Eyes Like Lithium
A girl struggles to understand her autistic brother’s demons, real and imagined
Anthony Russo / www.russoart.com
I have seen my brother’s eyes very few times. Eye contact is brief—he tries to escape it whenever possible. Merely glancing at him is an offense. Looking at him intently could result in a tantrum. His tantrums are huge, vocal, physical attacks. He is the unstable element: eyes like lithium. Just look at it and it will explode. What I know I’ve stolen through the years.
I think of the birth I wasn’t alive to witness: My mother is glistening and exhausted beneath the high ceiling of their living room. Strands of her long, dark hair stick to her forehead. She’s delirious with pain. My father has a hand on her round stomach and a hand pressing open a medical book—he’s sweating too, glancing between her face, the book, a clock chiming on the wall. It’s been 36 hours, and still no baby. Too late to find a midwife, too poor to pay for a hospital. I wanted my hands to be the first hands to hold all of you, my father often told us. I wanted you to know the hands that would protect you.
When my mother finally contracted Micah from her body, he didn’t make a sound. My father wrapped him in blankets and laid him on the bed between them. Micah didn’t cry until she touched him.
Autism is marked by abnormal introversion and egocentricity. Autistic people have an atypical sense of, and response to, fear. My brother is terrified if you approach him unannounced, but might walk into interstate traffic. It is not a personality disorder. It is a developmental disorder with a spectrum of symptoms so varied as to be almost individualistic. If you’ve met one person with autism . . . you’ve met one person with autism. If autism could create photographs, each one would be overexposed.
My mother was pregnant when she met my father. She was early on, so neither of them knew it. Micah was the culmination of a two-year love between my mother and a man named Jamie. He was from a well-off Sacramento family, deep in law and politics. She worked behind the counter of a Dairy Queen while she studied at the university. After Jamie broke up with her, my father said he liked the way she stirred the shakes and asked her out.
She learned she was two months pregnant. She told my father and he said, “Marry me.”
“But it’s not your baby.”
“Marry me anyway.”
But then Jamie came back onto the scene. He said he didn’t love her but he didn’t want an illegitimate child haunting his future political career. He wanted to fight my father.
It’s the famous scene with two men in a yard, fists clenched like fleshy bouquets. My father said, “You’re going to fight me, rich boy? Think for a minute. How many fights have you been in? How many fights do you think I’ve been in?” My father had tanned arms and shoulders, tense beneath a swath of dirt. Jamie sunk into silence, turned away.
The marriage took place in a park, everyone in embroidered muslin with flower wreaths in their hair. In the wedding slides there is a picture: my mother in a sunspot, looking down at her belly, swollen like a moon over her bare feet. She holds my father’s hand. He is in a shadow, his wild hair and eyes as dark as curling leaves. He is looking just out of the frame to something disconcerting in the distance.
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