By Liane Kupferberg Carter
“How does staying in an old palace in Paris strike you?” my sister-in-law Jill asked.
“Drafty, but delightful,” I said. “Why?”
Jill told me her daughter was spending a semester in Europe and Jill intended to visit. Jill knew I love all things French. “Why don’t you come with me?”
I sighed. “I wish.”
But the idea gnawed at me. I mentioned it to my husband Marc, trying the idea out on us both. “It’s nice of her to ask, but of course I can’t.”
“Of course you can,” he said. “Don’t you think I can hold down the fort for a week?”
A few days later Jill called and asked again.
“Want to come? We could have such fun,” she wheedled.
“Yes,” I said, surprising us both.
Yes, I would go would go to Paris, because I hadn’t been there since the summer I was sixteen. Yes, although I had never left my children before. Yes, even though the thought made me nervous and giddy.
Jill speaks no French. She told me she was depending on me. Ever the dutiful student, I borrowed my older son Jonathan’s high school French grammar review book, and grappled with conjugations, irregular verbs and the subjunctive. I listened to French radio stations, understanding perhaps every 15th word, and those were only the helper words – avec, avant, apres; nothing substantive. Frustrated, I wanted to beg the radio announcer, Plus lentement, s’il vous plait. Please. Slow. Down. While I struggled to decode one sentence, the radio voice was already two paragraphs ahead. I felt adrift in the sea of language. Reclaiming my high school French was sheer physical exhaustion as I strained to decipher the foreign sounds. I was still floundering with first year phrases like La plume de ma tante est sur la table, while it sounded as if the speakers on the air were parsing Proust.
Laboring to master the rudiments of French all over again, I couldn’t help but wonder: is that what it was like for my autistic son Mickey every day, struggling to make himself understood in English, a language that felt innately foreign to him? The fatigue, the mental strain, the confusion of idioms? I pictured his mind like the old PBX telephone switchboard I manned one summer in college, his brain a bundle of clustered, colored cords, a cerebral scramble as he strained to locate the right plug. “What did you did today?” he often asked me. No wonder he still napped every afternoon. He must be exhausted.
My friend Ellen, a former student at the Sorbonne, tried to help and spoke French to me. When I tried to answer, it felt like striking two keys at once on an old manual typewriter: the keys jammed in mid air, metal trapped over metal. The words stuck; my throat throttled. I could think only in the present tense.
Marc offered to buy me the Rosetta Stone Language learning software program, which I refused. Too expensive. But it occurred to me how aptly it was named. After all, hadn’t I spent the last sixteen years looking for my own personal Rosetta Stone, the key to decoding the mystery of our younger child?
The French grammar book I studied told me the passe simple tense is for actions that have been completed. The passe, compose, though in the past, is still connected to the present and may even still be happening. That was a tense I knew too well, from my endless replay of Mickey’s first few years of life, when it had felt as if Mickey was an ambassador from another world and it was our job to learn each other’s language
The more I studied my French, the more I found myself remembering Mickey’s battles with English. I thought about how at the age of three, he had recognized all the letters of the alphabet, known numbers up to 10, and shown a keen interest in reading signs and license plates. How he had loved to stack alphabet blocks into towers, and knock them over. “More go,” he’d said again and again. How the speech therapist had wondered aloud if he might have hyperlexia, a precocious ability to read words without understanding them. How she’d asked me when he was four to make a list of his words. It had numbered close to a hundred and consisted mostly of nouns he struggled to combine into three-word sentences: “I go home.” “Want more juice.” Verb tenses had been difficult, and pronouns, slippery and situational, had often eluded him. I had waited for a breakthrough, when, miraculously, Mickey would suddenly begin speaking in fluid, full sentences. But just as I would never speak French that way, had it been an unfair expectation of him? Even now, he was still sometimes like a foreigner who spoke laboriously and often ungrammatically as he made his way in a foreign city.
The past few years I’d dreamed repeatedly that the four of us were finally going to Europe. Sometimes it was the hill towns of Umbria, where my college roommate Pat had a home; sometimes the outskirts of London or Rome. But it was always the same dream. I would realize we had been there a week and that it was time to leave but we hadn’t seen or done anything I wanted. I would grow frantic in the dream. I’d embark on a frenzy of sightseeing, only to meet frustration. Mickey would refuse to enter a museum. Gag on new foods. Talk too loudly to himself. Jonathan would be embarrassed and blame me. I’d wake up feeling thwarted. It would hit me: Mickey still couldn’t cross a street unassisted. Would we ever be able to travel as a family?
I bought my ticket. Jill and I made hotel arrangements. I realized I was living too much in the Conditional tense, imagining dire events. What if my plane crashed? The train derailed? A terrorist detonated a bomb in the Metro? I could die. What if Marc had to raise Mickey and Jonathan alone? How could I chance leaving my children without a mother?
I distracted myself with a flurry of housecleaning, file-purging and bill-paying. I unearthed a pile of old love letters I didn’t even remember saving from a college boyfriend and extracted a promise from my friend to toss them out if I should not return from my trip. How dare I take a vacation without my husband? He deserved a respite as much as I did. They say travel broadens; was this still true when it terrified?
The imperfect tense — l’imparfait — is an ongoing state of being. It is hard to accept life in the imperfect tense. And yet, somehow, we do. We must. The imperfect, the present, and the future co-habitate within us.
On some days the tenses loom like landmines: the Future, and the Conditional. But we live, too, in what my French grammar book calls Le Subjonctif, the tense we use to express wishes, emotions, and possibility.
Perhaps Mickey would someday read at 6th grade level. Perhaps he would grow up to have a job that gave him pleasure; friends; a place in a community that welcomed him. Perhaps someday, our family would travel to France, and I would use my grade school French.
More likely, it would be Quebec: closer to home, but still French.
For now, I realized, I needed to stay firmly rooted in the present, and focus on the regular verbs:
Mickey is speaking. He is loving. We have hope.
Excerpted from Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism by Liane Kupferberg Carter. (c) 2016 Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.