Not Everything is What it Seems. .. . .

The other day, one of my favorite friends posted on Facebook the irony of liking the Disney show “Wizards of Waverly Place” almost as much as her daughter does.  Another mom chimed in with the words to the title song. . . .”nothing is quite what it seems. . .” I laughed because WoWP is also one of my favorite shows.  WoWP is this generation’s Bewitched. . .offering everyone the opportunity to believe, for just thirty minutes, that magic might be made.

It’s unusually spring-like today in DC.  End of the quarter teacher work days means that I’m home with Jack and Elle. . . .mediating as they denounce each other’s choices of shows, computer games, and overall activities.  Rather than listen to them complain this afternoon, I find myself tackling a project I’ve put off for exactly one year.

On my very first barn crawl last January, shortly after we had moved in and anxious to become the June Cleaver of my dreams, if not B’s, I found an old mantle in the #2 barn.  The barns have three levels:  barn #1 is where you will find creative, interesting things that have been restored or just need cosmetic changes, barn #2 is a bit more “rustic,” holding items where you have to crawl over things to find just what you want and barn #3 containing items that need flights of fancy, strong imagination and a lot of elbow grease.

The mantle is from barn #2 and I leave there feeling like I have found a diamond that just needs a bit of polish. Twelve months later, it is the last piece to be refurbished from the items I bought that day.  It’s old and decrepit.. . . and, as I sit today in the sunshine, beginning the long process of making it mine, humming the theme song from the Disney show, I am reminded that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I pour the stripping solution over the weathered wood and watch the paint begin to loosen and bubble.  Like any rehab project, this mantle will take time, often requiring me to almost start over with each step.  There are layers of paint, souls from other lives, all that need to be scraped away until I can find my way back to its beginning.  To reach its inner wood and rebuild it to the point where it is mine.

But this is never an easy project. . . .

When I was very young, in a starter marriage that was a sham from the moment the minister asked us to vow our lives until “death do us part,” I met a women with whom my then-husband worked.  Visiting her apartment one day, I was enthralled by two huge canvases hanging in her living room.  They were both the same, paintings of endless ribbons that wove themselves through loops and valleys.  One was done in reds, while the other wall was filled with hues of blue.

“Those are amazing!” I tell her.  “Where did you get them?”

Becky, quietly, explains that she has done them herself.  Before she was a psychologist, she wanted to be an artist.

“Would you make one for me?” naively I ask her, envisioning a similar piece of artwork hanging over a similar couch in my future.  After all, I am ready for my real life to begin. . .the one I have imagined over the years: art work, dinner parties, grown-up things.

Becky doesn’t even entertain the thought.  Those paintings represent her life, broken relationships, exciting beginnings, different directions.  She can’t make one for me because she isn’t me.  I’ll have to create my own piece of art, I barely hear her say.

I have stopped listening, preferring instead to wonder if, maybe, she will make me two paintings.  I hear her briefly describe how she pinned different pieces of grosgrain ribbon to each other, in varying shades and hues, and dropped the entire length onto a board where she adhered it to where it lay.  Over the following weeks and months, she would return to the studio in the art building on campus, rearrange the light and paint for hours. . . .each stroke replaying a word, a thought, a memory of the composition of her life.

It is this memory that I replay this afternoon as I slowly scrape away the layers of paint on my mantle.  Five, six, seven layers of paint. . .all with stories, no one layer exactly what I thought I would find.  It will take time.

Joining me in the sunshine is Jack.  It is, at the very best, maybe 60 degrees today. . .maybe a bit warmer.  Jack is dressed in a swim suit, patiently waiting for me to join him in the hot tub (I won’t), while not so patiently waiting for the man in the brown truck to arrive with his latest quest:  Ook the Book from Amazon.  If he is cold, he doesn’t appear to realize it.

He and Elle have been playing a game of Ellie the Dog.  Ellie pretends to be a dog and Jack taunts her into chasing him.  When she won’t do it, he yells at her “bad dog, bad Ellie dog.”

Jack can read Ook the Book, but he can’t tell me he’s cold.  He can tell Ellie that she is acting like a “bad dog,” but he can’t comprehend what I mean when I ask him if we can have a dog.  Sometimes the answer is yes, but many times the answer is no.

Like the mantle I am refurbishing and the memory of those paintings from so long ago, I realize that Jack is my canvas, a work in progress, the piece of artwork I am creating.  Where I saw a colorful painting, Becky saw her past woven in the colors and strokes of her paintbrush.  When I look at my children, I hear songs from their childhood, I remember their births, and I accept that one may be a painting while the other is a mosaic.

Raising children is a bit like creating art.

In the future, as the world meets Elle, not unlike a hurricane coming in from the Gulf, it will be able to see and hear exactly what she means and who she is.  She will be my painting that I present to the world.

Still, raising an autistic child is much more like a creating a mosaic than a painting or a photograph.  Years from now, people will see a young man with blue eyes and quirky behaviors.  Sometimes, when we look at mosaics, it is difficult to see the entire picture because we are distracted by the disconnects between the tiles.  Meeting Jack, the world is more likely to see those disconnects he brings to the table. . . .the verbal challenges, the behavioral quirks, the occasional meltdowns.  But I, the artist, will remember the extraordinary effort it took to bring his mosaic to life. . . to see his whole self, instead of the sum of his parts.  You just have to know when to believe in the magic.

Because. . . .living with autism is never what it seems to the world outside.  Like the lives of the characters from the Wizards of Waverly Place, our magic is sometimes best kept inside.


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