Last night I was up in my room when I heard Nate.
“Fix it! Fix it!” he yelled over and over again. Usually that signifies some real trouble, but sometimes it’s something stupid that Nate simply can’t deal with. I’m hypersensitive about the giant flat screen TV. Nate has twice wiped it down, once with a duster, once with a blanket, leaving huge streaks on a very expensive television. Thankfully I was able to clean off the horrifying rainbow swirls. So my thoughts were dark when I heard him screaming in the Big TV room.
“Nate!” I hollered from the top of the stairs.
Finally I hobbled down the steps to find Nate sitting on the floor fixing a fan. What happened I don’t know. Nothing serious, but his shouting got me agitated and I was pretty ticked off at his lack of response to my calls. It sent me back to when we used to fight every day after school.
Nate used to get home from school around 3 o’clock. In Illinois, I would have still been at work, waiting for the end of trading to come at 3:15 CST, followed by a review of the day’s activity and positions and a long train ride home in time for dinner. In Cooperstown, I was home waiting for Nate. I’d give him some time to decompress as I read through the day’s report in his black marble composition book. His one on one aide, who was with him throughout the school day, gave us daily behavioral updates, as well as an itemized list of the night’s homework. There was no other way we could know what was going on; it wasn’t as if Nate would tell us about his day. Most times I was steeled and ready for combat. Other times my insides dropped in dread as I assessed the amount of work that lay before us.
It was 3:30. Time for the daily battle.
“Nate, let’s start!”
“Oh no!” he yelled and began a mock cough, offering up a flimsy excuse.
“Come on, Nate.”
We sat at the dining room table, the work laid out in front of us. I gave him the rundown of what lay ahead. Typical tenth grade work: algebra, biology, global history and English. We started reading Romeo and Juliet. We took turns reading out loud. That strategy let me check that he was approaching the text with care, and not rushing through it. He avoided taking on the longer pieces of dialogue. I was Juliet.
“’Good father, I beseech you on my knees, Hear me with patience but to speak a word.’ Your turn.”
“BLAH BLAH BLAH!” Nate yelled. When he didn’t want to read, he screamed those words, in exactly the same tone and volume. It was a mechanical response. As his agitation rose, I immediately shut down, mostly to pass the time as he blew off steam. But when I zoned out, it would make Nate angry. He did not approve of my silence and distance.
“Talk, you stupid freak!” Nate would often toss insults at me like grenades, but I couldn’t take it personally. I’m sure he meant what he said. He was often angry at the person (me) who was making constant demands on his time, but I knew that for me to have hurt feelings was pointless. I had come so far from the ultra-thin skinned person I used to be. (In the options pit, my friends had dubbed me, “The King of Dishing It Out and Not Taking It”).
Time to regroup. “Come on Nate, we have a lot to do – math, science. Just read.” Every afternoon the same routine: he’d act out and I’d get frustrated and angry. Then it got violent.
He looked me straight in the eye and clenched his teeth, his head shaking. Suddenly, his right hand shot out and he pinched me. A pinch doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s delivered by a 15-year-old hulk, nearing 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, it hurts like hell. This was no little kid assault.
I grabbed his wrist, and when he leaned over to bite me, it was clear we were destined to play out our dance one more time. Before he had time to react, I wrestled him to the ground, sat on top of him, and pinned his shoulders to the dining room floor. Chairs crashed to the floor as we plummeted, voices were raised. Karen, Robbie and Joey cringed in the kitchen.
What am I doing? Is this the right thing? I thought to myself as I physically dominated my autistic son. I swore that I would get the most out of him as possible, but was this constant war worth it? Moments like these were utterly horrible. Did my means justify the hoped for ends? I was in the shit, as Private Pyle says in Full Metal Jacket.
Eventually the violence passed, as it did every night, and we got back to the task at hand. I could feel Nate’s energy sap away and, once he calmed down, we picked up as if nothing had happened.
“Are you ready now?” I asked.
“Yes.” We picked up the upended chairs and sat close together. Nate looked at me.
“I’m sorry I hurt you, Dad.”
“It’s OK, Nate.” Deep breath. “All right, you’re Juliet’s father, Capulet. Read here.”
Nate and I don’t fight much anymore, though he calls me all sorts of names, all the time. I deal with it though. He may deny his father, but I have sworn my love.