I get my best reading done in the early morning hours, especially while sitting in my orange chair tucked in the corner of the loft. The stillness in the dawn, and its soft light spilling through the blinds, awakens my mind to new thoughts, ideas, and senses as I absorb the characters and words before me. I have never read Kafka on the Shore, nor have I heard of Haruki Murakami, but something in his title catches my attention. I open the book and begin to read:
“…Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm...You really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades...”
Murakami’s imagery crashes against the canvas of my mind and I am thrust into my own memories—my own storms.
“Hey buddy, we’re going to the art museum. Do you want to go to the art museum?”
Ethan replies in a monotone robotic voice, “No dad, I want to go home.”
“How about we take the girls to the art museum? Wouldn’t that be fun taking the girls? We’ll hold hands, and just walk around. Okay?”
“Come on, you’ll be fine. We’ll just walk around.”
He grabs my hand, instinctively interlocking my index finger with his pinkie, as we start across the parking lot. As we walk, Emma chatters to Morgan excitedly, as my wife tells them a story about the last time she came to this museum.
Nearing the entrance, a security guard pushes the door open for us and we step inside. The lobby is vast, nearly three stories in height. There is a quietness inside. Noise can still be heard, but everything—every exhibit, every breath, everything—seems to whisper.
Lining the hallway leading to the museum’s various galleries are ten thousand black butterflies. As we get closer, I see the butterflies are hand cut from black rice paper. Walking deeper into the hallway I feel Ethan’s hand tensing ever so slightly. Suddenly, I remember he hates flies—actually anything that resembles a fly—maybe even butterflies.
We quickly exit the corridor and turn into the brightly lit Steele Gallery; here each wall forms the frame for the artwork, while the snow bright light drives off any shadows that seek to interfere. Approaching a small glass case, Ethan pulls free of my grip and dashes forward intent on grabbing the delicate wire sculpture inside. I catch him just before he reaches the display, “Please, there is no touching.”
“Dad, I’m going to kill you,” he nearly shouts.
Autism ravages him, like a squall. With little provocation, its winds drive his emotions to excess. His innocent mind, unable to ebb the powerful surge, begins regurgitating myriads of movie lines and random quotes like a makeshift spillway. These excerpts are most always inappropriate, but rarely out of context—telling me he wants to kill me is just one of a thousand.
“Really? Come on, take a deep breath.”
Ethan pulls away from me, and announces that he will walk with his sisters. He takes Morgan’s hand while Emma steps around him to cover the flank—like ancient mariners, they know the routine for stormy weather. They walk deeper into the gallery, and deeper, we soon find, into rougher seas.
Out of nowhere Ethan grunts, “Dad, shut up, Or I’ll kill you. Why did you do this to me? Uuuuuuuuughhhh!”
Routinely, I am the target for his abuse during these episodes. As calmly as I can, I bring him closer and ask him to “Stop. Take a deep breath.” I hug him, thinking that maybe a bit of deep pressure therapy will take the edge off his sensory overload. Under the weight of my arms I feel his body tightening even more.
“Maybe this is a good time,” my wife suggests, “to try the new medicine. The doctor said it was perfect for times like this when he gets overwhelmed. It should lessen a meltdown.”
We turn to exit the gallery hoping to find a drinking fountain. My wife fumbles to open the medicine as I clutch Ethan’s arm and wrist. He is dead set against going with me, and rather than fight him there, I try to lead him into the corridor. We reach the drinking fountain just as my wife gets the medicine open. It’s not going to work, I say to myself; we’re in too deep.
I hate being right. What was nearly shouted earlier now echoes loudly through the passageways: “Dad, I’m going to kill you!” It is followed by a regurgitated, “Son of a #@%!” Like a flash flood, his emotions pour out, hell bent on escaping rather than any actual destruction. “Stop it,” I say as he bites into his hand. He releases his hand only to begin shaking both hands violently in front of his face. This self-stimulation is his only avenue, other than time and deep pressure, for his body to burn off his pent-up emotions.
Taking his arm again, we turn and as quickly as possible—without making any more of a scene—head toward the exit, while the girls follow behind. Making our way to the outside, I try to reassure him that we are leaving, and that everything will be fine in just a minute. I’m lying—mostly to myself. This won’t be over in a minute; it certainly won’t be over just because we reached the exit. If I’m lucky, and we don’t end up on the ground in a deep-pressure-wrestling-match, this will blow over in an hour.
Halfway across the patron-filled lobby he tries to pull away and run. My grip tightens and I pull him closer to me. Under the weight of the patrons’ stares, he seems heavier. In the back of my mind I wonder why they stare: are they waiting for the spectacle to end or to explode?
We make it just outside the glass entrance before he explodes with an F-Bomb. My wife gasps! Over his yelling, I can hear the air rush by as every head snaps around to see the commotion. My legs buckle slightly under his cutting remarks—our five-minute fifty-yard exploration of the art museum has come to an abrupt end.
As we head to the cars he flip-flops between threats to kill me, profanities, and weeping apologies. My wife offers to take Ethan home so I can stay and see the museum with Morgan and Emma: “It isn’t fair to them that his meltdowns control what they get to do.”
“You’re right,” I reply with my perennial what-can-we-do-about-it look of apology, “but we’ll get over it. It’s not fair to him either.”
As we reach the cars, Ethan turns and tries to scratch me. His voice swells, cracking slightly at the end: “Dad, you did this to me. Take me home. Now!”
I unlock the car and he jumps in the front seat. He turns back to look at me and scrunches his nose and purses his lips in his version of an angry face. Suddenly his hand shoots up and he gives me the finger, and then shuts the door.
I walk around to my door as my wife and the girls get in the other car. I sit down, start the car, and shift it into gear. As we drive away Ethan takes my hand, interlocking my index finger with his pinkie. Gently he squeezes my hand. One, two, three—it's our family code for I love you. I reply with four squeezes of my own—I love you first. As we exit the parking lot he leans his head onto my shoulder and says, “Dad, you forgot my kiss.”
I turn and gently kissed the top of his head. “How’s that?”
Without missing so much as a comma, my mind returns to the page before me:
“…And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.”
I dog-ear the page, and set it down. I go into Ethan’s bedroom, where he is still fast asleep amid his tangled blankets, Ziploc bag of Legos, stuffed animals, and a roll of duct tape—his favorite toy. His five-foot nine-inch body appears so gentle. This is only an illusion. His clenched hands reveal the ceaseless storm living inside, even as he sleeps. I kiss the top of his head—make a mental note that I need to shave him this week—and whisper, “I love you.”
Turning to walk away, I smile inwardly at the forecast and wonder what refining the storms will bring today.