By Aaron White
I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I’m not proud to admit this. A large part of me wishes I’d outgrown it by the time I reached adulthood. The ideal portrait I’ve always painted of myself is stoic, collected, but I know otherwise. When I was a kid, I often babysat my three younger brothers. I was too young to be left in charge of children, and after hours of angrily trying to corral them, stifle them, all in the hopes of preventing spilt milk on the linoleum or broken glass in the bathroom, I’d had enough. In seething, utter frustration I grabbed my whitest shirt and soaked the front in stage blood from the previous Halloween. Corn syrup crimson, I let it permeate the fabric and rest on my stomach. I then pulled a steak knife from the kitchen drawer and screamed for all the neighbors to hear. Collapsing to the floor, shutting my eyes extra tight, I felt the clustered patter of bare feet. They approached me, timid and cautious. I tried my hardest not to breathe. Soon, a blanket was thrown over my dead frame, and their bellows of laughter were chased by the intense melodrama of my searing rage, pursuing them to the other end of the house, steak knife in hand and bogus blood caked to my torso.
I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I’d gotten better about hiding it by the time my daughter was two. I remained stoic and collected in the cold exam room, antiseptic white. My wife, Tiffany, nervously rapped her heel against the slick linoleum. What was concern for an earache soon turned into questions about Harper’s severely regressed speech. The doctor showed unnerving angst for the early stages of autism. That evening, I locked myself in my office. I shut the door tight and wept in secret. I wept and cursed and spat without shame. I slammed my fist on my desk. I knocked pens and paper to the floor. I stomped my feet and hit my head in unison. I despaired the loss of my normal child. What little experience I’d had in the public school system taught me that autistic children are awkward. They’re good with computers, sure, but they walk on their toes and struggle to end a sentence. These kids are corralled into special education classrooms and taught how to shut up, sit straight, act appropriately, and smile accordingly. I collapsed to the floor and wished for a blanket.
I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. I try not to let it get the best of me. Just a few weeks before the final diagnosis, before hours spent pouring over pamphlets and web pages and online seminars, before working with a slew of speech and developmental therapists, I got out my phone and snapped a photo of my daughter. Tiffany was away and in my absentmindedness Harper got a hold of an apple. Before I could catch her she’d already started in, her teeth dug tight into its green flesh. The juice bled down her chin and permeated the collar of her shirt. She babbled happily, plump cheeks resting atop a wide smile, and ran from the kitchen to the living room to devour her well-deserved spoils. As she finished up, I wet a napkin and tried to wipe her down. Before I could reach for the core she handed it to me, mouthing in a little voice I so little heard, “Apple, Dada.” I smiled and welled up inside. I inflated and I danced. I stomped my feet and hit my head in unison, in laughter. I hugged and kissed Harper, welcoming her confused, timid expression. I eagerly called my wife and tried to speak but found my mouth useless. The photo was sent to her instantaneously. We rejoiced over the scattering and reassembling of digitized pixels, an accomplishment and reminder that our daughter was going to be okay.
I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic. Sometimes it can’t be suppressed. In the pediatrician’s office three hours from home, they diagnosed Harper as autistic, but it sounded wrong. Tiffany’s eyes welled up big and wet and I tried to remain stoic for her and my little girl. I tried so incredibly hard to keep myself from shouting “bullshit” and throwing my chair. Two well-dressed, tight lipped, closed-minded strangers evaluated Harper for a mere hour and a half. They bled color from the word “autism.” They dismissed two years of laughter and growth and love to throw it over her like a wet blanket, to stifle her with a condemnation, a disease, a sickened, blackened word. This was not the same portrait of autism I’d come to know. It was not a new way of thinking, but a wrong way of thinking, of seeing the world. “Take advantage of the Social Security benefits,” they told me. “ABA therapy,” they told me. I wanted to stomp my feet and hit my head. I wanted to shove that picture in their faces, show them my little girl, my Harper, standing on a kitchen chair with that bright, green ball of fruit in her hand. I wanted to tell them, “Apple, Dada!” She said two consecutive words! Unprovoked! She associated the abstract with the tangible, god damn it, can’t you see? I wanted to hold a steak knife to my gut and shout, “Look at me! Look at me!” I wanted them, for just one second longer, to avert their eyes from my daughter, to cast that blanket over me.
Harper has a flair for the dramatic. She can melt in a mere moment, kicking and screaming, flailing her arms and legs like something wild. Harper will bite and pinch. She will shake her fists and flap her hands. She will also laugh. And kiss. And wrap her arms around my neck so tight I’ll forget to breathe. Late at night, when I kneel over her bed and the blinds allow only a modest amount of white moonlight to enter the room, I’ll feel her plump arm reach out to me from the void and pull my head toward her chest. Harper’s heart thumps rapid and rhythmic and I know she’s narrowly escaping some nightmarish landscape of phantasm. I pull her fleece blanket close to her chin and static pops in small bursts of blue light, like Fourth of July sparklers, enticing and delusive. I’ll close my eyes and listen to her breathe. When she swaddles my face in milky gusts, the tension finally loosens its grip.
Aaron White recently earned a graduate degree in creative writing from Eastern Illinois University. His work has been published in The Tonic and Heart. His fiction and poetry has won awards from The Academy of American Poets, The Mary-Reid MacBeth Foundation, and The James Jones Literary Society. In grad school. This essay is his first venture into creative nonfiction.