Hearing the Pain

Missy took a spill the other day.

Not a serious one. Just a hard landing on bathroom tile, the kind that leaves your arm sore for a while afterward. No breaks. No bruises.

It still makes you wince, though. Or should. It’s part of being a guardian, a parent, an adult. When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

I only wish every adult felt the same way.

My mind’s been on the topic lately thanks to Stuart Chaifetz. You’ve probably heard the story. Like me and my wife, Chaifetz has someone who needs special care – for us, a developmentally disabled adult, for him, his autistic 10-year-old son, Akian.

Chaifetz got worried when Akian started lashing out in school, even hitting a teacher and his aide. Six months of meetings failed to uncover why. Chaifetz knew he needed to know what was happening at school, but Akian lacked the ability to tell him.

So he put a wire on his son. Secretly tape-recorded his school day.

The result horrified him. Adults yelling at the students, mocking the students, humiliating and threatening the students. One told Akian “you are a bastard” and warned him “Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You’re going to get nothing …until your mouth is shut.”

“What I heard on that audio was so disgusting, vile, and just an absolute disrespect and bullying of my son, that happened not by other children, but by his teacher, and the aides — the people who were supposed to protect him,” Chaifetz said in a video that has shot across the Internet.”They were literally making my son’s life a living hell.”

It’s an anger I can feel echo inside my own soul.

I hate bullies. Old, young, in between. I endured too much of it myself as a kid to ever want to see it in another. It’s a pain that makes days something to be feared instead of anticipated, a trial you don’t dare talk about until you have to.

And when the victim literally can’t talk about it, that is the lowest of the low.

Heather and I have cared for Missy the Wonderful for about a year now. I know that if we ever sniffed the slightest hint of mistreatment by someone else, we’d be on it like a shot, doing what we had to to pin it down and turn it off.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

But how do you know?

How do you ever know?

It’s a simple answer and a hard one at the same time. To quote a character from Missy’s Harry Potter books, it takes “Constant vigilance!” Granted, you don’t need the paranoia of Mad-Eye Moody … but it all starts with watchfulness.

Whoever you care for, be it a child or a charge, nobody knows them like you. How can they? You’ve lived with them. You love them. You’ve seen them at their best and their worst.

And you know – or can know – when something seems wrong. Even without words. It can be a change in mood or behavior like Akian’s. Or maybe a wariness around a particular person. Or anything that silently screams to you “This is not normal behavior. Something is going on.”

Maybe you’ll be wrong sometimes. But better to be careful without need, than to need care and not show it. A sad truth, perhaps, but real.

If you heard a crash and an “Ouch!” in the bathroom, you’d check it out. This isn’t any different.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

And let’s face it. There’s going to be enough painful falls in life as it is.

Nobody needs to be pushed.

Get The Picture

My sister and brother-in-law sounded shaky. After I put the phone down, I did, too.

It was that kind of news.

“We have to put Quaccia down.”

For as long as I knew him – and I only knew the ol’ guy for a small part of his 14 years – Quaccia was the poster child for the idea of “Family Dog.” Big. Friendly. A little clumsy sometimes, a little slobbery sometimes. But with fur that was made for comfort and a heart made of solid gold.

The name, pronounced “Qua-cha,” came from a minor league ballplayer. That was the only thing minor league about him. The whole family could tell you that.

Funny thing, though. When I think of Quaccia, or Q as he often got dubbed, one image keeps coming back to mind. A picture taken right after my nephew Gil was born. The baby asleep,  Q curled up alongside his rocker, totally comfortable, totally protective, the message clear as crystal.

“This is my buddy. Mine. You want to get to him, you’ve got to get past me.”

Somehow, I know that’s the Q that’s going to stay with me.

We do that a lot with those we love, it seems. Somewhere along the line, a picture gets set in your brain – maybe an actual photograph, maybe just a strongly-held memory – that seems to epitomize someone, to crystalize all your memories of them in one place. A thought that captures a life.

If it seems strongest with pets, it may be because they compress so much love into so short a time, leaving behind those pictures to last a lifetime. I know that my own mental photo album holds a lot of loved animals, both here and gone, caught at a moment that says “Yes. This is me.”

Our rescue dog Duchess, grinning in the mountains, free of anxiety for the first time in too long.

The eyes of our cat Twinkle, gleaming from behind the headboard of a bed at night, waiting for a finger to be dangled down.

Our bearded collie Max, charging a guest at full tilt in love and excitement. Or the cautious orbit of my folks’ dog, Hailey, a distant background presence taking the measure of a stranger – for days, sometimes.

Each one just a moment in the life. Each one as true as if it had happened yesterday. Each one real, in a way that any velveteen rabbit could understand.

There’s a danger, of course. Sometimes we become too reliant on the shorthand, let the reality fade as the picture replaces it. But usually, I find, it’s the opposite. Like a bookmark in a novel or a shortcut on a computer monitor, that single image unlocks an entire story. By holding on to the tip, you can suddenly raise the entire iceberg.

That’s a comfort. Even a joy.

It makes me wonder what pictures I’ve left in others’ minds. Maybe I’d laugh. Maybe I’d cringe. Or maybe it’s just enough that they’re there, lasting and defiant in the face of time.

As solid and real as a big ol’ dog by a sleeping baby.

Thanks for that, Quaccia.

Thank Q very much.

Just Her Type

“OK, let’s try your name again. What’s the first letter?”

A forceful finger poked out an “M” on the keyboard. Then quickly, several more. “MMMMMMMM.”

“Right! Now how about the second letter?”

A little hesitation. The finger searched, hovered, and finally came down on the “I.”

“Good job!”

After a while, and more stops and backups than an overloaded railway line, we were finally there. She had finally typed “MISSY.” Granted, she had also typed “MSSAY,” “MSSBI” and a few other variations, but nothing comes without practice.

And practice is exactly what we’ve started to do.

Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, has been fascinated by Heather’s keyboard for a long time. No reason she shouldn’t be. Since we moved in a year ago to take care of her, we’ve used it to listen to tunes, watch videos and – Missy’s personal favorite – flip though family pictures.

Always with help, though. Missy doesn’t read.

A year ago, I would have said “can’t read.” Now, I’m not so sure. Her letter recognition is pretty good. And while she says maybe 100 words out loud a week, the flow is increasing, often in ways that suggest there’s more going on behind her eyes than we know.

While watching a bowling program with several 7-10 splits, we’ll hear “Those pins will not go down!”

As Heather tries to maneuver in a Christmas-crowded parking lot, Missy will shout out the window at passersby “Get out of the way!”

And a marathon story time session got just a little longer when she picked up the book, handed it back to me and instructed me “Don’t stop.”

The words are there. The understanding is there, however curious at times. Even the letters are there, if sometimes hesitantly.

What if? What if she could forge the link between what she says and what she sees?

I’m not expecting “The Miracle Worker.” But things just that unlikely have happened.

A certain video makes the Internet rounds every so often. It’s the story of Carly Fleischmann, a girl with severe autism who never said a word for her first 11 years of life. Her parents and therapists worked with her, pushed her, never gave up on her.

And in 2006, there was a payoff. After years of silence, Carly sat down and began to type. Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. As the days went by, it was clear that the girl who had been written off as “retarded” was actually quite intelligent – and had finally found a way to show it.

“It is hard to be autistic because no one understands me,” she once typed. “People look at me and assume I am dumb because I can’t talk or I act differently than them. I think people get scared with things that look or seem different than them.”

Well said, Carly.

Now, Missy isn’t truly autistic, though many of her symptoms mirror the condition. And I’m certainly not expecting “War and Peace.” But if she can bridge even a little of the gap, even if it’s just enough to tell one similar-looking CD from another, I’ll count that a win.

Reading and writing are amazing gifts. I’m not sure we appreciate just how amazing. Through them, we’ve created a form of telepathy, the ability to send thoughts into the universe and have them received by someone we’ve never met. It’s a sort of community, a network of thought that long predates the first computer.

I want to bring Missy in the door. Maybe we’ll only get as far as the foyer. But she’s surprised me before. And I don’t think she’s done yet.

And however far she goes, I’m ready to lead the cheers.

Give me an “M.”


It’s official. Canada is discarding all common cents.

No, that’s not a typo. Our neighbors to the north recently announced that they’re getting rid of all pennies in circulation. Any spent will get sent off to be melted down; once they’re gone, prices will be adjusted up or down to the nearest five cents to compensate.

“It’s a piece of currency that lacks currency,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said during hearings, noting that each one-cent coin costs 1.6 cents to make.

It’s not a bad idea. It’ll save a little in the budget and probably some pocket linings, too.

And if history’s any guide, it will never, ever catch on here.

It’s not that there aren’t people here who want to see the penny go (and occasionally, the dollar bill as well). When I worked the cash register at City News, it was easily the most annoying coin to keep track of. Like most businesses, we scattered the copper-colored coins into a “take a penny, leave a penny” jar to even out the change, effectively rounding prices up or down anyway.

And these days, there aren’t that many people who use cash, period. When even a pizza delivery can be put on a credit card, you know that bills and coins have pretty much fled the battlefield except for vending machines and dancers named Passion Flower.

Even so, trust me on this. Little Lincoln’s got some staying power.

There’s two reasons. The smaller one is that there just isn’t a lot of need. Sure, pennies cost more to make than their face value, and nickels are even worse. But dimes and quarters more than absorb that cost, and coins re-circulate enough times to make that a moot issue, anyway.

The bigger reason? Simple. When it comes to money, Americans are downright stodgy.

You know what I mean.

Remember the jokes and the head-shaking when the redesigned bills came out? (I still think Andrew Jackson looks like he lost a battle with a hair dryer, personally.)

Remember the cold reception to the Sacajawea dollar coin, and the Susan B. Anthony before it?

Frankly, the only alteration to the currency that I can remember drawing a smile was the state quarter series. And most people I knew viewed those as collectibles rather than currency – at least, until their next Diet Coke fix came calling.

But at least we have changed the currency before, if slowly. Now imagine the reaction to withdrawing it.

No one wants to to be the politician that killed Lincoln a second time.

Nonsensical? Maybe. But legitimate. In a weird way, the currency’s become a touchstone, something that rarely changes in a world that changes constantly. It’s familiar enough to inspire trivia or even tasteless jokes. (“Why does Lincoln on the penny face right when all other coins face left? You let a crazy actor get behind you just once and you never get over it .”) It’s even enduring enough to be a minor history project – my sisters used to tape pennies to a sheet of paper, one for each year they could find, going back decades.

Yes, that was one heavy sheet of paper. Thanks for asking.

Maybe touchstones like that aren’t such a bad thing. Think of the orange Broncos jersey that just got put back into circulation. Gaudy? Maybe. But it was also unmistakeably, uniquely us. Lacking it was like missing a tooth. Bringing it back just felt right.

And maybe that’s all the defense a penny coin or a dollar bill needs. It just feels right. When the feeling stops, then maybe we’ll be ready to change our tune.

Or at least to tune our change.