Random Acts of Sunflowering
By: Jamie Pacton
It wasn’t so much what Eliot’s pediatrician said, as how he said it. And the look of worry, pain, and concern that crossed his face before he began. And the way he silently touched Adam’s shoulder as he left the room.
He didn’t look at us.
I don’t think he could.
This is the pediatrician who’s seen Liam through many, many ear infections, well-child visits, and struggled find some way to help us understand Liam’s autism. I could almost hear him thinking as he drew out the arches and valleys of systolic and diastolic heart rhythms on his small notepad: How do I tell these parents that something might be wrong with their perfect second child? How can I burden them when they have so much already?
This is the same doctor who told me two days ago, during an ear infection check for Liam: “You are exactly the parents that Liam needed to have…”
(When I told Adam that later, he replied: “That’s like telling gladiators they’re doing a good job…”)
This pediatrician is kind, jovial, and knows his medicine, but he can never give me answers about Liam. He usually just offers a sympathetic gaze.
And so, as he drew, Adam and I waited, sitting right next to each other, knees touching like they did in that psychologist’s office when we got Liam’s autism diagnosis two years ago.
Both of us knew something was off (although Eliot had no idea as he played happily on the floor nearby), and I swear our hearts raced along the same speedway. Our systolic peaks and diastolic valleys were Himalayan as we waited.
You see it had already been an emotional morning. A few hours before, I’d signed a form detailing Liam’s transfer to the K-4 class at his school. It began with a sentence that always breaks my heart: “Liam has severe ASD…”
And so my heart was heavy already and a thousand, thousand grim possibilities raced through my head as I waited for news of Eliot. I remembered my plea to the universe in my blog post, “Second Son.”
The news about Eliot wasn’t all that bad, but it still punched me in my unsuspecting gut, hurting my heart in the way that only medical news about a child you adore can. A happy, talkative child who seems well in every way.
“So, when I listen to Eliot’s heart,” said the doctor slowly, “I hear a small murmur. It’s just a lub-dub-slosh sound, and it is probably nothing to worry about. But, since I know your brother, Jamie, had holes in his heart and open-heart surgery in his twenties, I think we should get it checked out. Just to be sure everything is fine with Eliot’s heart.”
Ok. Ok. Ok. We can handle a little cardiac consult. No problem.
What Adam and I couldn’t handle was the chasm that opened up at our feet just then because all-at-once it made Eliot’s continued existence and presence in our lives vaguely tenuous. With so much being unsteady and challenging about Liam, Eliot is a constant source of joy, peace, and laughter in our home. Life without him is literally unthinkable.
“Push it down,” Adam said to me as we drove away from the pediatrician’s office. Tears rolled down his cheeks from behind his Ray Bans. “Prepare your face to meet the faces you will meet.”
I nodded, snotty, and digging for strength from that place in myself that I didn’t know existed before I had children. I was calm-ish by the time we walked into Liam’s classroom.
We picked up Liam (who was screaming in the bathroom when I got there, but who had a good day at school overall) and went to get some groceries at Trader Joe’s. Adam and the boys stayed in our van while I filled a grocery cart to the brim. I’m not really an emotional eater, but I think I might be an emotional grocery shopper.
As one TJ’s employee scanned my groceries, another one, a cheerful round guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt asked me: “How’s your day going?”
“Pretty shitty actually,” I blurted out, unable to manage a bland “fine.”
He looked worried as well. Then, as I was leaving, he handed me a huge bouquet of sunflowers. “For you, so your day gets brighter.”
I smiled. I cried a bit right there in line. Still smiling, I took the flowers and my groceries back to the van. As we drove home, I thought about this day and this random act of sunflowering.
So, maybe the thing here is not to say: “Wow, things are tough with Liam and might get bad with Eliot. We’re just so tired and our reserves are always running low. I’m not sure if we can do this. This sucks. Why us?”
Maybe the life wake-up call here is to be grateful (something that my friend Kate Di Camillo reminds me of often)—grateful that a stranger gave me sunflowers. Grateful that Liam is in a wonderful, inclusive school and working with an ABA team that helps him in every way they can. Grateful that Eliot only has a small heart murmur that might not be anything really. Grateful that I can pay for an overflowing basket of groceries and that I have a home to take them back to. Grateful that the man I love can cry and that he will sit next to me through every punch-in-the-gut-from-life. Grateful that my children are happily watching movies in the next room as I type this. Grateful to be able to put this into words and share it with you.
Grateful that Eliot just put his hands on my cheeks and said: “I will cheer you up Mama! Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!”
Yep. I think that’s where I’m at now. Grateful.
Random acts of sunflowering. Pass it on.
About the Author
Jamie Pacton lives, teaches, and writes near the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. She’s a Columnist and Contributing Editor at the Autism and Aspergers Digest and her work has appeared in The Writer, Cricket, Parents, and many other publications. When she’s not grading papers or at her computer working on her YA novel, she’s usually at the zoo, park, pool, or art museum with her two young sons (one of whom has autism, and both of whom are magnificent). You can learn more about Jamie at her blog, www.jamiepacton.com.