This weekend, in three parts, I have the pleasure of sharing the writing of my dear friend Linda Davis. Her fiction has been featured in The Literary Review and has been selected as contest finalists in Glimmer Train and New Millennium. In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction that will stay with the reader long after, she is one of the savviest readers I have ever met, not to mention a steadfast friend and an inspirational mother.
Linda and I met in Los Angeles 2007 when we shared mentor Leonard Chang in Antioch University's graduate MFA program. He had the good sense to recognize sympatico styles and put us together. We founded our Sunday Morning Bicoastal Long Distance Writers Club for Two and have been reading and editing each other's work ever since.
Today, she is debuting part one of her stunning short story, This House. Enjoy, and remember to come back for Part Two tomorrow!
The Past is a Window into the Soul
The Future is a Mirror Without any Glass in it
- Xavier Forneret
My whole life I’ve been lucky. When I was twelve, my friends and I entered a writing/drawing contest with a major department store in Boston. There were over 5000 entries. I was one of ten who won. My picture was in all the local papers, and a poster size photo of my likeness hung in the downtown Boston store for over a year.
I’ve had “born” luck, easily attaining personal goals: becoming a member of the National Honor Society and captain of the track team in high school. And, I’ve had “superficial” luck: receiving six invitations to the senior prom, winning a radio contest for picking my ten favorite songs, or scoring a single third row ticket for the sold-out Elvis Costello show, just by asking.
A childhood friend once remarked, “You are crazy lucky,” after I won an all-school raffle. As I sat ticking off each number that was called out, I thought, Someone has to win. Why not me?
My mother once saw a fortuneteller who confirmed my good luck by telling her “I see a crown on her head, symbolic of incredible happiness.” The one time I saw a fortuneteller, she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. Such good luck! Please come back in ten years and tell me all that’s happened to you.”
My lucky streak continued into my twenties and thirties where I successfully landed great jobs for Harper’s Magazine in New York and Robert Redford’s production company in Los Angeles.
In my late thirties, I married my husband George. We conceived on our honeymoon, which given the number of miscarriages and fertility treatments all of our 35+ aged friends were going through, seemed lucky too. I went into labor on my birthday and even though Noel was born the day after my birthday, I considered it the ultimate cosmic birthday gift to have a child born so close to me.
Unlike many Los Angeles transplants, I had the good fortune of having my mother move to Los Angeles. As other transplants with children know, having family nearby is a saving grace.
A month after we had Noel, we bought an old house, which we renovated. Six months later, the real estate market shifted dramatically. Two years later, it was worth twice what we paid for it. More luck.
Two years after Noel was born, we conceived a second son within a month of trying. Again, the fertility Gods were smiling on us.
Even my bad luck was somehow good. One rainy night, back when I lived in Boston, a car crashed into mine on the 95 freeway, setting fire to my car and trapping me in on the driver’s side by the median. I got myself out seconds before the car blew up. What did all the firemen say when they arrived? “Ma’am, do you have any idea how lucky you are?!”
It’s true I’ve had my share of disappointments and setbacks: alcoholic father, parents who were too wrapped up in divorce to help me make good choices about my future, and open heart surgery for my mother, to name a few. But while my bad luck could be described as typical, my good luck was decidedly not.
Circumstances are like clouds, continually gathering and bursting – While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events – while we are laughing, it sprouts, it grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit we must pluck.
When Noel was two and a half years old and Julian was eight months, I was strolling with them in front of Santa Monica’s City Hall. Noel began to rub his hands together in a quick, repetitive motion. He’d been doing this for about a week. George and my mother thought it was cute; that he was imitating his baby brother Julian. It troubled me.
As I leaned forward to maneuver the double stroller up a steep curb, the word “Autism” suddenly came into my head. I had zero knowledge of what Autism was other than having seen the movie “Rainman.” Yet, like my certainty that I, as much as anyone, had a chance of winning the school raffle, somewhere in my mind I already knew this word was relevant to my life.
When I got home, I quickly ran to get my “What to Expect: The Toddler Years” book; the same one I’d consulted for sleeping, feeding and other developmental hurdles which at the time seemed insurmountable. I looked up Autism in the glossary and found the page in the book. There were ten bullet points listing the characteristics of children with Autism. Noel answered to eight of them. The description of Autism read:
“Autism is a syndrome characterized by impairments in social relatedness, language and communication, a need for routine and sameness, abnormal movements and sensory dysfunction. Autism is a lifelong condition.”
I lay face down on the floor in my bedroom, unable to move for a long time, inhaling carpet when I was inhaling at all. Noel and Julian were in the bath at the time and soon, began calling to me. It took tremendous effort for me to go to them because I didn’t want to see Noel in a different way. It was two hours before George would arrive home from work. I couldn’t tell him over the phone. That much I knew. I desperately wanted to sleep, certain that if I could only lose consciousness I would wake up and discover this had never happened. After I toweled the children off, I put them under the covers of our bed, hoping to lose myself in the folds of the covers – a compromise to sleep. I remember feeling like I was looking down at us from overhead and seeing an x-ray of our bodies: Noel with a broken brain, me with a broken heart. The phone rang. I knew it was George. He always called around this time. I thought about not answering, but selfishly I wanted to hear his voice even if I couldn’t tell him. Maybe it would help comfort me. Didn’t work.
His first question, as always was, “How are the boys?” “Good,” I said without a second’s hesitation. I quickly got off the phone, using Julian as an excuse. As I hung up, I remember envying George’s last two hours of ignorance of Noel’s condition. Two hours later, when I showed him the book, he fell to the floor and unlike me, wept profusely.
The next day, we paid an emergency visit to Noel’s pediatrician, Dr. W. After observing Noel for over a half-hour, he declared, “I’d be very surprised if this was anything neurological.” As much as I wanted desperately to believe him, I knew he was wrong.
Even with his misgivings, Dr. W. referred us to neurologist, Dr. C, whom we had to wait an agonizing forty-eight hours to get in to see. Finally, we made our way to her cluttered windowless office, ominously located just above a children’s cancer clinic. Dr. C. did not smile or attempt to ease the burden of bad news with any smiles or consolatory remarks. She diagnosed Noel as Autistic as casually as if she’d told us he had a minor cold. It took five minutes.
You may be wondering why no one had noticed Noel’s Autism sooner? I’ll try to explain. Noel was our firstborn. Although I’d done more than my share of babysitting through the years, this was my first experience with a baby. So, I relied on professionals. He’d been at nursery school and seen by various healthcare professionals his whole life (when he was one, he had a blocked tear duct that required a minor operation.) Although he’d walked late, many children do and as long as he did by 18 months, Dr. W. wasn’t concerned. While he didn’t demonstrate any interest in his peers, Noel was intensely focused on adults, especially those closest to him. He certainly had no aversion to being touched. If anything, he sought it out, burrowing under covers and pillows and reaching his small hands to fit inside my shirtsleeves, (Later, we would discover that this was indicative of sensory issues: a component of Autism.)
He also had language. Language plays a crucial role in Autism. It’s the yardstick by which many children are measured: those who talk and those who don’t. Noel spoke from the time he was eight months old, sooner than his typically developing brother, although, at age two, when Noel should have progressed to full sentences, he was still stuck on single words. Lastly, we had the example of Dr. W. stating his disbelief at Noel’s diagnosis. So, instead of being hard on myself for not knowing sooner that Noel was Autistic, I opted for my last sliver of confidence-building in the dreary, hopeless shattered dream days after Noel’s diagnosis: I had been the one who had diagnosed him.
Dr. Temple Grandin, the most famous, well-educated Autistic person in the world who has garnered national attention for her award-winning designs of humane slaughterhouses says early diagnosis is tantamount to progress. Ironically, perhaps this had been, my last dance with good fortune: diagnosing my own son’s tragic misfortune. Needless to say, we never went back to Dr. W. again.
In the past, whenever I’d felt scared or received bad news I would think/wish/pray my way out of it. Things I couldn’t change – my mother’s bad heart, or my own broken heart –fixed themselves with time. When Noel was diagnosed, I remember thinking initially that I could outsmart fate, as I always had.
This time, there was no out.
A dear friend said to me, “We’re at an age when we’ll all receive our share of bad luck: diseases, death, tragedy. This is yours.” My good luck had come to a halting conclusion.
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TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW.... Click here for Part Two