In honor of Mikaela Lynch, Drew Howell and Owen Black – and sent with love to the families who grieve the catastrophic loss of their angels. We are so, so incredibly sorry for your pain.
We are in this together.
It was June 13th, 2008.
This was what I wrote. (edited slightly)
She was trying to cook dinner for her children – her three-year old daughter and her five year-old severely autistic son.
“Not thirty seconds, Jess,” she said. “I didn’t turn away for thirty seconds.”
He was gone.
She ran to the neighbor’s yard. He loved their bubble machine.
He wasn’t there.
The neighbors rallied.
A frenzy of motion – “We’ll find him.”
She called 911.
“My son doesn’t speak. I can’t find him. Help me. Please, help me.”
They told her to stay in front of her house. He might come back.
She knew she couldn’t. He wouldn’t be coming back on his own. ‘I have my cell phone. I’m looking for him.’
Not long, but a lifetime. Just enough time for a thousand nightmares to come true.
A neighbor found him down on the street by the school. He was trying to find a car door that would open so that he could climb into the back seat and buckle up. He’d wait to go for a ride.
The neighbor guided him home.
The policeman said, “You need to watch him.”
I looked at my friend’s pleading eyes as she told me the story. The emotion was so raw. The anger was so palpable. The defeat was so fresh. Outrage, hurt, frustration, disbelief, anger poured from her being and onto the sidewalk between us like molten lava.
“How can he tell me to watch him?”
She looked like she would crawl out of her skin if she could. It was too much, being inside her body in that moment — sharing space with the pain and the fear and the guilt. It was just too much.
“24/7 I watch him,” she said. “All I DO is watch him. I had to FEED him. I was cooking for him.”
It was her neighbor, she told me, who gave a voice to the words in her head. “All she does is watch him!”
But those words will sting.
As parents, we all spend so much time blaming ourselves for one thing or another. As parents of children with autism, it becomes an obsession. It must have been something I did. Or something I didn’t do. Something I exposed him to, or didn’t. I wasn’t there enough. I was there too much. I nursed for too long. I didn’t nurse long enough. Every doctor’s questionnaire asks the questions. Was it you or your husband? What did you DO? Call it the ghost of Bettelheim or call it human nature. When things go “wrong” it’s in our DNA to find and place blame.
“I turned my head to the stove for less than thirty seconds to FEED him, ” she said again. “And he was gone.”
This is her reality. And the reality for so, so many. For kids like Jack and Rhema and Nik and so, so many others who don’t know boundaries and live with no sense of danger. For the families who do everything they can possibly think of to do to keep them safe, but who, sadly, are human. And yes, for families like mine.
This was NOT her fault. It was her nightmare. It is OUR nightmare.
It was what we spend all day every day trying to avoid.
But one thoughtless officer summed it all up with four careless words ‘You need to watch him.’
The neighbor came to her when it was over, she told me, and said, “We are with you. When you fly; we fly. We are in this together.”
As her story came to an end, I hugged her. It was all I could think to do. I felt powerless. Small.
I’m sure the officer meant no harm, but ignorance leaves a mark.
Educate. Sensitize. Let neighbors and friends and police officers and EMTs and firefighters and mailmen and everyone you encounter know what it means to care for a child with no understanding of boundaries or danger or fear. Make them understand that compassion can build a safety net but judgement will, just as quickly, destroy it.
It is up to all of us to protect our children and to support each other.
When she flies, we fly.
We are in this together.
In loving memory of Owen, Mikaela and Drew.
May they rest in peace.