The family was on our way home from Maine. We’d wolfed down our very last lobster rolls at Captain Hook’s – our traditional first and last stop on the way in and out of town. I’d memorized the images of Brooke laughing in the pool, proving to myself that I hadn’t invented those perfect moments in my head. I’d sulked and brooded quietly. I’d in some way, shape or form snapped at everyone who dared to breathe in my general direction. I’d even asked poor Katie to please stop talking for a while and give Mama a little break. Yep, pretty much had it covered.
As we turned onto the highway, I looked back at Brooke in her seat. She hadn’t said a word or made so much as a stimmy vocal peep since we’d gotten into the car. She was but a phantom in the seat behind mine.
She was slumped over. Her arms were stretched forward toward her feet and she was staring vacantly ahead. There was something in her posture – a heaviness, a sadness – that I’d never seen before. She wasn’t tense, but she looked weighted down, almost as if she were melting into her seat, into herself. Seeeing her like that was just awful.
Out of nowhere, she very quietly announced that she needed a band-aid for a scrape on her knee. I sprung into action. ACTION! Something I could DO. I unbuckled my seat belt and climbed feverishly into the back seat with the girls. I would have used any excuse to get there eventually, but this one was terrifically convenient.
I rifled through the dop kit in the ‘way back’ and found our ever-present stash of Hello Kitty band-aids. I placed not one, but three of them on various scrapes and cuts on Brooke’s legs and then I settled into the back seat next to her, tucked between my girls.
Brooke resumed her original posture. I stroked her back lightly, gingerly. I didn’t trust my touch. Might it soothe or burn her skin? I had no idea.
She answered the question by jerking away, turtling further into the corner of her seat. I had no where to go. I leaned into her slowly. As quietly and softly as I possibly could I whispered, “I’m here, baby. Anything you need, Mama’s here. I love you so much. When you need something, you just tell me, OK?” She didn’t balk until, without thinking, I touched her hair.
“Don’t touchmepleaseMama!’ she spit out. She was tense, upset. “You would go there please!’ she said. Her voice was strained and anxious. She pointed an outstretched arm to the front of the car.
I kissed Katie on the head and climbed back into the front seat, thouroughly dejected. “I feel like an ugly drunk guy in a bar who can’t stop hitting on every pretty girl who walks in,” I told Luau. “I can’t take the constant rejection. She just keeps swatting me away.”
I fought back tears all the way to the New Hampshire border. Knowing, understanding, rationalizing, don’t always mean feeling. I KNEW what she needed. I UNDERSTOOD that she had been able to use the language to tell me. I FELT hurt.
Katie requested a pit stop. Luau pulled into the first one we saw. He and Brooke stayed in the car while Katie and I made our way in. When we came back to the car, I opened the door for her to let her in. Brooke looked exactly as she had when we left, but she looked over at me as I opened the door. “I love you, angel,” I said softly.
“Love you, Mom,” she responded in a whisper. I reached across the seat and laid my hand out on it, just a few inches from hers. She reached out with one little finger and touched my hand. “Baby?” I began – tentative, insecure.
“Yes, Mama,” she said – practiced, rote.
“Would you like me to come sit with you?”
Like the drunk in the bar, I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. But I saw something. An invitation in the little finger on my hand.
“Yes, Mama” came the quiet response.
I climbed in, feeling as though I’d just won the lottery, but with no idea of how to spend my winnings. I reached over Katie to close the door and nodded to Luau – ‘the troops are all set’.
I sat like the Tin Man between the girls. I was desperately afraid to touch Brooke. It’s second nature – reaching for my girls, stroking them, touching them, holding them. But I fought with every fiber of my being. I couldn’t take it again. I just couldn’t. So I sat with my right arm tight to my side, hand in my lap.
We rode that way for a while. Katie periodically showed me funny passages from her book and we shared a few odd moments of much needed comic relief. But I never lost sight of my parameters. The lines I wouldn’t cross.
And then suddenly, THWACK! The billiard balls collided with all the force of a tsunami.
Out of the clear blue, Brooke grabbed my arm as though her life depended on it. It was nearly violent in its sheer force. She’s tiny, but she almost knocked me over as she yanked my arm away from my body. She suddenly and quickly wrapped herself around my arm and tucked her head down into the crook of my shoulder.
I couldn’t breathe. I turned to her, still afraid to move, unsure of how to respond. She was looking RIGHT AT ME. Dead on, straight into my eyes with an intensity I just couldn’t place and would never dare to name.
The tears came and I was powerless to stop them. The dam had held for three days; it wasn’t going to hold for a moment longer.
Brooke’s expression didn’t change, but she looked at me even more intently than she had before I’d begun to cry. She took one little hand and put it all the way around my back. It snuck just under the top of my dress and settled on my back. She was cradling me. It was nearly too much – too sweet – to handle.
The strap of my dress had fallen off of my shoulder. I hadn’t noticed. With tiny little fingers, Brooke delicately picked it up and gently placed it back. I can’t possibly describe the tenderness of that moment. I will never have those words. The lightness of her touch was like an angel on my skin. She had never, ever done anything like that before. I don’t know if I knew that until that moment. Grateful, overwhelmed tears poured down my cheeks.
Katie looked over. “It’s OK, Mama,” she said, and she laid her head on my other arm. Even though I was crying in front of my children, I still wanted to freeze the moment in time – live in it, relish it, cherish it. I wanted to put it in a delicate porcelain box and keep it next to my bed. Brooke leaned forward and craned her head around to get a better look at my face. Her brow furrowed ever so slightly – a perfect approximation of her sister’s go-to expression.
She reached forward and took a child’s board book from the seat-back in front of her. She grabbed my face and turned it toward her. She ran the book along my cheek. “It would make the yucky go out of your eyes,” she said. It hurt like hell – a cardboard book dragged across a sunburned cheek – but it was the sweetest thing she’d ever done.
She looked unsatisfied. She tried a little finger right IN my eye instead, but that didn’t seem to do the job either. I sat in stunned silence, submitting completely to this doting little creature who was introducing herself to me.
She lifted Boots the Monkey out of her lap, where he’d been buckled in along with her. She used his ‘hair’ to dry my tears. I snapped out of my reverie long enough to help her dry my face. This finally did it. She seemed satisfied that the ‘yuckies’ were gone.
She sat back and squeezed my arm again. One little hand crept behind my back again and under my dress and her head settled back onto my shoulder.
Katie continued to read. Luau continued to drive. And Mama nearly drowned in gratitude.
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About the Author: Jess can be found on Twitter @diaryofamom and on her blog, Diary of a Mom where she writes about life with her husband Luau* and their beautiful daughters — eleven- year-old Katie*, an utterly fabulous typically a-typical rising sixth grader, and nine- year-old Brooke*, a loving, talented, hilarious rising fourth grader who has autism.
She also runs the Diary of a Mom Facebook page, a warm and supportive community of parents, friends, adults on the autism spectrum and some random people in her life who cared enough to hit ‘Like’ and probably now wonder what they got themselves into.
This piece first appeared on Jess’ blog and is reprinted here with permission.