On the eve of his fifteenth year, our autistic son Eliot’s math was still shaky. “Tonight it’s 2009,” I told him, explaining not for the first time the significance of the birthday he shared with his aunt Jeffery. “It will be next year when you wake up tomorrow on your birthday. What year will it be?”
“2008,” he said.
It was true 2008 had been a better year than 2010 was likely to be. The morning of the 31st, as city workers blocked off the main drag of our coastal town for the New Year’s Eve parade, more than the usual number of wanderers whose sole possessions fit in their backpacks walked the streets a full twelve hours before the festivities were set to begin. The sirens started before dark and continued into the night. Outside my house kids set off M-80’s well before midnight. After safely ferrying our sixteen-year-old from one New Year’s celebration to the next, Blue and I lay awake and listened to the explosion of fireworks that marked the passing of 2009. But despite the state of the world and the economy, in our house it had been a good year.
Eliot had ushered out the old year with his favorite Christmas song, belting into the microphone,
“Oh what fun it is to ride
In a one ho’ open sleigh!”
Since all over Facebook adolescent girls were dressing like a ho’s for Christmas, I thought his lyrics were perfect.
Next to the microphone and adorning our livingroom were the Christmas cards we had received, including our favorite from Eliot’s teacher Alana, who had spent the last year teaching school in Namibia, Southern Africa. Alana had posted updates on her website about her teaching post in the village of Bunya, where on rainy days her students huddled in the one corner of the classroom without a leaky roof. She had started an online campaign with friends and family to raise funds for two new classrooms, and Blue and I had sent twenty dollars. At the end of October a community of workers, students, teachers, and volunteers had finished building two classrooms with simple wood beams, aluminum roofs, and walls made of cement mixed with sand and stones from the river.
The card we received at Christmas had a student’s color drawing of the classroom and a hand-written note:
“Dear: Wilson family
Thank you for helping us build our new classroom we like them very much
We are happy we only have one door so we won’t get wet in class.
Kasivi CS Grade 5 and 6”
There was a photo of all the students holding signs that spelled, “Thank you, Mpandu, Wilson Family.” Blue and I had sent twenty dollars. When after a few weeks’ holiday back home, Alana returned to Africa for another year of teaching, we understood why.
It’s hard for children in our culture of plenty, even in a time of deep recession, to understand how much they have, and all the harder for a sixteen-year-old, but when Eliot's sister Carly saw the photograph, she got it.
Now that I was handing over my car keys to Carly on a regular basis, the afternoons were Eliot’s, and out from under the shadow of his older sibling he flourished. Once a week I took him to the surf and pushed him into waves alongside members of the Shoreline Middle School surf team. He rode most of the waves on his belly, and I encouraged him to pop up to his knees. A friend and parent from the Shoreline Surf Team gave him a team sweatshirt, and he wore it with pride.
Then one overcast day after Christmas, I pushed him into a wave, and unprompted by me, he stood up as he rode the wave to shore. Surprised, I threw my arms in the air and cheered.
“I stood up,” he told Carly as soon as we got home, and her congratulations were genuine. Most of the time she wanted nothing to do with him and his pestering ways. Often she yelled, and sometimes --although less and less as she approached the second half of sixteen-- I yelled too.
When that happened Eliot said, “I like it quiet and silent.”
Although at times Eliot annoyed us to the breaking point, his pestering was nothing compared to what it had been. When he was in preschool he had pulled Carly’s hair until she cried. Now, on a rainy night when Blue and Carly went outside for a hot tub, he locked them out of the house. It seemed benign compared to the past. Unmedicated some six months, he was mysteriously mellow.
On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, I got up hours before he would and gazed out the window at the five-story redwood in our backyard, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Only a week before on Christmas, my brother Pete and my nephew Ian had held an impromptu bluegrass concert at our family gathering, and we were about to gather again to celebrate my sister Jeffery’s 60th birthday. In a few hours, the birthday boy and his sister would wake up, Blue would return from a New Year’s morning round of golf, and I would hand over my keys for Carly’s daily surf session. After that, there would be nothing left to do but light the candles on the cake --which Eliot, in his newly-croaking voice, had insisted I adorn with gummi worms-- and watch my alma mater Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl.
It just so happened that the Ducks had been in a New Year’s Day bowl fourteen years before at the moment --not the last time he would do things on his own time rather than ours—that Eliot had finally chosen to enter the world. And each time I get to write about the place Eliot or his sister have taken in the world, it feels like a birthday, a celebration of a scratch one human made in an infinite timeline. Every time I have an opportunity to share that story with other readers, it grounds in the common experience of humanity.