Pictures, like songs, have the ability to bring out memories that are buried down deep.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately – those memories hidden away – after reading MOM-NOS’ great post about ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s here. And here. And probably about 800 other places at this point. It’s that good.
While thinking about that post, I wondered about my own moment of trauma. The one I live over and over again, but have never shared.
This isn’t a B Side post, because while it’s a memory, it’s not a good one. It’s not entirely an autism post either. I guess it’s more of a “me” post. And since I use my blog as free therapy for me, I suppose I’m entitled to a “me” post every once in a while.
note: I know members of my family read this blog. I’m giving you warning now that you might not want to read this, and if you do, I won’t want to talk about it later. Because I’m writing about it here instead.
Last week of August, 1997: I’m with my family at the annual summer fair in Vermont. Going to the fair together has been a tradition since I was little, and we always had our family “portrait” taken there. This year, I resisted going. It wasn’t because I was ashamed to be seen with my family – I was 25 years old and past all that. But I was busy. I was working in college admissions and we were getting ready for the new school year to start. I had things to do. But my parents were insisting that I go. Begging, really. So here we are at Scotty’s photo booth. And we take our picture:
It’s our last one.
This will be one of the last times I go to the fair. I’ve been a handful of times since this day, and never since I’ve had kids.
August 31, 1997: It’s one o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in my apartment in my bed watching the news. They are reporting that Princess Diana has died in a car crash. The phone rings and it’s one of my best friends from college. She’s calling to talk about the breaking news of the day and share the conspiracy theories already swirling all over the world.
I share with her my breaking news. That afternoon, my parents sat me down to tell me that my father had cancer. Pancreatic cancer. I was awake watching the news because I was afraid to go to sleep. My friend, in her first year of medical school, fell silent on the other end of the phone. She knew what that meant. A five percent survival rate. Months of chemotherapy and other experimental drugs on the horizon. A life changing moment. We hung up and I stayed awake for hours.
I still cannot watch footage of Princess Diana’s car crash without thinking of that night. For months after, I would leave SportsCenter on while I fell asleep so I wouldn’t have to be alone with my thoughts.
November 12, 1998: I’m sitting in my parents’ bedroom with my father. We know he doesn’t have much time left. We’ve given up on hospital stays and he’s come home to be surrounded by family. The spreadsheet that I created to track his medications has long been pushed aside since we’re only focused on pain management now. A week prior, he had won re-election to his third time in the Vermont Legislature. I wrote all his campaign material and answered all the candidate surveys. My whole family is at the house. My brother had come home from graduate school to celebrate an early Chanukah, since none of us knew if my dad would be around in December. He had started the journey back to school on this day, but turned around when my sister’s guinea pig “Ham” died in the afternoon. He came back to help bury it in the pet burial ground we had on our property. And now, my brother sat downstairs with my mother and sister having dinner, while I stayed upstairs with my dad.
I am eating Macaroni and Cheese. We’re watching “Must See TV”. “Friends” is on. My dad is sitting across the room from me in his green recliner. It’s where he chose to be during the times when he could no longer stand being in bed.
“I’m sorry (your sister’s) guinea pig died.”
The voice came from the chair. Strong and clear. The first coherent sentence I had heard from him in a long time.
“I know, Dad. I’ll tell her.”
Then, a few moments later, the seizures start.
I yell “Dad! DAD!”, and then “MOM!! MOM!!”. I didn’t need to call her name. The baby monitor that my mom had on was already sharing what was happening.
I yell to her to call my uncle who lives next door. I dial 911.
I forget in this moment that 911 had not come to our rural part of the state yet. The time it takes for the operator to connect me to our local dispatch seems like hours.
I don’t need to give them our address. Just our name. My father had been on our town’s rescue squad for many years. They knew where we were.
My mom and uncle usher me out of the room. The ambulance arrives, knocking down the baby gate at the bottom of the stairs that was there to keep the dogs from getting up to my dad. They take him away. My mom, brother and uncle follow. I stay home with my sister.
The call came from the hospital a couple of hours later. My dad was gone. “ER” was still on the TV upstairs.
It’s a year before I can watch “Friends” or “ER” again.
The green recliner is now at my house, and is my middle son’s special chair. When the demons of his autism rise up, this is where he retreats. He rocks there. He curls up in the seat of the chair and feels safe. It is his “green chair”.
I go over those last moments over and over again for the next 12 years. Was there something I could have done differently? Why I was the one in the room with him at that moment? What else could have have said to him before I lost the chance to say anything more?
February 17, 2011: A giant package arrives in the mail addressed to me. I open it and find about 50 pictures inside, sent to me by my cousin. She was helping my 89-year-old Grandma move into a smaller place and thought I’d be a good “manager” of these photos. I’m waiting for the kids to get home from school, so I have a moment to look through the pictures. The first one I pull out is this one:
And all the memories come rushing back.
This day would have been my father’s 64th birthday.
February 27, 2011: I start this blog post and the healing process. For the first time, I can write about these memories, although I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about them yet. When I look at that photo I see uncertainty in some faces and blissful ignorance in others. My parents know life is about to change. I do not.
That picture made me think about the family I have now and the life-changing event of my son’s autism diagnosis. I wondered if there was a photo of us before our world changed forever. I searched and searched and found this:
It was our holiday card for 2009. This was taken three months before our son’s diagnosis. As parents, we knew something was going on. Our kids had no clue.
Two life altering events for me. And the photos that trigger the memories.
I chose the Harry Chapin song “I Wonder What Would Happen To This World” for a reason. Harry Chapin was one of my father’s favorite singer/songwriters. In July 1981 we were overseas on vacation when he read the news of Harry Chapin’s death. I was young, so the memory is fuzzy, but I remember thinking this was one of the first times I had seen my father sad. The lyrics below from this song are on Harry Chapin’s headstone. I often think how different life would be for me now had the two events above not happened – if my father was still alive and if my son did not have autism. While writing this post, I have realized that it’s useless to think that way. What’s most important is how we take what is given to us and use it to change our corner of the world. To let go of the past trauma and stay in the present. And with that, I hope I can finally move on.
“Now if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
Well I wonder what would happen to this world” – I Wonder What Would Happen To This World by Harry Chapin