New Jersey (October 2012)
November 7, 2012. As temperatures fall in the mid-Hudson Valley, as late autumn breezes cajole the last stubborn leaf from its perch, I have much upon which to reflect. Superstorm Sandy somehow missed us, the conspiring, unrelenting forces of wind, rain, colliding weather fronts, and warming oceans bypassing our town with an unexpected wink of the eye. I’ve never understood why some are spared while others suffer, God’s role, if any, in the drama of our lives remaining impossibly muddled, at least to me. Another Nor’easter is on its way, though this one is predicted to bring snow, not rain, and I pray it spares the northeast from further devastation. My friend in hospice lost her battle to cancer last week, her last days racked with pain that even the strongest opiates failed to quell. I felt relief when I heard the news because no good ever comes from that brand of agony. This woman led a just and purposeful life, yet there was nothing fair about the way she suffered. Peter, whose capacity for compassion seems almost divinely instilled, also has been barraged with an unfair, overwhelming array of assaults that rob him daily of both faculty and opportunity. These kinds of juxtapositions are impossible to align yet we’re tasked with making sense of them throughout the entirety of our lives. The weekend before last, Peter’s impulses, which can be dangerous at times, prevailed over his increasing ability to control them. Though it’s tempting to blame what became a disastrous weekend on the storm barreling toward our region – along with the preceding uncertainty, stress, and change in routine, it wouldn’t be true. Peter was completely unaware of the storm until Sunday night and even then showed little appreciation for the danger it presented. But both mornings he woke up sullen and grumpy, a fail-safe forecast of how the rest of the day will unfold. On days like these he drags his feet, hunches his shoulders, whines when he walks, and pulls at his hair and glasses in response to even the most mundane request, such as to get dressed or use the toilet. The simple truth is that he labors more heavily on some days than others. The Saturday before last, I hears the unmistakable howl of an injured child and I ran outside to find Sophie trembling, her face pale as she clutched her wrist. She could barely speak but the horror in her eyes let me know that whatever happened was Peter’s doing. He threw a heavy, rock-hard plastic ball at her, with as much force as he could, from very close range. At first I was afraid her wrist was broken but after a half hour of ice and a dose of Motrin, she quieted down. Our neighbor, who is a nurse, stopped by and felt that it was a deep bruise, not a fracture. It turns out she was correct. Peter could not explain his behavior other than to say she had been bothering him. The next day, he continued his out-of-character actions by laughing hysterically while he kicked a boy who had fallen on the ground. By all accounts, this attack, which took place during his best friend’s birthday party, was unprovoked. It turns out that Peter didn’t even know this child. It’s a good thing the father was nearby because the boy he went after was twice his size and apparently ready to beat the crap out of him. And honestly, who could blame him? The father called us, thankfully, and asked that we pick Peter up immediately. I don’t know what triggered these episodes. On the way home from the party, Peter began hitting himself and pulling his hair. He screamed that he wanted to kill himself. He was embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated and perhaps most of all, confused. I’ve learned a trick or two over the course of the last eight years and was able to get him calmed down before he did any further damage to himself or anyone else. By the next day he was more or less back to normal, the incidents forgotten. He went back to school Tuesday night after the storm had moved out and we brought him home again last Friday. The next day, Peter and I were sharing a few quiet moments in our bedroom before Pat and I needed to leave for my friend’s funeral. As he watched me put on my jewelry and comb my hair, Peter told me that he was sad I had lost my friend. I assured him that I was too; but I also tried explaining that it needed to happen. She was not going to get any better and she was in pain. I told him that I was relieved that her suffering was over and that she was now with God. Almost instantly, his eyes filled and he began to sob. My son, the boy who attacked his sister and a stranger only days before, without explanation, was overcome with grief and sympathy. “I didn’t know she was in pain,” he cried. My beautiful, beautiful boy. Until then it hadn’t occurred to him that dying could be painful and that my friend may have suffered. I don’t spend much time anymore imagining what Peter would be like had he been conceived and born under different circumstances – I realized some time ago that it’s the wrong question to frame, but I couldn’t help it just then. Why this child, with astonishing ability to empathize and an emotional intelligence that is blooming with increasing depth and richness, has to endure these deficits, deficits that could have, should have been prevented, is impossible to understand. As I prepared to honor my friend’s memory that afternoon, I made a little extra room in my heart and mourned for Peter’s loss as well. For his damaged brain, for his neurological outbursts that cause him to act in ways that he can’t explain and for which he’s ashamed, and most of all, for appreciating that he now and forever understands that even the last moments of our lives can be – and often are, filled with struggle and pain.