On Valentine’s Day, twelve-year-old Ben races into the house and heads straight to the kitchen. “Are we having Cactus?” he asks Pam.
“Yes, you’re having a treat tonight,” she says.
“But is it Cactus?” Cactus Taqueria is his favorite burrito restaurant.
“You’re having a burrito, yes.”
“But is it Cactus?”
By this time I’ve joined them. “I think he needs a clear, concrete answer,” I say, but I’m not sure anyone hears me, the tension is already so high.
Pam’s cooking what looks like crab cakes, a special treat for her and me, and we’ve all seen the bakery box in the fridge marked “No Peeking.” She’s spent some time on this dinner. But Ben still needs his question answered. “Did you get Cactus?”
Finally she says yes, and he looks relieved. But he immediately asks, “And root beer? Did you get the root beer?”
“No,” Pam says.
“Because we have other treats. I bought a special dessert for tonight.”
He shakes his head and mumbles, but when she asks him to set the table he does.
We sit at the table; our half-dozen valentine’s cards have been exchanged and stacked on the hutch. I haven’t taken the first bite of my crab cake or asparagus when Ben begins to shout.
“You cut my burrito,” he says. “Why did you cut my burrito?”
Pam needed to see which burrito was his, with refried beans, and which was Thomas’s with black beans, so she’d cut one in half.
“It’s written on the burrito, Mama! Why didn’t you just read it?” Pam explains that last time at Cactus Taqueria, we’d had to open the burritos to see which was which. “That was the only time!” he says. “They always write on the burrito. You could have just read it! Why did you cut my burrito in half? I can’t eat it now.”
It is so clearly an Asperger’s moment, I’m actually calmed with the knowledge. We can handle this. He needs to know we hear him, he needs Pam to apologize, he needs us to not shout at him to shut up and eat it, but to empathize with his disappointment. I start to reflect back his feelings like a good psychologist, and actually I feel briefly like I’m working with a client instead of my son. I will be so detached, see it all so clearly, empathize with him so perfectly, that I will never become angry, just a little sad for him.
But as soon as I begin to tell him I understand his disappointment and ask him how we can help make it right, Pam tosses her fork onto her plate. “I can’t stand it anymore.” As our primary chef, she has had a hard time with the boys’ complaints about food at dinner, moaning about eating veggies, complaining that they don’t like the new casserole she’s made. Her feelings have been hurt over and over, and we have tried the tough tactic; together we have told them if they make comments they will be sent from the table without dinner. It’s been better lately, a few scrunched up faces when eating new foods, but few comments. Tonight, though, when Ben can’t tolerate the change in his burrito, she has reached her breaking point. She stands and shouts. “I can’t stand this. I don’t want to be here with this family.”
I raise my palm. “Just wait a minute, Pam,” I say. “We can work this out.” But she’s already out of the room, heading for the front door. Thomas looks panicked. He screams to be heard. “Mama wait! It’s not your fault!” Then she’s gone. I imagine she’ll walk around the block and come back in time to finish dinner, or for dessert at the latest.
Ben has begun to cry, real tears of deep disappointment over his burrito. Thomas’s face drops. “Where’s Mama going?”
“She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”
“But she needs us to tell her it’s not her fault.”
“That’s not your job.” My tone is too harsh, I know. I’m angry at Pam. Yes, she’s allowed her feelings, I’ve walked out before too, but this time was so clearly not rude boys but an Asperger’s moment. An Asperger’s crisis. Something we could handle.
“I don’t have a job!” Thomas says, his voice angry.
“I know you don’t. I mean that Mama needs to take care of herself.”
“But we could help her.”
I glance at Ben who is wiping two streams of tears off his cheeks. “Why did she have to cut my burrito?”
My two sons.
“Ben, you’re stuck. Mama made a mistake. She feels bad, very bad. But it’s over now, what can you do to make it right?”
“It’s not over. It’s still cut.” With this knowledge he cries harder, stands and leaves the room. He goes to his room, shuts both doors and sobs.
I look at Thomas. “This is Asperger’s, do you know that?”
He nods, solemn now.
“It’s not his fault,” I say, and he nods again. “He needs our help.”
“I know. So does Mama.”
Ben cries for ten minutes and then joins us at the table again. He picks up the burrito. His eyes are red, swollen. His heart is broken, I realize, and then I’m aware of the irony.
It’s Valentine ’s Day and his heart is broken. All of our hearts are broken.
Causes Kathy Briccetti Supports
Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society
Women's Educational Media