In 1982, with a thorn in my heart and my three-year-old son by the hand, I was calling on our the pediatrician-psychiatrist: in defiance of everyone around me, who did not believe my worries were well-grounded, I wanted to find out why my child was acting so strangely, why he wasn't looking people in the eyes, why he refused to play with other children, why he was answering by repeating our questions, in short, WHY. The doctor examined him briefly, asked for some information, and asked bluntly: Have you got other children? I've got another son, two years old. Very well, he said, take care of the little one, for this one there's nothing more you can do, he's autistic. Naum is an autist and no longer a child. Unfortunately, he was born in Romania, at a time when almost nothing was known about his syndrome, and even less about possible therapies. Worse, in the 1980s, all the abnormal children were a disgrace for a faultless communist state like ours, hence not fit for publicizing. 1979. Naum is one year old and we celebrate his birthday. His unusual behavior has not been yet given an official name, and our expectations mingle with unvoiced fears. He doesn't manage to blow out the candle on his birthday cake, and gets even angrier as he is seated on a chair under which is a bottle of wine, and his godmother is drawing near to cut his lock of hair. He cries loudly, tears running down his cheeks. We rush to offer him the tray with the objects prepared for him to choose from. He suddenly falls silent, looks attentively, and picks the least shining object, a small watercolor brush. He takes it, gives it a long glance, and blows it forcefully, satisfied with the success. That is when I began to learn the taste of winning. He has turned five, and he goes with his brother to a nearby private kindergarten, the only one that accepted him. I realize the extraordinary progress he has been making since he has begun to come home either nervous or calm, depending on what his teacher offered him at the end of the classes – an apple or a lemon, drawn on cardboard. He understands that this is a kind of evaluation of his conduct. It is the evening we're awaiting Santa Claus. At kindergarten, Santa has already come. We sit on the carpet, by the Christmas tree adorned with golden apples, red candles and a big angel at the top, and we sing O, Christmas tree, O, Christmas tree / I wish I were as tall as thee, / Brave, beautiful and tall / Affording joy to one and all. Of all he had learnt at kindergarten, it was the only stanza he seemed to understand. Since then, the whole family has sung it at Christmas. When he is 5-6, we try to encourage him to draw, hoping that he will find an easier way of communicating than the few simple sentences he is using. He seems to prefer the paintbrush, so we give him a jar of red paint and leave him on the patio with the sheets. When we go back after a while, we find a sad little boy, painted on the wall, and Naum as sad, gazing at us through the eyes of the hammock. Only those who know the rhythm in which an autistic child develops can understand the joy he brought us then. He is at school now, in the same grade as his younger brother, who brings him home when he feels he is too agitated, and helps him with his homework every afternoon. There is always an older boy in the schoolyard who will badger Naum, the weird, frightened child. The younger brother comes home crying with the fury of helplessness: he wants to protect his brother, but he's afraid. Hard as I may find it, I explain to him that I will not get involved, and that we all have to get by according to our abilities. The next day, they both come home red in the face and sweating: I'm told that the younger one plucked up courage and jumped to Naum's defense. It wasn't even hard! The jerk freaked out! I'll never be scared again! That is to say, Naum made him courageous. It's winter and I'm out in the park with Naum to walk the little dog we've just taken in. She is still a pup and she's joyfully frisking in the snow, without knowing when to stop. She gets to the lake shore and in a jiff she's in the freezing water. A few passersby are fuming, who's the criminal who threw the pup into the water? I lean over the embankment to pull her out of the water, and amid the ruckus, I hear Naum's calm voice, proud to know how to read: Nasta, haven't you seen the sign: BATHING FORBIDDEN? If I think of Naum's life as a teenager and adult, I see that it's deprived of the flavor and small joys of childhood. But I also know that, if one day I am sad, the only one who notices is he, the autist disconnected from the real world. The moment I come through the door, he asks: Why are you upset today? And I know that, at least thus far, I feel immortal. God put me to a test which I have to see through.
Dilema veche 2-8 June and 4-10 August 2006

by Ioana Popescu