As I gazed at my son watching the beloved bees on the salvia in our yard, I wondered if what happened earlier played in his mind. There is no way for me to know. As the afternoon sun slanted, I studied him, and thought about what he might be thinking about. Waves of sadness lapped the edges of my heart.
If only, like it’s said, I could get inside his brain for five minutes. I’d love to understand what he feels…the questions in his mind. A communication device definitely serves a purpose, yet it’s insufficient when it comes to expressing emotion-based thoughts and feelings….deep-down-in-your-heart stuff. I’m assuming, of course, that my 20-year-old son would share his deepest thoughts, especially about a girl, with his mom. But, just maybe he would if he could.
Earlier that day, as he and I sat in a waiting area for an appointment, I witnessed a brief yet touching moment. My assessment of the moment could be entirely wrong; a misread of a situation can certainly happen. I feel I know him better than anyone does, and that our bond is strong, yet he is his own person with his own private thoughts. Yet, I swear: in the moment I witnessed, there was something palpable in the air. An energy. And from my vantage point, I could see a magical brilliance come to life on two young faces.
As we sat in black leather-like chairs, the main door softly opened. Zach, a lover of closed doors, looked toward the entrance. I have watched him watch doors a thousand times – he won’t take his eyes off an open door until it securely shuts. This time, shockingly, he did not pin his peepers to the door. Instead, his baby blues were fixed on the girl walking through the it.
She seemed to be around his age…maybe a couple of years younger. Her long flaxen hair parted in the middle and cascaded down her back. She wore a plain white t-shirt knotted at the waist, jean shorts, and sandals. As the door clicked shut (a noise Zach ignored for the first time ever), she paused as if deciding whether she was in the right place.
That pause was fortuitous for Zach. His eyes grew wide and his lips parted just a little bit. As the girl looked around the room, she glanced at Zach and then kept scanning. A split second later, her face turned back to Zach. Their eyes met. The expression on his face reminded me of when he was little and saw Mickey Mouse for the first time, up close and personal, at Disneyland.
“Hi,” she said shyly, still looking at him.
Zach lifted his left hand in a movement that I interpreted as both a small wave and an attempt to touch her arm just to see if she was real. It was like the way he gently reached out to Mickey’s nose. His hand hung in the air like a cloud as he gave a subtle nod. She smiled, then pranced away.
He did not drop his gaze, despite the door opening and closing for another patient. From my fly-on-the-wall position, I then saw her glance back at him, giving one more adorable smile over her shoulder. He glowed. Their faces held the magic of sunflowers seeking sunbeams.
What I witnessed felt like a slo-mo video, although it was jolted back to regular speed before I was ready. My heart soared to see it, yet simultaneously withered. Could anything come of that moment, that brief encounter, for Zach? Could he go over and talk to her? Get her phone number? Could he make a friend? Ask her out? In a world where he could speak, where he could say be right back, Mom, and listen to the leaning of his heart, yes. A little voice in my head told me this was the kind of moment where two people’s hearts spontaneously and invisibly burst into full bloom from one passing glance. I wanted him to grasp such an opportunity. Ached for it. That’s not the reality of our world though.
The autism with which he lives comes between him and relationships like a tall, pointy, metal fence. It’s deeply embedded in unyielding soil. It stretches on indefinitely. It allows you glimpses of life on the other side, but never allows you through. And for every warrior-like attempt a mother like me makes to obliterate the fence surrounding her child, it’s as if stronger forces plant another picket.
It is egregiously unfair. Zach was drawn to this girl and possibly she to him. They noticed each other, for whatever reason any two people notice each other. It’s a barely explicable yet completely relatable phenomenon. Just as sunflowers bend toward the place in the sky where the sun sits, people deliberately (often unknowingly) gravitate toward those who bring them light. It is human heliotropism.
What happens to sunflowers turning their faces to warmth only to be deprived of reposeful rays?
As I saw the flash of sparkle in Zach’s eyes dwindle, I thought about jumping up. I could take him by the hand and get his device ready so he could quickly offer the girl a greeting. I could make this happen!! I could see this through for him! I even had the passing thought that I could make the girl become his friend. In a flash I saw them at a coffee shop…pictured them watching a movie at a theatre…imagined them in the front seat of a rollercoaster…Zach telling her not to be scared because the loop-de-loops were the best thing on earth. My feet were revving, but my brain was balking.
Not only was the girl out of sight at that point, I risked making all involved feel awkward by forcing a situation. Like Billy Joel said, Leave a tender moment alone. I put my arm around Zach and gave him a gentle squeeze. I shut my eyes to prevent tears from escaping. Breathe…
As I gazed at his face that afternoon, tipped downward toward the abundant salvia where the bees gracefully engaged in their pollen dance, I wondered if he thought about the girl he saw that day. Would the moment be ingrained on his heart? Could he recall her smile or her flaxen hair in his memory? Did he feel a silent yearning to find her…to connect with her…to know her? How could I know? At the same time, it isn’t for me to know.
I have my own silent yearnings. A desire to vanquish everything that wilts so many opportunities for him. A wish for magical moments to be gathered up like the abundant pollen on bees’ legs. A want for love to always encircle him like sunshine on flowerbeds. A deep longing that his heart will bloom with inner joy. I want to guarantee that warmth and light follow him wherever he goes. And that wherever he goes, he is not lonely.
I may not be able to remove that tall, oppressive fence. But the love I have for my son provides me with the motivation to bend and buckle every metal picket and post I can. To break apart the binding soil-cement and weaken the entire barrier. I will never stop trying. Robert Frost wrote, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. His point was right. I will take it to heart, and remember that Spring is the mischief in me. I do not lack the mischief.
While I work to abolish the fence-wall, I will surround it with sunflowers – the tallest, sturdiest, most radiant sunflowers. They’ll remind me to set my sights on the light. And under each green and growing stalk will be heaps of salvia to entice the bees he loves to watch. As he watches, as he ponders the thoughts in his mind that only he knows, I will stand by. A guard, a guardian, a warrior of care. And at times, when his own lovely face can’t seem to turn to the sunshine, I’ll be there to offer a gentle nudge. I watch the bees, too, as a tiny hummingbird hovers over the red salvia. These tiny, featherweight creatures never lose sight of the sun. They know the treasures found deep within every uniquely perfect flower.
“…sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.” ~Willa Cather, My Antonia
Featured image photo credit – Laura Hoang
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“Sunflowers and Sunbeams” is not an article or posting on a website. Although written poetically, it is not a poem. It is a heart-wrenching view of the life of a child…a man…with autism. I had difficulty reading it because my tears blurred my vision. My heart goes out to Zach, and my love goes out to Keri for loving Zach.
Keri, this is beautiful and haunting. My love to you and Zach, and wishes that this interaction is one that he thinks about it positively ❤
Another beautifully written story about Zach. Keri, you have such a gift for writing each story. God has given you that ability and you give that gift to your readers.
It brought tears to me of what he is missing in life. But you and Robert love him unconditionally and he feels that.
All of us in the family love all of you and hopefully even if we are far away, he feels that too! Please relate that to him.