May 17, 2010
Castles in the Sand
“Build a sand castle, mommy!”
Five simple words, uttered in perfect sequence. If someone had told me eighteen months ago that my second son, who had surrendered to regressive autism, would regale me with this declarative, this unmitigated demand, I wouldn’t have believed it. You see, I had squandered the majority of my hope on my first child after he too was deemed autistic, and my protective instincts would not permit me to solicit from the remnants of my well-spring of hope any longer.
Yet, here we are, my final progeny and me, sifting through sand and surf, kneading through shells fragments and driftwood, anything that would constitute the necessary components for the sturdy base of a hearty sand castle. Zachary takes this activity very seriously, considering carefully the placement of each turret and tunnel, the precise combination of sand and sea water in every waiting pail. He squats solidly next to me, intensely focused on his next move, bringing the same degree of concentration to this task that he brings to all of his various creations. There is no frivolity for Zach when it comes to construction.
I am deeply content as I regard his choices, his struggles and successes with his palace of mica. Of all places on earth I am most at home here on the Jersey shore, most settled in my soul. I have a connection to the place that extends back to infancy, when my grandparents rented a tiny cottage in Avalon for a month every summer so their land-locked baby granddaughter could experience the beach and its myriad pleasures for herself. The connection deepened when we moved to a small town in close proximity to the shore, where I resided for the lion’s share of my childhood. The beach became my favored companion, through the ache of my parents’ divorce, the ebb and flow of friendships come and gone, boys loved and lost, and sometimes loved again. The sea was my constant haven to recharge, my muse. I cannot imagine not having had it as backdrop to my childhood. It is entrenched, irrevocably intertwined, in so many of my formative experiences.
I have also become aware of other connections more recently in my life, since autism became a permanent guest in our household. So many theories abound about its causes; is it a purely genetic disorder, is it purely environmental, or is it a combination of the two. I have heard autism discussed most widely as an imperfect connection of neural interplay, a disconnect between the regions of the brain and their appointed neurons. Perhaps at some point those tiny, fragile fibers frayed and severed in both of my sons’ corpus collosums, maybe in infancy, perhaps while still residing in my womb. I once read that their wiring is faulty, and I remember being overcome by despair at discovering those words. Everything in life is about connections, whether they’re face-to-face, on the phone, or conducted somewhere in the blogosphere. I recall wondering how my children could survive in a world where they hadn’t correctly connected to themselves.
When we moved back to New Jersey from our adopted state of Virginia four years ago it was with some eagerness to be reunited with family, coupled with great sadness at shedding the ties to friends who became our family, as well as abandoning careers begun and nurtured. In a way, we also felt we had formally relinquished our youth when we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. My solace was that while DC had afforded us many pleasant memories involving the Potomac, this great river had never met the majesty of the Atlantic. Perhaps now my child, and future children, would revel in its mysteries as I once had. This comforting thought tempered my reluctance to leave, my regret at disconnecting from a place where I had met my husband, conceived my child, and enjoyed predominantly uncomplicated and untroubled days.
My oldest son responded well to the siren song of the ocean initially, and to an extent still does today. I admit that our visits are never quite peaceful to me, as worrying about his safety comes as companion to the shifting tides and sea-slick air. He darts fearlessly in and out of the waves, and quickly tires of the experience, and of resting on a blanket as well. There are only so many perseverative toys one can risk being ruined by grains of sand, and within the hour, Justin is generally ready for other more rewarding pursuits.
He is my sea-song boy, plopping for hours on his Nemo blanket, content with the scoop and pour of his bulldozers’ snouts, happy to bury his mommy’s feet until I beg for mercy. He unerringly discovers the most fetching teen-age girls on whom to bestow his charms, confidently informing all within hearing distance of his age, his name, and sometimes, even his likes and dislikes. Zach will also sit companionably with me at water’s edge, inspect the ebb and flow, warp and weft of foamy tentacles that threaten to submerge his unwilling toes. He responds to this place and engages in activities I once esteemed as a young girl, and hoped to introduce to my own children one day.
We are connected by that invisible thread that links me to my most treasured past, and my hopes for his future. Once again, my trusted friend has come through, as Zach and I share this love, this bond with the ocean, together. And it is this moment of connection, these settings where we transcend the confines of autism, that resonate and fulfill me most of all.