I’m pretty sure my daughter’s friend thinks I’m whacky. But, maybe not. Maybe she gets me. More likely, she doesn’t think that at all because she’s not thinking about me.
The three of us are in the car. My daughter in the passenger seat; her friend in the back. I dare glance at the youngest of my two children. I take in her face, her features suspended between child and young woman. I note how her eyelashes nearly brush the inside lenses of her sunglasses.
She allows my gaze for a couple seconds before turning to me with a scalding, ‘What?” followed by a withering, “Why are you looking at me?” and finally, “Why are you talking about gorillas?”
I’m talking about gorillas, I tell her, because they’re interesting. Because we have things in common with gorillas; with other people and it pays to take notice sometimes. To think of things other than manicures and makeup and boys; switching to her dad’s house and lunches out with friends. (She’s right. I also spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about these same things.)
I’m talking about gorillas because her 13-year-old best friend in the backseat has a younger brother who is autistic and non-verbal. And I want to share a story I heard a couple evenings ago that I think she will appreciate.
As I deliver my preamble, I’m struck by how unpredictable and confusing entry-level teenagers can be. Interactions with them remind me of the time I found a raccoon in my front yard. I was surprised and happy to see this unexpected guest. How lovely and delightful! I remember thinking, “Surely this is some sort of mystical visit. Wait. Maybe it’s a dead relative come to visit in animal form!” I had to get closer.
I approached the darling in a non-threatening, sort of crouch walk, my hand outstretched in inter-species peace, repeating, ‘I won’t hurt you little fella, I won’t hurt you little fella.’
But come again, come again, Ranger Rick. I was now closer and could see he was neither darling nor did he come in peace. Turns out, he was rabid and ready to take off my face. So yeah, these two young ladies: often cute and sometimes terrifying.
Whatever, they can bite me. This is a teaching moment. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with an autistic sibling. (In my mind, I imagine our friend ping-pongs between bottom-less love and white-knuckle frustration, even resentment toward her brother. And her mother. And father.)
I tell the two of them about the story I heard as I sat beneath trees strung with lights. I was at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies listening to the summer’s final installation of Audio Under the Stars. Dogs and their owners, who I swear were all couples, lay on blankets and sat on chairs. Some of the couples were older but most were young, with hands that couldn’t keep to themselves.
The only other single person I could see sat nearby, on the kinder edge of the divot I found myself sitting in. She was a young, bespectacled woman with hyper-erect posture and a book. A young man soon joined her and goddammit, he had an accent. French.
‘That’s ok,’ I thought as I rearranged myself on the duvet I’d spread over the sinkhole. I had pasta salad, sparkly lights and Josh. (A chardonnay from Josh Cellars.)
The theme of the evening was “Wild.” Stories of wild animals, wild places, wild adventures. We all sat quietly, listening to the two acts of first-person narrated stories. Even the dogs behaved. You could spot the questionable ones though. Their owners were digging in pockets and picnic baskets, dispensing treats willy nilly like a parent with a baggie full of goldfish crackers at a wedding.
We listened. Some of the stories made us all laugh. And wince and grimace too, I know my face did. In between segments, our mass would rise each time in unison like zombies or Episcopalians in church on Sunday morning, enslaved to whatever beverage was in our plastic cups, bottles and cans.
In this last story, ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ a woman shared how she struggled most of her life trying not just to find her place in the world but survive in it.
She explained how she went undiagnosed with Asperger’s for close to 40 years. She couldn’t relate to people and during this time, spent nights in stairwells and on the streets. When humankind failed her, she went to the zoo and sat with the gorillas. It was there she found peace and belonging, a connection.
That’s what I wanted our friend in the backseat to know. That she wasn’t alone. That people do care. And yes, some people are ignorant. Like the kid who commented so cruelly on her Instagram post when she explained that it’s insensitive to use the word ‘autistic’ to infer that someone is dumb.
And when she tried to explain to her peers that, for some, death can seem like a good answer to the weight of life. That it’s not funny or #GOALS to say, ‘omg, i’m going to kill myself,’ when there’s a bad grade or bad hair day or difficult teacher or pain-in-the-ass parent.
I wanted her to know that there are others who understand. That even if she can’t see them, or doesn’t know them – and maybe never will – they’re out there and they care. That sometimes it’s gorillas and sometimes it’s your friend’s weird mom. I wanted her to know this so she could tell her brother that I wished our language worked with his.
I turned around to ask if she understood. She nodded and said, ‘Yes.’