33: The Red Shirt

33: The Red Shirt

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Red Shirt

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.

~Jacques Cousteau

Michelle had been my autistic son Josh’s therapist for five years when she suggested we take a family vacation and join her at her mother’s beach house for a week. Josh and his twin sister, Jordan, were seven at the time. I hesitated because I knew I’d be exhausted from watching Josh around the clock, but the guilt won and I agreed.

When my husband, Jeff, called me during the week I was grumpy and half-delirious from fatigue and stress. The beach house was crowded with visitors and Michelle’s friends were laid out in hallways, floors, and couches. It wasn’t a great environment for a low-functioning child with autism, but I felt obligated to spend “quality” time with my family.

Josh and I were fortunate to have our own room. The problem was that he refused to sleep. It didn’t matter that the radio and noise-makers were on. When he started jumping around and squealing at 5:00 a.m. I had to usher him out of the house so he wouldn’t wake anyone. We’d drive around the island searching for a twenty-four-hour market where we could kill time. When the sun rose we went back.

When Jeff arrived that Friday, things were better. Josh was a good swimmer and loved the ocean. He reminded me of my late father. He wasn’t afraid to smash into the waves and venture out into the deep. I was lukewarm about the water. That day I was especially aware of my environment. The strong riptide worried me, and I’d heard about a shark attack the day before at a nearby beach.

But all was well. We couldn’t get our gleeful son out of the ocean. Josh allowed me to sleep five hours that night. Saturday was okay, too. My husband couldn’t understand why I’d been so edgy on the phone. Sunday morning I dressed Josh in his favorite red shirt with the blue train. I waited to make breakfast because Jeff and I were discussing an impending medical trip.

While we were talking, Josh was out on the balcony in front of a sliding glass window. Jordan was watching cartoons and glancing at her brother through the glass. Michelle told me that Josh was very good about staying on the balcony. After about ten minutes I went downstairs to feed everyone. But when I went outside to get Josh he wasn’t there. I frantically searched the house and property but he had vanished.

We flew out the door and Jeff ran to the beach, which was about five minutes away and hard to find. I jumped in the van and started searching the narrow streets. At some point, I abandoned the van and ran to the ocean. The waves were thunderous, but the beach was tranquil and empty. I scanned both directions and saw nothing but my husband in the distance waving and pointing. All I could see was a towel. As I got closer to the water I could see it wasn’t a towel — it was Josh’s red shirt, lying in front of the waves. I ran along the water searching for a body. I saw a woman approaching and screamed, “Get a lifeguard, get a lifeguard, my son’s in the water! I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him!”

She said, “But there aren’t any lifeguards!”

I begged her. “Get a helicopter — please. I’ve killed him!” I kept running and in my nightmare I started thinking bizarrely. “I’ll have to plan my second funeral this year. A second funeral.” I’d just buried my father in the fall.

Jeff searched the other end of the beach and I kept sprinting. After about half a mile I noticed one family in the distance sitting under a striped umbrella. They had neon-colored beach balls, which no doubt attracted the tiny figure approaching them from the sea. Josh was obsessed with balloons. I ran like a mad woman and grabbed the shirtless child who was soaked head to toe. “Josh! I was worried about you! You’re okay! You’re okay!” I can’t remember what else I said. I just remember squeezing him and whispering how much I loved him. Josh couldn’t understand why I was so upset; he just wanted a balloon.

We found Jeff near a bridge. I’d never seen him cry before. He grabbed us hard and didn’t let go. It still hurts. We collapsed with relief over our near-loss. I grieved over my stupidity and irresponsibility. And even though I yelled at both Michelle and Jordan, I knew it was my fault for not protecting Josh, for ignoring my instincts.

We cut our vacation short and left that day. The car’s silence broke when the kids fell asleep. And then, the questions. How did he find his way to the beach? Why didn’t he drown? He was alone and under the water and the waves were huge, and there was that riptide!

Finally Jeff turned to me and asked me the fateful question, “If you had it to do all over again would you have our son?” I don’t remember what I said. If Jeff asked me today I wouldn’t hesitate saying yes, but those were the dark days. And even though Josh was an amazing child — sweet-spirited and beautiful — when the autism took over he was gut-wrenchingly difficult. I do remember discussing how deeply we loved him, and how we’d been tested that morning. My husband said, “We almost lost our son today.” Yes, but we needed the test; it sustained us during the times when Jeff and I and Josh were unlovable.

Three years later we returned to the scene of the crime for a celebration of life — Michelle’s wedding. We walked the long stretch of beach leading to the wedding site and Josh screamed the whole way. His behavior had improved so much over the years that I was saddened at the outburst. He now refused to swim anywhere but a pool. He clung to me as we trudged through the sand. Sometimes he would let go and run up to the dunes to distance himself from the water. We were in a hurry and I couldn’t soothe him. Finally we reached our destination, camera-laden and sweaty. As the drums began to beat and the bride started her glide down the sandy aisle, Josh calmed himself down, sat in one of the ribboned chairs and was quiet. After the couple expressed their love for each other and the ceremony was over, he got up and ran into the ocean. And we couldn’t get him out.

~Shelley Stolaroff Segal

More stories from our partners