicly displayed. The implicit questions: Who has impregnated you? Does he have cultural/institutional permission? Do you, expectant mother, have permission? Where is the piece of paper/(in)expensive ornament on your hand that says so?

Then, assumptions begin—your body changes, and strangers act as witness. Sometimes, they want to touch you. You are full of life; you are sensitive, physically and emotionally. You are urgent in every way, and strangers, smiling, touch you, often without permission, ask you personal questions. You might feel okay about that, or you might be offended. The point is—vision. Outside, inside. How you see yourself in relation to others, how they see themselves in relation to you. We are all of us mirrors. We see what we want, we look for what we want or look for what we fear.

* * *

Is there some kind of human aversion to our own bodies that makes life-growing a shame to so many? That is what I would ask those who treat single mothers differently, consciously or unconsciously, no matter their age or economic status. Something deep is at work in the human psyche. I am hinting at the ugliest and most fundamental of truths, and single motherhood, I promise, is merely tangential.

* * *

Women who give birth out of wedlock or who have somehow separated from their partners have traditionally been shamed—for their aloneness, their state of supposed non-support, as if their vulnerability makes them difficult to look at, or worse, unworthy of being truly seen, because the damage—think of it! a child as damage, a child as shame—has been done. It’s not often talked about in these PC days, but the shadow lingers—an Eliot-esque smoke along the windowpanes as we peer at one another in social situations. Soccer games, bake sales, PTA meetings, clothes shopping, dinner at Outback. The automatic glance at the ring finger. This is worth saying aloud: Our worth, our children’s worth, is not tied to a masculine presence at the dinner table.

* * *

Not that I don’t feel the absence of a partner to help shoulder day-to-day responsibilities, especially the things I least enjoy doing, like bringing groceries in or maintaining the car. Some days I work so much and for so long that by the time the day ends, unsurprisingly, I feel numb from exhaustion. And I still have to make dinner, be patient, be loving, iron clothes, give instructions, wash dishes, host sleepovers, encourage—without germophobia—scientific experiments that take over the bathtub. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I am miraculously successful; sometimes I am resentful, sometimes I feel so lucky. Sometimes all of the above and more happen in the same day and I want to burst. But that’s life. Would it be nice to have some help? Sure. Would I trade it to have a husband, for the sake of having a husband, and the financial and physical labor-easing such a union supposedly implies? Absolutely not. I’m not judging any married person or anyone else’s choices, but I personally value my independence more than any supposed convenience.

* * *

Which brings me to writing. We—mothers who write, solo mothers who write and create—often, if not most of the time or all of the time, write for our lives. Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary. We can get lost in routine and duty, obviously, but getting lost in the love part—love of our children, love of writing—might prevent that. Part of that is self-love. Part of that is creative output. All of it meant to keep us connected to who we are, as creative beings, when external forces might sever or corrupt such connection.

Parenting takes everything you have and more. Parenting solo—just like any kind of human activity—means nothing is perfect: you make mistakes, you run out of energy, you ultimately have only yourself to depend on. Sometimes things get done halfway. None of that fits into the obsessive perfectionism that strongly underlies current parenting norms. Thankfully, though, it fits with our basic human-ness, which means we can forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves (and our children) as we are.

* * *

The stigma attached to single mothers, frankly, baffles me. The most prevalent question I’ve gotten as a single mother: How do you do it? My answer: One thing (or two or seven) at a time, minute by minute, shoelace by shoelace, tantrum by tantrum, laugh by laugh, story by story. I order out; I cook a bunch on weekends; I pass out with my clothes on; I let some things slide, or stay up late to finish. We, as parents, repeat ourselves. And it’s a good thing: we’re teaching our children how to live. Thank goodness each day we get another chance at almost everything.

* * *

This essay is clearly not an explanation of my situation, why I am single, or whether or not I chose to be. None of that matters. It matters that my son is alive with humor, that he is as fragile a human being as all of us, and that he has the strongest heart I know. It matters that he is brilliant and curious and incredibly kind. But, having tired of that kindness thrown back in his face, he will fight if he must. And as much as it hurts, I know he’ll have to. His dark brown skin is the hunted kind; his thick hair and wide shoulders will only grow in perceived threat to some.

* * *

The most important thing I have learned as a parent is to trust my child.

In trusting him, I learned, slowly, to trust myself. It spilled into my work. I wrote the way I wanted to, because it was fun, because it felt good, because it mattered, and it didn’t have to make sense, because it only had to matter to me, at first. I could figure out the rest once the writing part was done.

* * *

Mothering and working means that some things fall down the scale of importance; some fall off. Some return, some do not—they might flicker in the distance or disappear, even from memory. I don’t even miss some of those things, and the others I’ve developed a resigned and optimistic appreciation of later.

When parsing time and energy, the now becomes everything: shelter, hunger, sleep, warmth. I pay attention; the consequence otherwise may cost unbearably more than if I don’t. Because my son and I both have physical challenges, comfort for us becomes the scaffolding upon which the rest of our lives takes shape, even our emotional well-being.

Of hyper-importance: what we eat, where we go, how much rest I get. We’ve become connoisseurs of one another’s moods, and our closeness tied to our health. My writing is tied to my health. I must write. I taught my son to respect and support that. He is older now, and able to understand. He knows I feel better (and that I am a better mother) when and because I nurture my creative work, and he loves that about me. And I support his obsession with incredibly complex strategy-oriented Japanese card games. I take him to tournaments and even play, sometimes, though poorly, when he really wants me to. We allow one another to be who we are. I am lucky. We enjoy our lives. We are a family.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

__________

Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit, and Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press book award for poetry and was a finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Individual poems have been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and appear in the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq, and Women Write Resistance. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and works as an editor for a finance company. (www.khadijahqueen.com)



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“Hello Wall” by Gloria Parker

Gloria Parker

HELLO WALL

Can we talk? I’ve been told we have a lot in common.
My husband always said talking to me was just like
talking to you, and you must know, he was always right.

I’m curious: did he begin with a pointing finger and the question,
“Do you know what your problem is?” Did you try to explain?
Did it end by him shaking his head and walking away?

I am guessing from your silence, you didn’t know what to do, either.
Did you spend half your day mulling over all those problems of yours,
trying to defend your indefensible self?

It’s difficult to talk about, isn’t it? You could never quite figure out which
part was yours and which was his. It kind of made you want to build
a wall around yourself, didn’t it?

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets

__________

Gloria Parker: “My first poems … I was in my early twenties and wrote in the dark. It almost seemed like they were dictated to me. I’d wake and without turning on a light, grab the pen and pad from my night stand and write what I’d ‘heard’ while asleep. I’d spend most of the next day trying to decipher words written in slanted lines over one another, a tedious and not always successful process. I am/was a single parent of two sons. My husband and I separated twenty-plus years ago, when both boys were in elementary school.”



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