We’ve had our share of late. One runaway is one too many. Let’s see…we’ve had four (if you count Gabriel thrice).

Let’s begin with Lucy Liu (officially, Lucy Wordsworth). As John likes to say, she’s a complicated dog (we have more than a few of those around here). Nobody can pinpoint exactly what Lucy is. I’d almost spring for one of those doggie DNA tests, but you know, she’s a mutt. Which is really the only breed I go for, so what’s the point?

We decided to adopt Lucy after our move to graduate school in Miss-our-i. Sophie the black—officially, Sophia Simone—was turning a little neurotic and needed a doggy friend. We had just moved and she was used to accompanying me to work at the bookstore in Kansas. Lucy had been adopted and returned three times and was losing her wits at a foster home with seven other dogs, all dachshunds. They warned us that she didn’t really like other dogs (uh, seven dachshunds), but she seemed to like Sophie, so we brought her home. We decided she was just picky, like the rest of us. A perfect match.

Lucy is one of those more human than dog dogs. It’s in her eyes; they’re liquid and soul searching. She can stand entirely vertical on her hind legs and makes a decent dance partner. She’s got springs in her haunches and is light on her feet. I’ve seen her bound over our back wall from a standstill. So no, it wasn’t a surprise to lose her. The surprise was her not coming back.

One of the boys must have let her out, and we didn’t notice for more than an hour. We spent the next 16 hours or so combing the neighborhood by foot and car and voice. Nothing. We started calling shelters the next morning and had an encouraging response from the pound. They had picked up a dog a block from our house that matched her description within an hour of when we think she escaped. When we got there to take a look we found her alone, caged off from all the other animals. I have a notion someone had already picked her out for their own.

One of the wardens, who proudly displayed his euthanasia proficiency certificate at the window where we had to do the paperwork to bail her out, gave us a good talking to and pointed out that we could potentially pay nearly $500 in ticket fees and court costs (she wasn’t wearing her collar with the appropriate tags), but that since it was our first offense, he’d talk to the head warden and we’d probably get a free pass. This time.

Since that day, Lucy’s jumped the wall (with us in plain sight) at least three more times. That taste of freedom seems to have only whetted her appetite for more. Not unlike our other truant.

G first slipped out unseen in the midst of a lively game of hide-and-seek with one of our favorite sitters. He may or may not have known how to work the screen door deadbolt that day (he certainly does know how now), but his primary motivation seemed to be telling our neighbors across the street that their tree had been knocked down in the wind. Nevermind that after crossing the street (!) he started banging on the wrong neighbor’s door shouting “Tree broke! Tree broke!” He was very shortly found and kept under close watch.

Occasion number two. Jonah and I had returned from an early morning walk to find G on the couch with iPad in hand. J joined him and I went upstairs to chat with John. I forgot to deadbolt the back door: mistake number one. Mistake number two: assuming that G and J would continue to share the iPad (J usually takes over after a minute or two). Mistake number three: I didn’t tie the backyard gate up high—an extra precaution we take to avoid (what I recognize now to be) an almost entirely unavoidable eventuality.

When John came down to check on the boys and found Jonah alone with the iPad, he apprehensively inquired, “Where’s your brother?” “In the backyard,” says J. To which he adds, “The gate is open.” Mad dash for the driveway ensues. There is shouting. I thought Lucy had escaped again and wasn’t very quick about joining the hunt. Tiresome dog. I had very little time to actually freak out when I realized it was my son that was missing because a barrel-chested man was at that moment walking up our driveway with the little runaway. He had seen G cross the street unattended a block or two from our house and thankfully intervened.

After babbling on to the man about orshes (G’s word for backhoes, diggers, and the like), he had led him back to our house. The man said he knocked several times at our door and then called the police. The police! Both John and I wondered: if they can charge us $500 for a missing dog, what happens when you lose your kid?!

There’s really nothing worse than knowing you’ve lost your child. It’s a kind of fear akin to sickness and maybe the ultimate failure. After all, our main job as parents is to keep the kid alive so that he can see adulthood. With both boys, this has proved more difficult than we were able to imagine in the time before they were.

G’s final escape (up to this very point in time) happened in Indiana, amidst a house full of relatively attentive family. Grandma Lita had fixed her famous biscuits and gravy, and I was acting as blueberry dispenser for Gabriel while he moved from trucks to toys to Winnie-the-Pooh to the fat cat Sparky and back to blueberries again. The back door was deadbolted. The front storm door was deadbolted, not that that proved to be an obstacle. When the G-train didn’t return for blueberries after (I swear it was only) a couple of minutes, the alert was sounded. I headed out the garage and John raced out the front door (followed by various family members). G was found a half block away at the duck pond at the bottom of a very steep and muddy embankment. He shared our distress but for reasons entirely his own: “Gaba’s feet muddy!”

So there we stand, and there we stay. John has since installed a new back entry door (with deadbolt) and screen door (with deadbolt). The back gate is never not tied shut. So far so good. But this quote from G.K. Chesterton strikes a chord deeper than it did before: “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.”

Strapped down: the only time we know exactly where he is.

The Writing

“At the moment the writing is the one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because, when I pause at my work, I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing and I had not observed His coming. And this I think should be the cause of great joy, and to me it is.”

Thomas Merton, from his Journals


A few months back.

A few months back I was in an intense place, and I was very intensely inhabiting that place. Trying to keep myself from “falling to pieces,” as Jonah and I like to say. And let’s be clear: this had very little to do with Jonah or autism or the escape artist Gabriel Keats. But let me be clear: this had everything to do with Jonah and autism and Gabriel Keats. Not to mention our two dogs, my loving and stretched-too-thin husband, and a work-from-home job that consistently gets put off until tomorrow in the ruckus that is the family and home and life I’ve been given.

I’ve never been a fan of drugs or the industry that manufactures them. There’s a certain prejudice on my part, no doubt. The way I tend to see it (which is to say, the way I tend to see myself), if I’ve come to a place where drugs are necessary—be they antivirals or antibiotics or sleeping pills or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)—I had a hand in getting myself there. I have a habit of pushing past my own limitations. It’s a stubbornness. It’s pride. But.

We’re all dealt a particular hand, and there are chemicals involved. Mine have a tendency to be whacked out. My particular mix of hormones and sleep chemicals swing me to an emotional extreme—we’ll call it the dark side—a couple of times a month. [I’ll include a tangential Jonah quote here: “Where’s the dark side? It’s dark and you can’t see and you want to go home? When you walk, far away from your house, and the dark side gets in your head?”] My dark side means a tendency toward rage. An intense, deep and sloggy sadness that I feel may never end (though it seldom lasts more than a day or two). I cry easily anyway, but during these times the crying won’t stop. To put it in the simplest of terms: I feel mentally ill. No, I am mentally ill.

It’s a paradox I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around, though I’ve inhabited (there’s that word again) it for more than a decade. The fact that I slip in and out of this state, the fact that for most of the month I’m moderately well-adjusted and healthy and happy clouds my thinking on the matter. But I must concede that the word habitation has at its root habit, and this way of being definitely falls into a pattern. If I were able to bear it without habitually hurting the ones I love, that would be one thing. When I am not pressed by the needs of others, I can (usually) weather these storms. But not always. Just after John and I were married, he described these storms as “episodes” to a friend of ours, which is accurate. For me, the word episode brings to mind Sylvia Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to” [from “The Moon and the Yew Tree”].

Some habits are for making, more for breaking. Once I realized, quite acutely, the pain I was inflicting upon others as a result of my infirmity, once I saw how the pattern of my behavior was extending beyond just those few days and becoming a habit of being, I finally said okay, I’ll try the drug. Fluoxetine, specifically (which the drug industry, amusingly, markets as Serafem to PMDD sufferers—my very own druggie angel). The brand name is Prozac, which is the word I got hung up on. There are a host of drugs out there to treat depression and all manner of mental illness, but Prozac was one of the first and may be the most well known. Honestly, I just didn’t want to be one of those people. Which is to say, one of the weak ones. Remember me mentioning prejudice? Yeah.

I’m not looking for a pill to fix me, because I don’t believe it can. But I am looking for some help to live in this world. Something that helps me get to a place where I can honestly, steadfastly, do the hard work I need to do in myself. I was expending so much energy trying to maintain a measure of emotional equilibrium that I had little energy or focus left for my work or my marriage. G and J weren’t so much of an issue because they demand my attention. They got pretty much all I had left to give. They also received a good portion of my frustration and rage.

There have been some minimal side effects, but on the whole, my little angel has provided an astonishing degree of relief. The rage is all but gone. I haven’t wept uncontrollably for several months, though I do still cry. The hole I periodically felt myself trapped inside of is more of a stumbling block, less of a bottomless pit.

I was most afraid that the drug would blank me out, would soften too many edges. I like my edges. I like my emotions. I have grown accustomed to their intensity, to my intensity. That great deep sadness I contain within me has not disappeared. Though I don’t feel it as acutely or consciously, it surfaces in my dreams. A few nights ago I underwent (not sure how else to put it) the sadness as I slept.

Some might say the sadness is something to be eradicated. I think it’s something I need to bear. For the time being, a little blue pill is helping me do that. It (meaning the sadness and the little blue pill) teaches me things…like compassion. In some instances it’s restrained me from judging others (though I’ve a ways to go in that arena) so that I can continue to love my family the best I can and do the work I feel I’m called to do with as much attention as I’m able. Which is a decent definition for habitation: dwelling as I’m able with what I’m given.


© Christopher Walton


That’s what Jonah says. He sniffs you and then half-giggles, “You smell great-full.”

And that’s how I’ve been feeling lately, except I would probably spell it “grateful”, because I mean it in the gratus (Latin) sense. Funny thing about the word “grateful”—in particular, it’s formation in the English language. Most adjectives ending with the suffix “-ful” begin as nouns. Beauty (n) becomes beautiful (adj). Regret (n) becomes regretful. But the word grate (a now obsolete word that means pleasing, agreeable or thankful) is an adjective. When you add “-ful” you essentially are turning an adjective into an, uh, adjective. Who says you can’t have too much of a good thing?

According to the etymologist Earnest Weekley, grateful is a “most unusual formation,” a true anomaly. The Word Detective adds that the formation of the word grateful is “just more evidence that English (or any language) is a quirky, juryrigged patchwork, not a kit where the pieces fit neatly together, and even the most common words often have strange stories.”

I know I probably don’t need to say it, but this is a wonderful way to describe Jonah. He is his own strange patchwork of quirkiness. Take the way he’s started to periodically cup his hand over his nose to breathe in a few big whiffs. When asked why he does this, he responds, “It makes me feel comfortable.” This morning he could not talk about anything but Inspector Gadget (believe me, I tried to redirect the conversation a half dozen times). He insisted he wants to get into a car wreck (which was the catalyst that turned John Brown into Inspector Gadget) so that a doctor could “cut me open and take out all my guts and put in the steel so that I can be the real Inspector Gadget!” I tried to impress upon J the pain that this would involve, but he was undeterred. I even went as far to (try and) burst his bubble by saying that Inspector Gadget isn’t actually real. J thought about this for a moment, then roundly dismissed my blasphemous statement.

I read a handful of blogs by moms of autistic children (most of them are in the Blogroll column to the right). They remind me we’re not alone. They also teach me a good bit about Jonah, helping me understand his sometimes strange behavior. John and I concur that J’s currently inhabiting a kind of golden age. He’s curious, and almost completely unselfconscious. He’s often quite helpful. He’s hilarious and affectionate and daring. Maybe he’ll stay this way. Most likely he’ll change. Who can say? I try not to compare his difficulties with those of other autistics, but a little bit of juxtaposition can’t be helped. His struggles are not severe or terribly debilitating. That said, they are real, and I try not to discount them or chalk them up to simply bad behavior. Set J up next to a “typical” kid and the differences can be stark.

But the people who love him (and there are many) love him pretty much exactly the way he is and do their best to meet him there. May it always be.

Mother tongue

One of my favorite and my best things about Jonah is the way he uses language. He spoke hardly a word—maybe a “mama” here and a “dada” there—until he was nearly three and a half years old. And honestly, I didn’t mind.

He’d had what you might call a perpetually screaming (think pterodactyl shriek) infancy, which was progressively assuaged by the developmental of new motor skills. When he could sit up, short periods of relative calm ensued (until he fell over). When he could crawl he really had someplace to go, which meant a little more control of his body and his environment, which meant the cries usually came when he was overly tired or hungry or under-stimulated.

People talk a lot about the autistic tendency toward overstimulation and very little about those who experience the opposite. Jonah’s a seeker. Needs it, to a certain extent, to locate his position in space on this earth. He can also get a little high off of it, so rather than calming him down, the running or jumping or rolling or spinning just ramps him up. But really, who doesn’t like feeling a little high?

So when J was busy exploring his environment (learning to walk made our pterodactyl nearly extinct), he didn’t have much use or need or time for language. He could do simple signing for the basics—a little food, a little drink, a little please and thank you. Being on the go was the most important thing. At that point he had found a way to get what he needed. Okay, so he was perpetually bruised or scraped or goose-egged. And he did get stitches when he was two. O, and then there was that tooth he knocked half-way out a few months later. But besides that…

I should clarify here that Jonah was not devoid of language. He was devoid of intelligible language. Somewhere around two (two was a banner year), he began speaking a kind of fluent gibberish—though the word “gibberish” is misleading because while he wasn’t intelligible, his speech was not meaningless. He was telling a story; there was no mistaking it. Somewhere, on a tiny tape recorder in a box I’ve yet to unpack since we moved to Ohio, lives an archive of J’s very own mother tongue.

I admit I was curious as to what was going on in that brain of his. I always have been. But somehow, John and I were content to let him speak when it was his time, not ours. I’m grateful for this patience (ignorance?) on our part. Because when the words did come, they came swiftly, falling over each other, spilling out in a rush. We did a lot of interpreting the first year or two. Sometimes people were astounded at his vocabulary, sometimes they were confused by his tendency toward Yoda-speak. (Example: “My touch is ruined! So sick I am.”) I admit it’s strange to hear a four-year-old say, “When I am patient, I will be a man.” In a way, he just modified his original mother tongue so that the rest of us could understand.

One of the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM IV reads, “stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language.” J hits this one on the head. It’s not just the order in which he says things; it’s the way. I’ve never heard anyone talk the way he does, and I love it.

J’s definition of the woods: “You know what the woods are? When there’s lots of trees crowding the people so that the sun doesn’t cover their eyes.”

After I had umbilical hernia surgery and Jonah caught a glimpse of my incision he exclaimed, “You have a meat belly!”

Upon sniffing his dad: “You smell grateful.” (or is that really “great-full”?)

“My ‘fantastic’ is fun and joy and scream out loud!”

“I’m a hair artist am I.”

“My two brains were so angry with me when I got out of bed!”

There’s a dozen more I never wrote down. But I’ll end with his newest, proudest skill. He’s been working hard to master the /th/ sound. Until now, he’s always substituted /f/ for /th/. “Thank you” is “Fank you,” that sort of thing. He sticks out his tongue and very emphatically verbalizes the /th/—as in “THor, God of THunder.” Click HERE to hear and see for yourself.