Just a conversation

Trudy Steuernagel

What I wouldn’t give for a conversation with my son. I don’t mean “the” conversation as in the birds and bees talk, but a conversation. My son has autism and he and I have never had a conversation. I keep waiting for that day. In the early days, right after his diagnosis, I was sure it would happen. Now, as Sky has celebrated his 17th birthday, I’m not so sure that will happen. So now I plan, just in case.

I think about what might be said in that conversation. What would I want to know first? I want to know if he is happy. Then I want to know what I could do to help him. When he gets so frustrated he strikes out, is there anything I could do? Anything I could say? I’m curious, so I would ask a lot of these kinds of questions. Why do you like “The Price is Right” so much? What is it you like about Dr. Seuss? How did you discover YouTube? Why will you wear only blue shirts? Why do you shred paper? Why do you watch the ABC “Nightly News” and never CBS or NBC? Why do you like Bill Clinton so much? I’d like to know if he thinks I’m funny.

I hope he has some questions for me. I think he’d ask why I don’t make homemade fettucini alfredo more often than I do. I think he would ask why he only goes to Disney World once or twice a year, and why we can’t live in Small World. I know he doesn’t need to ask if I love him. When we’ve had a bad day, Sky says “swap me.” I say, “I’ll never swap you. I’m going to keep you forever and ever.” He says “swap me” again and again and each time I reply with my forever commitment. It soothes and reassures both of us.

Life with Sky these past few years has been very isolating for the two of us. We can’t go out and do the things we used to like to do because Sky gets so overwhelmed. Much of our time, we’re here in the house. Sky has taught me to be in the moment. All children do that for their parents, but it is particularly true for Sky. Four years ago, things were so bad Sky could not even attend school for an entire day. My life was dominated by trying to teach my classes, trying to run a household, trying to fit everything into the few hours he was at school. On bad days, those few hours could turn into a few minutes. I had to take him and pick him up because the bus was no longer an option. I couldn’t be a friend to anyone because I physically and emotionally could not be there for them. I had no patience with good and decent colleagues who told me how busy they were. Busy? Try spending an evening sitting in a closet with your back to the door trying to hold it shut while your child kicks it in. I had even less patience with good and decent students who were “stressed” because they had a paper due. But Sky, as he always does, showed me the way. Even on the worst of days, Sky would find something to enjoy, even if it lasted less than 30 seconds. Maybe it was his beloved vanilla ice cream; maybe it was a chance to see 10 minutes of “Press Your Luck.” So I started to look for my joy. Every morning while I help Sky to get ready, I put his shoes on his feet. Then, following the ritual, I lie back on his bed while he puts his feet into his shoes. Then he sits down and puts his feet out for me to tie his shoes. I realized I had approximately 17 seconds where I could lie back and not have to do anything, fear anything, clean anything, teach anything. Seventeen seconds it took for Sky to jam his feet into his shoes, sit back on the chair and put his legs on my lap. Some days, those were the only blissful 17 seconds in my day, but they sustained me.

Today, things aren’t great, but they are better. My joy is not compressed into those 17 seconds and can extend throughout an entire day. We are still isolated, however. Odd how so many parties that used to include invitations for families are now “adults only.” As friends’ children get married, children I’ve known their entire lives, I get asked to fewer and fewer weddings. Friendships not nurtured die off, I tell myself, not wanting to believe Sky and I are just unwanted. Oddly, and for better or worse, we’re content; but I still want a conversation.

Trudy Steuernagel is a political science professor and a guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.