My son is a homing pigeon. As am I. When little, I didn’t know what ‘sense of direction’ meant, but I knew people often said I had a good one. And besides my dimples, my boy inherited the instincts of a rock pigeon.
From the time he could walk, he knew how to find his way to, and from, certain places. My family are witnesses to Zach’s ability to find his way from the parking lot at Woodfield Mall, near Chicago, alllllllll the way to the store that sold Jelly Belly Superfruit Mix. After his first foray to that candy store, Zach knew exactly how to find it – in one of the largest malls in the U.S. – each and every time we visited. Which was once or twice a year. He is the kid who, on a road trip, will turn his head and point, in recognition of a site we may have seen five years prior. He intuitively knows the direction of the car from hiking trails. He seems to have maps in his head of various airports around the country. And should you need a one-to-one guide at Disneyland or Six Flags, he’s your guy.
A few summers ago, we summoned up sufficient courage to take Zach to New York City (or maybe it was abundant lunacy). Our hotel was splendidly located quite near Central Park – literally a stone’s throw. Fearing that Zach would get lost among the crowded sidewalks and streets of NYC, I kept him close to me at all times. (Read that as I always had my arm wrapped around his like a boa constrictor). My worst nightmare is losing track of Zach in a crowded, unfamiliar area. (Don’t worry Reader, this story is not about Zach getting lost).
One morning in the park, he spotted the carousel and deftly unwound his arm from mine to scamper to it. I’m not sure how many times he rode that carousel, but they definitely made some money that week. And it took only the one day to learn exactly where that carousel was located! He found it by himself a few days later.
Mild morning weather and our decent walking shoes invited us to further explore the park that day. But distant clouds made me grab an umbrella. I’m enamored with the The Mall (a.k.a. Literary Walk) and have always wanted to see it. Its appearances in Serendipity, Enchanted, and Maid in Manhattan have fueled my desire to stroll down this tree-lined promenade and drink in the scenery. There is something magical about this giant elm-flanked path. The perfectly placed green benches, the lush lawn, the black street lamps, the carts with colorful umbrellas; strolling that area was something I had wanted to do for a long time. When we reached its southern tip, I deftly unwound myself from Zach and scampered to the center to take a bunch of selfies.
As we proceeded north, leaving behind the only intentionally straight path in the Park, I looked for sites that I remembered from childhood. We quickly came upon Bethesda Fountain. As we stood on the terrace taking in the view, tiny regions of my brain reached back to a young version of myself. I could almost feel my eyes’ lenses switch to Keri age 6.0. Being there with my mom, stepdad, husband, and son put me into a delightful mood. It was just very cool. Then suddenly my eyes switched back to Keri Autism Mom mode as I saw Zach make a beeline for the cool water of the fountain. (Don’t fret, Reader, this isn’t going to end up with Zach in the fountain).
Unlike his younger days when a water fountain beckoned him to climb in, shoes and all, the 16-year-old was content to submerge both arms and swish his hands around placidly. Thank goodness for that because returning to the hotel with a soaking wet kid was not on the agenda.
After frozen lemonade, we made our way to the bronze statue of Alice and the Mad Hatter; I recalled playfully running around it and hiding under the giant mushrooms when I was little. My mind was giving me fuzzy memories of small boats sailing across a lake that reflected skyscrapers. In a guidebook, I read about the Shakespeare Garden where you could immerse yourself in flora and fauna resembling the Bard’s native English countryside. Among the primrose, flax, and columbine were small plaques featuring quotes from various Shakespearean works. I just had to see that.
So, we mapped out a walking route from a park brochure that had already grown wrinkly in my back pocket. The weather became hotter and more humid. Some dark clouds were looming. There was so much to see and do, but we were also a bit weary. Before forging on, we made a plan: the three of us and my mom would walk on and see the Shakespeare Garden plus venture up to the Met on E. 82nd, while my dad would return to the shade of The Mall where a bench would provide relief for his feet, and the trees would offer refuge from the sun. So four of us headed one way, and one of us headed the opposite way. Zach looked concerned about leaving Grandpa, but I “boa’ed” him and walked on. Zach waved to Grandpa E.
We not-so-energetically wound our way past the Loeb Boathouse and up through the Ramble, arriving at the 79th St. Transverse. From there, we moved toward Turtle Pond and caught site of the Belvedere Castle. Zach loves castles. We spent a good bit of time there taking goofy pictures. Next was the Shakespearean Garden which was lovely, but Zach began to get agitated. Nothing major, but the lack of family photos amidst the English fauna was proof that he wasn’t in a picture-taking mood.
I’m sure at some point we must have gotten refreshments. We watched the sky. And when we took a turn northward toward the Met, Zach stopped in his tracks. We had passed a playground with swings, and I immediately thought that he wanted some sensory time. So we asked him. He shook his head no. We asked if he needed a restroom. No. We asked if he was hungry. No. Thirsty. No. More frozen lemonade? No. We ran through many options. The answer was no to everything.
Now a look of distress overcame his face. I feared he was getting a migraine. But we pushed on, thinking that walking was preferable to standing in the same spot for minutes on end.
As we left the boundaries of the park and climbed the steps at the Met, Zach really became frantic. Something was going on. He seemed on the verge of a panic attack.
“Show me,” I said. “Tell me with your device…” I urged him.
His eyes opened wide and he peered into mine with a look that said “I wish I could.”
He began pulling my arm. The area in front of the Met was crowded and the street noise was raucous. We took a photo which shows the the unhappiness on his face.
So we cut our visit to the gathering area outside of the Met very short and went back into the park proper. We thought that maybe Zach felt “funny” about going beyond the boundary of the park. At that point, he began whimpering – a sort of anxious, fretful whimper that triggered a cortisol release in me. I simply could not figure out what the problem was, and therefore I couldn’t solve it.
Sore-footed, drenched in beads of sweat, and thirsty, we carried on. Zach’s hand was in mine, and once parallel to East Drive, he began dragging me along as if he were The Red Balloon and I was the boy. We passed the playground – he most definitely did not want it. This kid was on a mission; he was the only one privy to it.
His homing pigeon instincts were sharp. We pretty much allowed him to lead, and lead he did. We flew past the Levin Playground. Past the Alice in Wonderland statue. Past the Hans Christian Andersen Monument. We whirled past restrooms and water fountains and benches. Nothing stopped him. The whimpering subsided but the urgency continued.
Did he have an undeniable urge to ride the carousel?? We asked. No. Did he wish to return to the peace and quiet of the hotel? He was heading in that direction. Confident that he would eventually get resolution to his problem, we pressed on. This was unfamiliar territory in the heart of a bustling city. Woodfield Mall it was not. He had never been here before. Yet, he seemed determined and keen in his pursuit. The small umbrella hitched to my backpack was whacking me on the hip with every rapid step. It was not easy keeping pace with him.
As we approached the Bethesda Fountain, this time from the northeast, something shifted in him. He was still determined, but the anxiety reduced. He paused and focused. And then, as if by some Wi-Fi connection from his brain to our brains, the purpose for his quick-paced park-trotting became clear. I saw his eyes take on that hawk-like quality. Grandpa E. He wanted to find Grandpa E. He knew where we were when we parted ways. He heard the conversation. He desperately needed to bring the five of us back together. He – as far as I could tell – thought that when we had left the boundaries of Central Park, we had forgotten someone very important to the group. When we were walking toward the Met and shifted to the north, he knew we should have gone south. His instincts told him his Grandpa E was that way, and we were making a mistake by going the other way. And then we actually left the park. All our guesswork was wrong. Here was this teenaged boy with autism who couldn’t ask anyone if Grandpa was okay. He couldn’t speak the words, Can we go get Grandpa E? I was feeling both heartbroken for him and super impressed by him. He remembered exactly where the fountain was, and he had somehow mapped the park in his head accurately enough to make his way back to The Mall. My little homing pigeon.
When his hawk eye caught site of his grandpa sitting on a bench, he burst into a run. I wish I had thought to video that. It was a cool moment. “Go! Go find him!” I yelled to Zach. The disappearance of his tension was obvious. And I realized I wasn’t sweating anymore. Zach helped his grandpa to his feet. As he rose, he smiled and said, “Hi Zach! How was the walk? What’s next?” Our plan was to find food. But first, we said, we need to tell you what just happened…
Zach stayed by his grandpa’s side as we walked on. He’s not only a homing pigeon. He’s a papa duck. He likes his peeps around him. Close by. He takes inventory and knows if something is not right. He doesn’t want to leave anyone behind. In a park full of people, he can figure out exactly how to get to one of the “stranded” ducklings. Now that’s impressive! Who says individuals with autism are disconnected from others?? Unaware of their surroundings?? That they don’t care about relationships?? That they prefer isolation?? That they’re indifferent to the world around them??
It just isn’t true. We have living proof.
I had a grand time re-exploring Central Park as an adult. Much of it was so familiar, yet parts of it were brand new to me. It was magical. What’s more – my mom had a similar experience. She told me about her memories of being there as a child and a teen and a young adult. She showed me places where she climbed rock mountains with her brother and watched Shakespearean scripts brought to life. Where she rode her bike or paddled a rowboat. Hearing her memories of exploring this grand park filled my heart with joy.
And now, I have a wonderful new memory of the park…of The Mall. My cherished, majestic Mall. Looking back, it was almost like a mini movie scene playing out. One of those heartfelt reunion scenes that tugs the heartstrings just enough to provoke a teardrop. A palpable denouement. When Zach had his “sigh of relief,” so did the rest of us. Turns out I didn’t need the umbrella that day, but I sure could have used a Kleenex.
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