Artwork by Meyshe, created at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, CA. appeared first on https://www.kalw.org/show/crosscurrents/2015-05-06/creative-growth-art-center-gives-artists-with-disabilities-a-place-to-shine
“Will I be a good father?” He was ten. He hadn’t even been correctly diagnosed yet. There was something wrong. Or at least there was something that wasn’t right.
“Will I be a good father?”
What boy contemplates that at thirty let alone ten? What men who are already fathers several times over contemplate it? When they are fruitful, they go forth and they multiply. But there is more to being a father than viable sperm, an ovum, a nine-month incubator, a live birth, and sticking around. Meyshe wasn’t just asking about being a father though. He was asking if he’d be a good father, and there is more to being a good father than love, kindness, and devotion. You must be able to get along in this world, the world the normal people own and operate. Even he says he can’t. He said, “I am too honest and pure of heart and there are people out there who wouldn’t blink to take advantage of me.”
“Will I be a good father?”
How can a heart soar and sink at the same time?
It’s the same for me when he hears about injustice or suffering anywhere on the planet and has to hold his heart in his chest because it aches and might try to escape. He cannot compartmentalize, not like the rest of us hardened criminals.
“Yes, that war is a terrible thing—so many lives lost, so many refugees, so senseless. But I’m behind schedule.”
It’s not that we criminals don’t feel it. We do, but we must continue and keep continuing. We must guard ourselves. Allow your heart deeply inside the world’s unending sorrows, and you may never retrieve it. You will be like my son, in a constant state of awakening and mourning. He’ll return to the subject all day, tormenting himself, asking me in disbelief what it is about this worldly existence that such things can happen. All day, he’ll be grieving and outraged. How do I answer him?
He may not see it, but in his disbelief is the strength of his purity and innocence. He believes that there is a balance that exists in an abstraction of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, that the natural balance of our world and what we can see of the universe is good, is right, is just. So when he reads reports of suffering, tragedy, cruelty, this balance is being violated. The center of existence is flying apart.
How did I raise this extraordinary creature? I’ve been congratulated on having done such a wonderful job as the mother of an autistic child, as if Meyshe’s character is something I formed. I am evidently Rabbi Loew of Prague’s modern-day protégé. I have sculpted a son, anointed him with autism, inscribed into his heart my favored version of character, and when I was fully satisfied, I breathed life into him. He is, therefore, what is good according to me. But I think he was born this way, and if I have had a part in it, it is that I allowed him to keep himself. If Meyshe weren’t autistic, this kind of rampant empathy, the uncontainable compassion and unguarded innocence would bring down edgy criticism on my marvelous job as a mother.
“How could you have encouraged this naiveté? He’ll never be able to survive in the real world!”
What would I answer to that? What was the alternative?
A neuro-normal Meyshe would be expected to have savvy, malleable morality, elastic principles. And like the rest of the neuro-normals, he would be skilled at compartmentalization of his beliefs and his behavior—endless gradations of right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair. He would have learned to mete out his empathy and compassion. He could have his principles but, along with all the neuro-normals, be aware that everyone else, like him, is also carrying a concealed weapon.
He is thirty-five now, and he still talks about being a father, but now of course he talks about the mother of his children. He is pining for some other extremely fortunate person to love far more than he is pining to be loved. Where is his beshert who will accept his love and be grateful for it? What do I tell him?
A lid for every pot, they say. Oh, I see that all around me! I’ve been caught in the radius of destruction emanating from the nasty explosion of a great variety of dangerous pots, and every one of those pots had somehow found itself a lid. Merciless social predators, toxic narcissists, unscrupulous ratfinks marry, have children, and often pass on the damage to the next generation. Where do they find their partners whose love is freely given?
“Why is it that you want to have children?” I waited while he contemplated his answer.
“One would be enough. There are already too many people in the world. If I wanted more, I would adopt.”
“Then why do you want one child?”
“To impart my values. I want to love someone who will be here for a long time.”
“Yes. And for you. You’d be a wonderful grandmother.”
I told him not to have children for me. “Of course I’d make a wonderful grandma, but the world will be fine without my genes being passed on to a new generation.”
“I want to see who my child turns out to be.”
“Yes. But more. I can’t find the words.”
So he had no expectations of what this son or daughter should be, which elevated his considerations above the “pride of ownership” folly. He likely would be a good father. But that’s an abstraction.
I asked him whether he thought he would find it harder or easier to be a good father to a neuro-normal child as opposed to an autistic one. He hadn’t thought about it. Whatever his child was going to be didn’t seem to matter to him.
Certainly a neuro-normal child would present fewer challenges dealing with the rest of the world, while an autistic son or daughter would guarantee having to wrestle with the bureaucracy (make that plural), and if there is any endeavor where you need malleable principles more than that, I dread knowing what it is.
Consider that these bureaucracies will have conflicts with each other, that their rules, requirements, forms, deadlines, restrictions, qualifying criteria will sometimes be mutually exclusive and that what is advantageous to tell one agency must be lied about to another. This means that my purely decent, honest son would have to practice elastic principles. On the other hand, Meyshe would be uniquely suited to understand a son or daughter on the spectrum. Imagine having a parent who really understood you, who has lived in your world.
Then there are the heartbreaking realities he would have to deal with being the father of a neuro-normal child. Children, after they are socialized, have friends to compare families with and are immersed in the world that the normal people own. They can be cruel and unforgiving. A neuro-normal child will not understand Meyshe’s compulsion to pace, his vocalizations, the moaning, the hopping, that when he is excited he has to crouch down suddenly, hug himself tightly, and shiver. They will be intolerant, at best, of the idiosyncratic spectrum behaviors and will not be patient at all with his language processing problems. Who would tell him all that? How cruel is your honesty?
So believe me, it is quite possible for the heart to soar and sink simultaneously.
After we’d finished our Friday shopping expedition at the Berkeley Bowl, I hit the freeway back to this island of grinning normality. Meyshe had picked up a copy of YES magazine. He turned a page and was reading quietly, then said something I found distressing.
There goes the rest of my day.
“What’s the matter?”
“This says that in a survey of a thousand women who were shown a photograph of a man with a cat as opposed to a man without one, the percentage of women who would be interested in pursuing a long-term relationship with him was minus 2.2 %.”
“And?…” I urged.
“That’s another strike against me,” he sighed. “No woman will ever be interested in me or my seed.”
He’s read this kind of statistical buffoonery before. Women don’t want a man who isn’t independent and lives with his mother. Women don’t want to date a man who doesn’t have a steady job. Women don’t want a man who doesn’t have a six-pack, who cries, who likes foreign films, who reads books, who doesn’t drive, who has an Apple computer not a PC, who uses the verbs “lie” and “lay” correctly, who’s an intellectual, who plays the viola, who’s a virgin, who tucks in his shirt instead of leaving it out, who wears glasses, who doesn’t wear glasses, whose last name begins with a Q, S, V, or W, who pees sitting down, who hasn’t been to Europe, who doesn’t watch television, whose parents are divorced, still together, or one or both of them have died. Women aren’t interested in a man who’s reading YES magazine in the passenger seat while his mother is driving a gold 2006 Honda Odyssey back to their rented McMansion in Alameda, California, after having done the weekly shopping at the Berkeley Bowl.
“What was that percentage, Meyshe? I forget.”
He repeated, “Minus 2.2 %.”
That minus 2.2 % was the last straw. On top of being autistic and living with his mother, he loves cats. An additional lousy 2.2 % must be subtracted from the number of eligible women who would consider going out with Meyshe, marrying him, and having his children so he can find out if he’s a good father. Defeated. No one will ever want to go out with him.
He does realize the absurdity. He does. He is aware of what ails him and that it isn’t that fatal 2.2 % eligible female disinterest. He knows before I either remind him or decide not to remind him that he has never even blinked warmly at any eligible age-appropriate female, never asked a woman out or initiated a casual discussion about men who have their pictures taken with or without a cat nor whether she can tell by the taste of his hello that he is too honest, too pure-hearted, and too scared to approach her. The closest he has come is tipping his signature fedora, saying, “Good afternoon, madam.”
He asks me what he should do, what he should say to his theoretical future wife and mother of his children. When I was his age, what would I have wanted a man to say?
“You could confide in her that you don’t know what to say, what to do, how to say or do it, or anything at all about women in general and her specifically. But, Meyshe, wouldn’t it be a relief to know that at least in this one regard, you are no different from any neuro-normal?”
I might not be the best person to ask. My answer was no help at all, but I didn’t expect it would be. When I was his age, we met in person, by accident, flirted forever before a hint of approach, and it was always supposed to be the man who led the charge. Now there is online dating, where you prowl in private, and let the prowler beware.
We looked into JDate. He wanted her to be Jewish. Minus 2.2 % for a man afflicted with the cat-photo syndrome is nothing compared to that prerequisite.
“Should I say I’m autistic?” He looked to me for the right answer.
“I know you want to be honest, but no matter what you say at first, it’s not something you can conceal for long. So we’re really just talking about timing.”
Is not telling them right up front any different from the omissions in virtually every other profile?
Please turn to chapter two in your Philosophy of Moral Pragmatics workbook. Take the quiz on page 87. “Are lies of commission acceptable? Are lies of omission acceptable? What’s the difference? Give examples.”
Here is my son, too honest and pure of heart, brilliant, kind, compassionate, brave. But he cannot tie a bow, fumbles social interactions, has no employment with the promise of upward mobility. He lives with his mother, wears a stunning fedora, and would gladly have his picture taken with a cat. Who will survey those facts in an online dating profile and answer with anticipation? If he holds all that back in his profile, when should he declare himself?
“Hi. I’m not autistic until you know me better.”
A few years ago Meyshe announced that he was in love. I was surprised because he hadn’t spoken about anyone. Where did he find this woman? How did he meet her? What’s she like? Does she feel the same way?
He couldn’t answer any of my questions about this woman he said he was in love with. All he could tell me was that she was another artist at Creative Growth Art Center, where he goes three times a week to produce his astonishing artwork. He asked that the next time I dropped him off, I should park the car and come in with him. He’d introduce me to her. So I did. When we arrived, he was very excited. He took my hand, something he’d stopped doing ages ago, and led me on a search to find her.
“There she is!” He brought me over to stand in front of an African American woman, probably in her late fifties or older. She was obviously disabled, probably more than just cognitively. Her hair was graying, uncombed. She seemed totally unaware that she was Meyshe’s girlfriend. Her teeth were in bad shape; several prominent ones were missing. She either had vision problems or could not make eye contact. She may have been a lovely person. I had no idea because she didn’t communicate at all. She may have mumbled a word or two of inaudible nonsense. What bothered me most was that I could find no spark of life in her.
Meyshe didn’t succeed in introducing us, partially because he either didn’t know or had forgotten her name, and she didn’t know what was happening. She didn’t even seem to recognize Meyshe. I found the entire scene deeply disturbing.
At home when Meyshe and I spoke about it, he couldn’t answer any of my questions about who she was nor why he found her attractive. Maybe he didn’t. He was as disturbed and confused as I was. He never spoke of her again. I puzzled over what had gone on, what I’d witnessed. This was evidence of what? Was his judgment that impaired or was this some other mystery? Who on earth will watch over him when I’m gone?
I was sitting down to write about all this and had no more insight. So I asked him. He told me, “I thought she had a crush on me, so I asked her if she thought I was her boyfriend. She didn’t look up. She just kept drawing, but she said, ‘Yeah, you is.’”
“That’s what she felt. But you said you were in love. Were you?”
He said he wasn’t.
“Then why did you say you were?”
He told me he knew that no one else would ever love him. It would never happen. And there she was. She was the best he would ever find, so maybe he could convince himself that he loved her.
“If you had been with her, would you have been happy?”
He dropped his head to his chest. “I would have been miserable.”
These were answers but nothing I ever wanted to hear. “What about her, Meyshe? Doesn’t she deserve to be loved?”
“Oh no!” he realized. “I would have broken her heart.” He looked destroyed.
So who gets to be loved and who does not? Who gets to bestow their love upon others and whose love will be bestowed but rejected, ignored, or even gone unknown? Where does unclaimed love go if there is no one found to accept that love and be grateful for it?
Tobie Shapiro is a composer and cellist who has also worked as a visual artist, cartoonist, graphologist, and professional chef. She was a columnist for the East Bay Phoenix and has been published or is forthcoming in American Writer’s Review, Bluestem, Caveat Lector, Cobalt Review, DASH Literary Journal, Entropy, Kaleidoscope: Exploring the Experience of Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts, Santa Fe Writers Project, Songwriter Magazine, The Monthly, The Penmen Review, The Coachella Review, Potato Soup Journal, and in the anthologies Fire in the Hills: A Collective Remembrance (1992) and When We Turned Within: Reflections on COVID-19 (Volume 2) (2020). She has attended numerous writing conferences with The Opening and studied with Andy Couturier. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.