40: Trains and Angels

40: Trains and Angels

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

Trains and Angels

You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

~John Wooden

Zachary was four years old, obsessed with the world of Thomas the Tank Engine trains and disconnected from our world. When I heard about a place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that offered a life-size Thomas train, I knew it was a way to connect with Zachary. On the ride there, I kept telling myself it would be a memory to treasure.

It was late when we arrived at the hotel. Zachary did not like new surroundings or a break in routine. A million doubts raced through my mind, but I held onto hope. I prayed Zachary wouldn’t have a meltdown and get us kicked out. More than anything, I hoped this wasn’t a mistake.

To our relief, Zachary’s expressive brown eyes reflected wonder, the backpack chiming out its contents as he dragged it on the stairs. I inwardly cringed at the noise he was making, but decided his screams would be louder if I picked up the backpack.

Once we entered the room, Zachary pressed his palms against a wall, ran to the opposite side, and repeated the process several times.

I sat on the edge of the bed next to my husband, Joe.

“Jeannie . . .” He seemed deep in thought. “He’s so . . .”

“What are you thinking?” I whispered.

“How beautiful he is.”

On his next pass, Joe scooped him into his arms and carried him off to give him a bath. Zachary’s effervescent laughter filled the room . . . and my heart.

When I slipped pajamas over his chubby legs, I realized how I treasured such a simple action. He’d overcome his sensory-over-loaded-clothing-hatred. I inhaled his still-baby scent and relished the moment. With Zachary snuggled between us, we soon fell asleep.

At dawn, Zachary woke me playing with his trains — my body his track. It actually felt good. Until he reached my face. Train wheels are detrimental to eyes, so I gave up on sleeping. Zach pounced on Joe’s stomach, and woke him too. We were used to it. Zach never slept much. On a positive note, the sunrise was a sight to share. Then a toy train hit Joe in the back of the head.

“Do you still think our little guy is beautiful?” I asked through a fit of giggles.

Hope was our rope, and humor was the knot at the end of it. Still is.

We entered the Thomas the Tank amusement park, Zachary clutching our hands and lifting his feet to swing between us. Anyone looking at us would think we were a “normal” family. At that moment I felt that way. The other kids clamored around the costumed employees, but Zachary ignored them and bolted to a line of people — a long one, twisting like a snake, and making my stomach knot with trepidation. Zachary did not grasp the concept of waiting.

Thomas the Train arrived, steaming and in full-size glory. Zachary hopped on the balls of his feet, flapped his hands, and droned. Everything would be fine as long as we kept moving. We were almost to the steps of the engine. Three more passengers and we would be on. Perfect. An announcement blared over a loudspeaker.

“The train is full. Please wait patiently for the next round.”

I knelt in front of Zach. “The train will come back. Just like on the Thomas shows.”

He smiled at me. I thought he understood. Then the train left without us.

Zachary’s wail drowned out the train whistle, his agony misunderstood by anyone but Joe and I. I resorted to sign language, because at this point I knew words meant nothing. I assured him the train would come back for him. I promised everything would be okay, knowing in his world nothing was okay. When Zachary threw himself to the asphalt, Joe cradled him in his arms, protecting him. Our little boy thrashed, scratched, and keened like a wounded animal, but nothing compared to the utter sadness in his eyes.

My heart skittered into helplessness.

“I can help!”

Was I hearing voices? A red-haired woman bounded through the sea of frowning faces. “My son is autistic too.” She thrust a laminated card in my hand. “Show him this.”

Stunned, I did as she said.

His screams stopped so quickly, the murmurs from the crowd stilled. A breeze blew wisps of hair into his eyes, but he remained fixated on the four black letters on the yellow card. WAIT. Next to it, a stick figure sat in a chair . . . waiting.

I looked for the woman’s wings.

“I’m Lisa.”

I wanted to say, “You’re an angel.” I wanted to thank her for rescuing my son from his hell, yet I couldn’t compose a complete thought.

Her red curls bounced as she spoke. “They’re visual little guys, so this works great with our kids.” Angel Lisa touched my arm.

Our kids. My throat closed with emotion. Mere words couldn’t convey my gratitude and I felt adrift until I read the understanding in her eyes, bathing me in the light of hope.

All it took was an understanding angel to turn tragedy back into the adventure we sought for our son.

The train returned and I handed the card to Lisa as we boarded. “Keep it.” She sat her son next to her and dug into her bag. “Here’s a bunch more for you. It’s called picture exchange communication.” I felt she had given me a trainload of gold.

Our son’s face filled with wonder at the sound of the train whistle. The train chugged through the countryside, the moments of distress forgotten. It seemed a fitting place to be . . . on a train with my husband, our contented child, an angel, and a miracle.

On the ride home, Zachary clutched his backpack of trains in one hand and a WAIT card in the other. Over the years, he gradually gave up picture communication and spoke on his own. However, I will always treasure those yellow cards . . . and angels.

~Jean Marino

More stories from our partners