I stumbled upon a parenting forum where a mother referred to her child as an "Aspie Kid." How darling, I thought. I love nicknames. I bet it’s for little ones suffering with asthma. It makes no sense of course, but Aspen was all that came to mind. No one is plagued with allergies in Aspen. Oh, I know, an Aspie kid is a spoiled brat who winters in Aspen. The locals call them Ass-pies. This is what my brain does. Then I continued to read, realizing Aspie was short for Asperger’s disorder, which made me feel like the ass-pie. But only for a second.
A Jew who tells Jew jokes. A black man who uses the N word. There’s an unwritten rule somewhere (with which many would disagree) that says it’s okay to joke about things about which you should never joke when it relates to you, when it’s happening to you, when it involves you or the ones you love. But when you do that, you validate and perpetuate stereotypes, you’re feeding a cancer, some would say. Oh how fond we can be of the cliche about laughter neutralizing a sting. At fat camp, we referred to ourselves as fattoes and bested one another with our "you’re so fat, when you sit on a rainbow, skittles come out" jokes.(Oooh,did someone say skittles? Where?) We were lame, but we were in it together, and the words never hurt because we knew they were always coming from a loving, not spiteful or judgmental, place.
When it’s your child suffering, you’re sensitive to what others say, what they don’t say, even to a pause or sigh. And your world becomes too quiet and polite. There are too many caring messages you don’t have the heart to return. The spaces around you become television shows on hospital TVs, with your small son on a white gurney, your sheets and pillow on the sofa beside him. And inside you feel quiet and wonder when it will stop, when things will go back to the way they were before, when you’ll get normal back. And you say normal because there is a normal, despite all the people putting air-quotes around it. And you worry what your new normal will become. And in all that heavy, you need to break the fuck out of there. To say shit like, "Great, now we’re gonna have a fucking helmet kid."
And as quick as we are to glom onto the safety of polite and politically correct, to charge upon any great offenders, we should be as quick to make a little room for humor when it’s done without ill-intent.
As I read through just a small part of the Aspie forum, it came back to me, that feeling you get when you scour message boards looking for answers. I remembered what it was like trying to diagnose my son. What it was like to think, "Wait, my child isn’t perfectly healthy?" I wasn’t just scared of what I didn’t know, of what wasn’t being said, of what they knew and didn’t yet. I was scared of my own thoughts, thoughts to this day I’d never repeat to another soul. I was so afraid and so wrecked, and in a way it feels like so long ago. And in another, it’s something I know will always be a part of me. We don’t get to choose what we remember, but I know I will always remember Lucas’s eyes the day he needed emergency brain surgery. I didn’t joke then, but I joked through the rest of it. I was inappropriate, which was appropriate.
In extraordinary circumstances, you can scream in a library or slap a doctor. You can eat everything or nothing. Can refuse to return calls, to lower the music, to sleep, or shower. You can live, at least for a while, as if you’re the child.
I almost forget sometimes that my son has a shunt in his head. I took him to the pediatrician the other day for his wellness exam. He wasn’t exactly well–with enough mucus slugging its way across his sweet face to make him worthy of the moniker "Mucus Lucas"–but he wasn’t unwell. He had a cold. A normal cold, with a few red dots here and there. And there. Oh, and there. Still, I wasn’t worried. When you become a mother and see enough things you don’t want to see you don’t sweat the small stuff. So he had a rash. Psshaa. Whatever. My Chicken Soup for the Neurotic Soul and I have been through way worse.
The doc manhandled the beans and told me Lucas had been behaving more like a Luke and had contracted some coxsackie virus. The first thing I thought: He got it from that tart in Music Together class didn’t he? "Let’s all click our sticks today" is just a song baby boy, not dating advice. Serves him right for sucking on her tambourine the way he did. I could joke because I’d worried once before, when Abigail got her own taste of "Cock sackies? Did you say?"
"Yes, it’s a virus, but basically it’s just a cold."
"Doctor, if it’s just a cold, then why’s it called…" She doesn’t even have a cock sac, for Pete’s sake! Okay, admittedly I was joking, as I haven’t been that particular brand of stupid since I was rendered idiot with pregnancy brain. Besides it’s fun to say "sac."
The fun continued when I learned coxsackie was really just a polite way of saying, "Your kid’s got the virus of a barnyard animal." Or as the doc put it, "You know, it’s commonly called hand, foot, and mouth disease." At which point, all I really heard was "disease," and then, without notice, all I could think of were the underside of hooves. First of horseshoes and then of a cloven hoof. My kid’s got Mountain Goat Disease. Phil is going to kill me.
Remarkably, during that first coxsackie scare, I was relaxed, so relaxed, I was almost inert. When the doctor said "hand" and followed it so closely with "foot," I must have scrambled the letters into hoof. That, or I was clearly confusing "hand, foot, and mouth disease" with "foot-and-mouth disease," which affects sheep, cattle, swine, and Manhattan men.*
"Not to worry," he’d said. I gave him the "who’s worried?" face, then sped home to google. So this time, when the doc shined a light on the roof of Lucas’s mouth to show me a few red dots, I fanned away his concern and let him know I was a pro at this mom stuff.
"Yeah," I said, "It’s just like last time. It was never on their hands or the soles of their feet, just here and there all willy nilly like it is now." And then we looked at each other for a moment. It took that long to realize I’d just said "willy nilly." I also realized how far I’d come. How far we’d all come, and it made me smile. "Besides," I added, "if this kid gets anything serious again, there’s gonna be a whole new meaning for cock sacky." Then he snorted, and Lucas laughed. It was a good day.
* "Wait, have I told you this story?" Clearly men who have to ask are dating (first dating, at that) way too many women and cannot keep their self-stories straight, making the foot in the mouth syndrome more of a disease. But more on that tomorrow…