91: The Poem in My Nightstand Drawer

91: The Poem in My Nightstand Drawer

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

The Poem in My Nightstand Drawer

Just like the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time.

~Deborah Chaskin

My husband of twenty years and I have two daughters, one of whom has autism. Parenting is hard if you are doing it right, no matter what kind of children you have. We simply refuse to give up. Our marriage has, at times, been held together by our secret fears of being responsible for the children alone. We’ve opted for sticking with the teamwork approach, despite our battered forces.

When Madison was a toddler, she had excruciating tantrums, night terrors, and everything in between. The tantrums were about nonsensical things, such as, “I want to go swimming, but I don’t want to get wet.” They were also about the tiniest details: a molecule of food on a shirt, the placement of common household items, the need to adhere strictly to routines. There was a cleansing ritual if her favorite stuffed animal made contact with the floor. The wind was a particular issue. If Madison saw a playground swing moved by the wind, or, worse yet, if the wind blew her skirt up against her legs, it would send her into a screaming fit as if she were being tortured.

When I think back on those days, I wonder how or why we ever left the house. But we did. I was sometimes accosted by misguided people from my parents’ generation who blamed our child’s behavior on my abysmal parenting skills. The unsolicited comments from those unfettered by age and poor manners really didn’t help matters at all. There were many days when I privately sobbed for lack of knowing what else to do.

There were few answers for us back then. I read voraciously. I filled up a 100-page composition notebook with notes from no less than twenty-three parenting books, often while nursing our newborn daughter or pumping breast milk. I even added a crisp Table of Contents in the front and page numbers throughout. Nothing seemed to help.

The summer Madison was six and her little sister was three, Madison was given a butterfly habitat for her birthday. We received the Painted Lady larvae through the mail and watched as the larvae devoured their food, grew and grew and grew, and eventually formed chrysalises. We were amazed when four healthy butterflies emerged dazed and crumpled from these cocoons, and instinctively beat their wings for the first time.

We enjoyed watching the butterflies for several days. I knew they would live only a short time, and that it would be too dramatic to watch them die in the mesh cylinder that was their home, having never known freedom. One August day I talked the girls into releasing them. I took the easy way out and lied. I told them that the butterflies would come back to visit us. I envisioned myself pointing out “our butterfly” to them every time we saw a Painted Lady. Madison seemed to go along with this, and she even helped me convince her little sister, over whom she had considerable influence, that this was the right thing to do.

The butterflies were not mentioned again until I found the following poem in Madison’s little flower-shaped spiral notebook that October:

Dear buterflys

when you lived in a cage I never wantid to let you go

enjoy liveing outside

I miss you

becous the werld is so long that you will go too far

love Madison

I’m ashamed to say I was astonished. Was this the same child who could have a forty-five-minute tantrum about which direction her juice cup was facing? This was our first indication that she was processing information other than some sensory detail like the fact that there was a wrinkle in her socks — that she was considering the perspectives of others, even if those “others” were just butterflies. The little poem proved that she had known all along that we would never see our butterflies again, and she also knew that her sister would not go along with my plan without her support. I gained respect for the intellectual gifts and compassion of a child who went along with my plan of liberating her brief pets, even though she could not go along with anything else.

We still have tough days, and Madison still argues about things that can’t be easily changed. Her obsessions have progressed from the minutia of everyday life to issues so fundamental that she shouldn’t be worrying about them at all, like her militant views on people who have large families, drink soda, or smoke cigarettes.

Autism has been an unexpected journey in our lives, a daily lesson that we cannot control everything. Yet, I live with a remarkable child who has taught me more than I’ve taught her. The day I found the butterfly poem, I learned that screaming, hysterical little girls are not always what they seem. And, I learned a universal fact: that people with autism are often having much more complex thoughts than they can easily express.

Are those brilliant pages from a flower-shaped spiral notebook laminated and tucked away in my nightstand drawer, to be used for inspiration during the tough days? You bet they are.

~Mary Roth

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