No, the man-on-the-street thing wasn't going to work. Sophie's therapists, and doctors, who had talked on background, weren't going to introduce me around. The developmental pediatrician and school psychologist were helpful, but they didn't give me any names. One day I was seated at a luncheon next to Denise Resnik, who started the Southwest Autism Resource and Research Center. Her son Matthew is 15, and autistic. While working on this story, I got to know Denise. She's an amazing woman with a fascinating story, but it's not about denial. And the people getting services at SARRC aren't in denial, although I interviewed several employees there who also confirmed my thesis.
My next stop was going to be the grandparent support group at SARRC; maybe some of them would rat out their kids. But before I could call the head of the group, I found the parents I needed. They were in the most obvious place, the place I never thought to look.
A few months before Annabelle was born, a friend asked me to teach a class called Mothers Write. I'm pretty sure I was simply the closest thing to a mother anyone could find, at the moment. I certainly wasn't qualified to teach the class. In fact, I declined, thinking the whole concept was stupid. I hated the way our society segregates parents.
Then Annabelle was born, and I found myself picking up the phone, begging to teach the class.
I started in the fall of 2001, and quickly teamed up with another mom, Deborah Sussman Susser, who took the class that semester. Deborah is a gifted writer and editor, and we had fun teaching together. We've taught the class ever since. It's a mix of memoir, fiction and poetry, all by moms, often but not always about motherhood. A lot of our students call it therapy, which makes us cringe. Really, it's more like a moms' group for moms who aren't into moms' groups. I don't like that comparison, either, but it's apt. Whatever you call it, I love it. From time to time we run into some truly gifted writers, and every student has amazing stories to tell.
For the most part, I'd always tried to keep Mothers Who Write (the name eventually morphed) separate from my work at New Times. At New Times, I've always said, I can be a bit of a motherfucker. This class lets me be a mom.
So I wasn't thinking at all about the autism story, the night Cheryl Fisher read her piece about her daughter, Sophie.
Not long ago, I said to a babysitter, "I'm not your typical special-needs mom."
"Well, what is a typical special-needs mom?" she shot back.
Ouch. Point taken. But if there ever was a non-typical special-needs mom, it's Cheryl Fisher. This woman is not a typical anything. She's in-your-face, always with a purpose. Not the most popular girl on the message boards she loves to frequent. Cheryl and her husband John adopted their three children, and while I knew from conversations with Cheryl and previous writing she'd done in class that Madeline, her middle child, has Down syndrome, I didn't know Sophie's or Zach's diagnoses.
I can't remember the assignment that night, but Cheryl's piece, called "Water Through My Fingers," recalled a day when her Sophie, then 5, was out of sorts. Cheryl took her into their favorite nook, a space under Sophie's bunk bed, to read and tell stories. But Sophie grew frustrated, and had a temper tantrum. Not a typical kid's temper tantrum. You can read the entire piece here. Here's an excerpt:
I held my little girl in my lap, struggling to keep her there. She was crying, moaning, banging her head and flaying. She hit me often and she seemed to like doing that. Soon, I, too, was screaming, crying, pleading. It was useless to change any of this, though. It was like trying to hold water through my fingers . . . I can still feel the bites and bruises. My sympathy for her quickly gave way to self-preservation, but, still, I was unable to let go. We had come so far together, she and I. I barked orders to myself in my head: "She is your daughter. Take it; hold on, squeeze tight, you can do this, you must do this!" My brain was hissing at me. I felt myself loosening my hand-hold on her. I needed to let her to go, to save myself from further hurt, but I could not. I cannot tell you why. In an instant, all I could do was think to read the book that lay beside me. The book was there, I saw an out, and I needed to refocus myself. Maybe I needed to shut down for a change, so I picked up the book and began. She continued to scream, cry, struggle and strain. I pointed at the pages. My husband stood back, helpless, unable to get into the small, tight space under her bed. She and I were present in the moment, each of us doing what was necessary, but neither of us liking it. I wished I was anywhere but where I was and with anyone else, as well. I was there, however, and everything I held dear was in that moment. It was vital to have her be safe, to keep her here.