No Longer Broken by Nico Laeser
As a contractor, I find myself at the mercy of many exterior elements. Seasonal weather shut- downs are rarely due to any concern for the workers, but are necessary when product installation cannot be guaranteed. A project can be shut down for the smallest change in weather; the change of a few degrees can ruin a paint job, crack caulking, warp or stress wood, change the bonding success of glue and the list goes on, and on. An economic storm can shut everything down completely, and for months at a time.
Months without work and talk of another recession have equally recognizable results on a marriage. I watched as small cracks formed under the added stress, and as our once strong bond began to weaken. When it was just the two of us, money was never a problem; all we had to do was love each other, and that was easy. When our daughter was born, everything changed.
We had agreed, during the pregnancy, that my wife would take leave from her employment to be a stay- at- home mom, and I would work. As a husband and father, it became my duty to bring home the money, and as a wife and mother, it became my wife’s duty to take care of the house and our little girl.
With the addition of a baby came added stress. When business suddenly dried up, so dissolved my ability to provide as a father— which meant that my wife could not fulfil her now most basic need; the need to protect her child. I spent two months looking for work to fill in the gap until my company finalized the big contract they’d been promising; the kind of big job that promises a couple of years of security, but that job always remains just around the corner, held up with the acquisition of endless permits, morphing the job into a dangling carrot for all those workers sitting at home. You have to believe in the carrot, or believe in it enough to convince your wife, but after a while, you realize that there is no carrot, the company just doesn’t want to lose its entire workforce before it lands a new contract.
Our savings were all but depleted, and money worries coloured every conversation. The most trivial conversations quickly turned sour and led to petty arguments that would last all night. It was never about money on the surface, but money was always the root cause. In my mind there was blame in my wife’s tone, and there was guilt in my own, which made me fight harder out of frustration.
What could, and should, have been quality time spent together as a family, devolved to bouts of tense silence, or loud snapping and jabbing matches. I would leave, take a walk to calm myself down. My wife would take extra time in the bathroom getting ready, washing the streaked eye makeup from her cheeks and starting all over again. I felt like a loser, a lazy dead- beat dad, a lousy let down of a husband and father. For a time it seemed that all that remained of our marriage was resentment; it was my failure, my fault, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. It was after another petty argument about nothing at all that my wife burst into tears and sobbed that she was pregnant again.
During the pregnancy, my wife’s family stepped in to offer financial support, and although the rational part of me was thankful, I still held a deep resentment over the fact that my wife had shared our problems and accepted their generosity. I had no say in my own resulting emasculation, and what could I have said? Don’t take their money, it makes me feel like less of a man? It was no longer about me, and very soon I would be another step lower in our family hierarchy.
At last, jobs began to trickle in, eventually growing steady again, and I took all the overtime I could, working thirteen or fourteen- hour days, six days a week. I begged for my wife’s family to let us pay back the money they had given to us, but they refused to appease my pride, and continued to offer support in anticipation of our family’s new arrival. My role as the provider was no longer threatened, but by no means secure; the job was set to last for at least a year, beyond that was anyone’s guess.
The ultrasound showed us what we hoped it would. Our baby was a boy. Soon, we would have the family we’d always talked about— the perfect nuclear family: Man and wife, a daughter and a son. All that was missing was the white picket fence and a dog. In the beginning, we always talked about the future, our family, about what we would do if we had two boys or two girls, if we’d try again. Back then, we never worried about money, we both worked and had fewer responsibilities; we were in love and wanted to be together forever.
The bond between a mother and child is way greater than that of a father and child or husband and wife. While I was getting to know this strange new addition to our family, my wife was continuing a relationship that started over nine months before he was born. They felt each other’s movements no matter how subtle. They shared the same space, food, oxygen, chemicals and emotions. It was not love at first sight for me; I had to get to know both of our children after they were born. I hadn’t carried them around or shared any intimacy with them prior to birth, and hadn’t thought about the future, beyond the practical aspects of how we would pay for our expanding family, and how much overtime I would have to put in to ensure that we wouldn’t end up in the same financial freeze during the slow- work months of winter. I don’t mean to sound cold, but I’ve always chosen logic over emotion, actually it was never a conscious choice, but more the way I’m wired. I grew to love my children.
Once my daughter’s personality started to shine through, I fell completely in love, and expected that the same would be true for my son. Our little girl was always ahead of the curve. She walked early, talked early, hit or surpassed every check- point on my wife’s developmental calendar. She was so far ahead that it became cause for a great deal of jealousy among our friends with children around the same age, and I revelled in it. I felt a swell of pride over the fact that my little girl was gifted. By the time our son was born, our daughter could count as high as her attention allowed, recite the alphabet, had an amazing vocabulary and used it to question everything.
Our pride over our daughter’s development, and our attention to those developmental check- points made us watch eagerly as our son progressed. He too, stood early, walked early, and his speech was incredible. He spoke right away in complete sentences – all lines from his favourite TV shows. His facility to memorize whole scenes and recite them back word- for- word was staggering. Our son was to be a genius.
Beyond the first year of our son’s life, my wife started pointing out not only how many check- points he was hitting or surpassing, but how many he was missing completely. She told me that, while shopping for a birthday gift for one of our friend’s kids, our son had shown no interest in any of the toys in the store. She pointed out a fire truck, but he didn’t respond. She pushed the try-me button to set off the siren and still got no response, and she continued to push every try-me button on all the fire trucks in the aisle to get his attention, but he remained still, staring straight ahead as though oblivious to the sights and sounds. When she told me about it, I thought it pretty trivial and said that maybe he just didn’t like fire trucks, but that had not been the point. My son’s personality was not coming through. He showed no interest in toys, wouldn’t look up when called, or respond to his name. His speech continued as lengthy scripting from television shows, with no original language other than the word ‘mom.’ He used the memorized phrases or songs to communicate his needs, but wouldn’t answer a question with a simple yes or no.
I kept denying any problems, in spite of my wife’s pleas for me to take her concerns seriously. My wife knew that something was wrong, and deep down in the pit of my stomach I knew that she was right, but refused to admit it to myself, let alone to her. As my wife pointed out various behaviours that had become cause for her concern, I began to see them all the time. Red flags were popping up every day, and the pride I once felt for my boy genius quickly turned to an anxious dread of what could possibly be wrong with him.
We were offered brief reprieve when the paediatrician said that he was perhaps a late developer, and that some kids just develop slower than others, but a sideways glance at my wife’s expression on the drive home let me know that she wasn’t convinced, and my own hope dissolved.
My son began to flap his hands like a bird, and I found it cute at first. I would ask him, “Are you a bird?” My wife saw this behaviour as a flag. He would spin in circles with his eyes pinned to one side; I reasoned that all kids spin in circles, they get dizzy, they fall down, that’s just what kids do, but to my wife it was another red flag.
I tried to convince my wife that his language was improving all the time, referencing full conversations that I’d had earlier in the day with my son, but she would repeat his responses back to me word- for- word and tell me what television show they had come from. I followed my wife, reluctantly, into acceptance, and relented to follow her instincts as a mother.
After several months of examinations and tests, and relentless effort on my wife’s part to have them examine the possibility that had become a certainty in her heart and mind, we got our answer, and my wife got the confirmation that she was dreading.
Statistically, nine out of ten marriages fail within a year of a dependant receiving an Autism diagnosis. Over the phone, they suggested for us to consider marriage counselling to help us through it. Our odds of surviving as a family had dropped below one in ten. It seemed like we were already well above the load capacity for the glass floor that supported our family, and the cracks were now spreading under our feet.
My wife cried for weeks, not anywhere that she would be seen, but the proof was in her once beautiful blue eyes, which both of our kids had inherited, and which were now always glassy, pale and framed with varying shades of red. She worked tirelessly to secure funding, to register him into programs, to find therapists and a behavioural interventionist. Everything that she did was focused on giving our son the best chance of a normal future. While my wife moved forward, planning our new lives around improving our son’s life, I became lost in unnecessary endeavours, scouring the internet for the causes of autism, trying desperately to find a target for my anger, and someone or something to blame. There are so many theories about what causes autism. They include everything from vaccines, to food allergies, to electrical pollution, but mostly what my research came back to, over and over again, was genetics. The long- standing view and general consensus is that, genetically, autism comes from the man’s side; my son had been diagnosed with autism, and it was my fault. I was the cause. I was to blame.
In retrospect, I know how much work my wife put in on the phone and in consultations, but at the time I was oblivious. I was too busy blaming myself to stand back and look at the bigger picture; to quit looking at myself and pay attention to those who needed me.
In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, my wife had me take our son for nightly walks around the townhouse complex. One of her biggest fears was that our son would run out in front of a car, or just run and never stop; he was a flight risk, a ‘bolter.’ He seemingly gave no thought to his personal safety, and wouldn’t come when called, so I would take him out for a walk each night to burn off some of the energy that made him ‘stim’ and to train him to walk beside us. It also gave my wife a thirty or forty minute break from both our son, and my temper.
One Wednesday, I returned home from work to my wife in tears. Wednesday was the day that the landscapers came to mow the yards and common areas, blow and collect fallen leaves, trim lawn edges, and all the other tasks involved in maintaining the grounds. My son had spent the whole day in melt- down mode, devastated by the sound of the lawn mowers, leaf blowers, trimmers and trucks, and nothing my wife could do would calm him down. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, but for some reason, on this particular Wednesday, our son had refused to wear his ear defenders, and had dealt with the sensory overload by spinning, flapping, screaming and crying non- stop for the entire time.
I put on his shoes, his weighted backpack, complete with attached leash, and we left for our nightly walk. I can’t count how many contemptuous side- glances the leash had earned in the short time we’d used it, but it was no more than the looks garnered in public from his odd or loud behaviour.
The landscaper’s impact on his day hadn’t ended with their departure. In the wake of their hasty egress, several gates had been left open. This was a major change in our routine, and a major upset to my son. At the first open gate, he began to spin and flap his hands, and every time I called his name he yelped like an injured hound. After a few dirty looks from passing dog- walkers, I let frustration get the better of me, took my son by the hand and dragged him away from the gate. Within a few steps, he went limp and I scooped him up under my arm and carried him away.
I set him down when the gate was out of sight and asked if he wanted to try again, and he relented to walk by my side, all the way until the next open gate. He began the cycle again, spinning in circles, yelping when I called him, and I cursed under my breath, perhaps at the landscapers, or maybe just at the situation. I didn’t know what to do. I thought that maybe if I just let him get it out of his system that he would get over it, get past it, and we could carry on with our walk. I sat on the grass by the side of the road and waited. I called his name. He yelped, spun, and flapped. I called him again, and noticed that his response was exactly the same, the same yelp, the same number of spins, and the same number of flaps. It looked like a response to some programming error, on a seemingly endless loop.
As I stared at my son, he didn’t look like a boy misbehaving, being silly or difficult. He looked like a boy trapped in a sequence beyond his control. I broke down into tears as I watched him wind down. When he finished, he came back to me and curled up on my lap like a baby. We cried together for longer than I’d care to admit, and then my son began to sing a song from one of his shows.
“It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. Little by little, you’ll feel better again.”
I held my son tightly, and sobbed my apology. I had spent so much time dwelling on the insignificant details of money, cause, and blame that I had failed to see what really mattered. My son didn’t need to be avenged. What he needed was my love and support, and so did the rest of my family, just as I needed theirs.
My son has continued to improve in his language and comprehension, and is every bit as loving as our daughter. Some children diagnosed with autism will never say I love you, will never show emotion, and my heart goes out to the parents of those children. My son does say I love you, and when he does, it is honest, complete, and with no ulterior motive. It is that unconditional love that he brought back into our house that kept our family together. He taught us to love one another again, without money or relatively insignificant problems working their way between us.
I realize now that my son was not broken, and there was nothing wrong with him. He was the angel, sent to fix our broken marriage, and to fix what was broken inside me. I am thankful for the lessons my son has taught me. Of the things I have learned, there is this: A house that has enough love will never be poor, because love is the only currency needed to pay for a family. I am grateful to my son, for I no longer feel broken.