By Laura Shumaker
I met Tracy when I moved to the neighborhood five years ago. At the time, I had a lot going on. I was raising three boys, the oldest autistic, and was balancing their care with that of my mother, who was very ill. I was tired and emotionally drained. After Tracy and I traded introductions, she asked me the dreaded question.
“What do you do?”
I could tell by her manner that she didn’t really care what I did; she just wanted to tell me what she did.
I gestured feebly to my three boys jumping around on my front lawn, the eldest stuffing a worm down a drain with a devilish look on his face. Tracy cocked her head and crinkled her brow with a “you poor thing” expression.
Before I could reply with—home with kids, oldest autistic, mother sick, Tracy blurted out, “I’m a writer!”
She was beaming.
After a brief conversation—how many kids, how old, great neighborhood, love to go for a walk sometime—she skipped away, and I wondered, what does she write about? I might like to write, too. God knows I have great material, having been through years of daily adventures trudging through the maze of autism. Then my oldest son, Matthew, bolted impulsively towards the street, and I thought, ruefully, when would I write?
I had always enjoyed writing in a journal as a young girl, but by college had digressed to knocking out English papers between the hours of midnight and seven a.m. for my eight o’clock class. Writing had become a game, rather than a passion, and the IBM Selectric was stowed away in the hall closet after graduation. I was distracted by the excitement of life in San Francisco with friends, work, and romance, blissfully unaware of what struggles lay ahead.
Years later, when I relayed stories about Matthew, people would say, “You could write a book!” My father urged me to start a journal, and my husband agreed. But every day was a frantic mix of unexpected phone calls from school, neighbors and eventually law enforcement—all upset by Matthews’s disruptive, impulsive behavior. Damage control was my way of life, delivering flowers to his teacher after a tough day, a bottle of wine to the neighbor who had found Matthew in her yard, gleefully throwing basketballs and soccer balls into her swimming pool, and circulating brochures to police officers about autism to educate them that his strange behavior was not drug-related. In the midst of it all, I managed to make frequent visits to my beloved mother, and nurture, with the help of my supportive husband, my two other sons.
After my mother died, my father started writing—beautifully. He wrote about his happy childhood on the Monterey Peninsula in the thirties, the oldest of five, oblivious to the fact that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. He wrote about his family, a colorful bunch, and his friends—about Valentines Day in the third grade. He wrote about things he remembered and didn’t want to forget. In one story, he is six years old, and his daddy the fireman and forest ranger drives by in a shiny red fire truck, smiling and waving, siren blaring. My father’s pride jumped off the page and moved me to tears. Whenever I visited him in Carmel, he couldn’t wait for me to sit down in the white chair by the window and read his pieces. He studied my face as I read his stories, waiting for my reaction to the sentence he knew would make me laugh, and teared up when I lifted my eyes from the page to meet his. I noticed the twinkle in his eye, the amused smile on his face. I told him—you ought to have this published! “Just a hobby” was his reply.
It wasn’t till the following summer when I felt an urgent need to write. My mother had been gone about a year, and my husband and I had placed Matthew in a special school in Pennsylvania. Friends and family thought I would be relieved when Matthew left, that I would finally get a break. But instead, I felt an emptiness and sorrow too acute to share with anyone, and I needed to write about it.
I started to write stories of my life with Matthew, starting with the wonderful days of his infancy and toddlerhood when we thought he was perfect, through the heartbreak of diagnosis up to the more recent years of survival and acceptance. I wrote of being the mother of an autistic child, and of the discoveries regarding human character, good and bad, that I made along the way. I joined a women’s writers group, enrolled in writing workshops at a local independent bookstore and took extension courses at a nearby college.
Now I take my yellow pad with me everywhere, and turn to it in idle moments. I thinkmdash;what do people need to know about Matthew? How can I paint a picture of him and of his place in the world? As the ideas wash over me, I jot them down frantically till the one that illustrates him best stares back at me, and I silently rejoice.
I look forward to my writers group each Wednesday as if it were the first day of school, and when I come home afterward, I am so full of energy that I have to keep moving, usually folding the laundry and cleaning the house that I have neglected in favor of my new friend, the gray laptop. There have been days when my husband and children have had to remind me to feed them dinner, but they smile when they feel my excitement. They are proud of me.
At times, writing unearths dark feelings, long buried, as I remember the moment the psychologist first uttered the word autism, or the haunting questions from insensitive friends: “Will he ever live on his own or hold a job?” On days when I plunge into a well of unbearable sadness, the only way to climb out is by turning to humor. I write funny stories that make me laugh out loud as I work. Some of these stories I share with others, but usually they are just for me. Once I am lifted out of my funk, I dare to share my writing. The thrill of moving family and friends to tears or laughter, the crafting of the perfect sentence, or of seeing my name in print allow me to store the dark days away until I have the courage to revisit them
While writing about my journey with Matthew has been difficult at times, it has been illuminating. When I recount where we started and all the challenges along the way, I have a newfound appreciation of what a struggle it is to be Matthew. It is my job as his mother to help him navigate his way through life within the confines of his disability while steering those in his path towards understanding and acceptance.
Writing has been an awakening, an energizing preoccupation, and now I understand Tracy’s eager proclamation and the twinkle in my father’s eyes. There is a new dimension in my life, and I see and feel everything with inspired clarity. I am a writer.
Laura Shumaker lives in Lafayette, California with her husband Peter and her three teenage boys. She has recently completed a memoir about life with an autistic son and is as regular contributor to NPR Perspectives. She has been featured on KFOG’s Fogfiles and is a columnist for The Autism Perspective Magazine. Her writing has also been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Times and Guideposts Magazine. Please visit Laura Shumaker’s website.