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.
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.