The sweet, hand-drawn sign on the just-open door mocks your indecision. You can leave now, before you walk in. Take your son home. Zack’s autistic little brain won’t know what he missed. Heave the stroller in a U-turn, get the two of you back on the elevator. You’d claim, correctly, that you’d realized the jaunt was a stupid, risky idea. But you’re afraid the real reason you’d have fled is the specter of other people’s happiness. You press on, bumping the stroller over the threshold. There. Party time.
Balloons in twilight shades bob overhead, plump with promise. Your friend’s son, newly turned four, is only a vague acquaintance of your own son, Zack, who’s a couple of months older. You and your friend have a bond formed of late motherhood and wry comments; your friendship consists of chance meetings, easy drawn-out conversations on the corner, your respective kids tugging at your hands and making impatient noises until you finally, truly reluctantly, say goodbye, with promises to call for a playdate one of these days, really.
But you find reasons not to call, as you have ever since Zack started showing signs of autism. You don’t like how you feel when you and Zack spend time with a mother and her normal child: it chips at your facade. Still, you brought him here. A chance to develop Zack’s social skills could not be missed; your husband agreed. If only you had both thought through the mechanics of the hoped-for social interactions. Because Zack doesn’t make friends. As a rule, he’s silent except with his family, and even then, he talks only when necessary: “Juice!” or, blessedly, “Hug.” The botanical cliches of baseless faith cross your mind: straws to grasp at, reeds to lean on. They’re all you’ve got.
You have, in fact, a legitimate reason for your misgivings at having shlepped Zack along: this is a pizza party, and Zack is allergic to milk, and peanuts, and tree nuts, and eggs, and the list goes on. You call your son “the boy who has everything.” So you won’t let Zack touch a morsel, except what you’ve brought: a thermos of meatballs, potatoes and onions; half a pack of rice cakes; a bottle of water and an apple juice box. He likes these things. You’re hoping the autism will keep him from noticing he’s missing out. There’s that silver lining.
Zack’s food allergies can trigger asthma or, theoretically, worse, though he’s never become anaphylactic. You are not unequipped; his inhaler, spacer, and mask are in their designated plastic zip bag at the bottom of your knapsack. Zack loathes the inhaler. The few times you administered it when he started wheezing far from home, he batted at the blue plastic casing, and you had to clutch his hands to keep them still. At home, though, Zack calmly lets you give him the occasional asthma treatment with a plug-in nebulizer that whirs loudly enough to make nearby talk inaudible. You’re not sure why he hates the inhaler, but the nebulizer—the size of a small shoebox and about five pounds—is too bulky to take along. You’re not going to be that mom, lugging out the nebulizer, searching for an outlet, disrupting the party, ignoring the interested hordes. You catch yourself worrying amid the low hubbub and assure yourself it’ll be fine. The inhaler will serve if needed, but Zack won’t need it because you’ll be watching him constantly, so he won’t eat anything he shouldn’t. The ever-present, never-used EpiPen is stuffed into the same plastic bag that holds the inhaler. You’ve read the directions and practiced on an orange. Plus, a couple of months back, Zack’s doctor insisted you see how it’s done. Slim and pinstriped, he leaned back in his leather desk chair, grabbed the demo, and fake-stabbed himself in the thigh. The speed of the act was startling; the sight remains etched in your brain. Not quite like injecting the orange.
Really, you’re prepared.
Soon the place swarms with three and four-year-olds and their moms, all bearing bent paper plates loaded with steaming pizza. You find a spot in the corner of the living room, away from the pizza-eaters, and you spoon out lunch for Zack. His motor skills are age-appropriate so he’s eating his food all by himself, like a champ. A neurotypical champ. You try to ignore the happy moms and chattering kids, the birthday-party joy that swirls around you. You remind yourself, once again, that there is no quota of normal doled out to the world, that other people’s happiness is not stolen from you. Zack ignores the revelry effortlessly, looking neither happy nor sad, not talking to you or anyone else. You marvel at the pointlessness of your latest effort, your deliberate abandonment of good sense, taking Zack somewhere to meet kids he’s not interested in meeting and whom you’re too afraid to have him meet because they’re smeared with allergens. But Zack’s current silence belies some interest in the goings-on because, as he chews, his big dark eyes are casing the joint.
When he’s finished lunch, you stash the thermos in his stroller, then take him with you to find your friend. You lean against a wall and tell her what a great party it is, and you relax for a moment. Zack ambles about, bending to check out the blue shag carpet, picking up a present and licking it, still ignoring the other kids.
Something clicks on in your head. That box Zack just licked. You wonder who touched it last. Probably fine. Still: you excuse yourself and get back to trailing him.
You’re as ready as a cocked pistol, but it takes a while to notice disaster unfolding.
You hear it before you see it: Zack’s labored breathing. Somehow, something has happened. You’ll just get out of there. You’ll take Zack home and give him an asthma treatment with his nebulizer and he’ll be fine. It doesn’t occur to you to scrabble for the inhaler-spacer-mask combo and clap the contraption over his face, because he’ll fight you if you try, and your nerves will snap if he goes into hysterics here and anyway, you’ve got time.
Ever polite, you breathe deep, compose your features, and tell your friend you need to leave—Zack is getting asthmatic. “Of course,” she says, with the easy sanguinity of a mother of healthy children. Her husband, a kindly beanpole of a man—a physician, some kind of ologist, you remember later—sees Zack coughing and offers a drink of water, a natural gesture unless he knew the gravity of the situation, and you’ve always downplayed the allergies to your friend. So yeah, he has no idea. Knowing the drink won’t help, but feeling the same odd inertia, a certain stunned helplessness, you accept the plastic cup. Watching Zack choke down the water, you’re suddenly as frightened as you should have been some crucial minutes ago.
Still, it doesn’t occur to you to summon an ambulance. This will end okay, because it has to, and you will fix it, because you always do.
The two of you escape. Out on the sidewalk, you hail a cab, and Zack tries to breathe. His small shoulders bunch up with each breath he sucks in. Murmuring prayers of supplication, you deposit Zack in the back seat and tumble in after. You give directions to the driver. Then you hear a sound you have never heard. Zack’s breathing is a gravelly rattle. You are out of time.
Your brain is clanging, but in your mind’s eye, Zack’s doctor beckons, EpiPen at the ready, and all you need to do is copy him. You watch yourself take the injector out of the plastic sheath, remove the stopper, and jab the thing into Zack’s right thigh, through the fabric of his brown corduroy pants.
Zack screams. You hold him tight, keeping the needle in, counting one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, ten seconds, just like the doctor ordered. You remove the EpiPen and rub Zack’s thigh, corduroy strumming beneath your fingers, to distribute the epinephrine. Zack is crying, heaving, breathing.
The rest of the short cab ride, you comfort Zack. You feel a little high.
Back home, you call the pediatrician. He says you did the right thing. You did, you did, yet creeping into your overwhelming relief is this: if he only knew that your desperation to fit in, to magic up an unautistic Zack, could have cost your son his life. You’re not telling your husband the whole story, either, or not for a while. Sure, he was in on the decision to go to the party, but you, the mother, should have known better, sensed the utter impossibility of the situation. Or, at least, reacted sooner. You’ll confess to your therapist, because someone needs to hear it all. But to the others with whom you share this episode — and you will, you’ll live off it for weeks — you are the hero of this tale.
You know the truth: you can never be the hero, and not only because you let your son enter that den of pizza. Self-congratulation feels false, itchy, after all the time you’ve spent convinced that everything wrong with Zack is your fault. You can’t be the hero because you had the hubris to think you could grow a perfect child in your ancient womb, and you scarfed peanut butter on pita while you were pregnant, and you were a tight ball of anxiety for nine months, flooding the fetus Zack with cortisol. Your sins guaranteed an autistic, allergic, anxious creature. Your saving Zack’s life is meager compensation.
But day by day, you keep doing what you do: feed and clothe Zack, model appropriate speech patterns, drag him to therapy, scrub under your nails till you vanquish the traces of dairy or nut you begrudge yourself. And every day you face your sadness, and you steel yourself to just go on because the future will be better; it has to be.
It’s all heroic, though it takes time to see that.
It’s hard to accept that you are not responsible for all of Zack’s challenges. Still, over time, you allow yourself to consider this: Given all the wonder and delight that Zack is, given all the good you see in your son when you’re not too crumpled to look for it, some of it must be traceable to you, statistically speaking. You alone might well be guilty of everything that needs fixing in Zack, but it seems unlikely.
You let logic save you.
Over time, you find that your shame at what you see as your imperfect child and self, and your shame at your shame, are less necessary, and the steel-core truth of Zack as he is, and you as you are, is enough.
And over time, you find that, somehow, marvelously, you’re turning into what you never expected to be: a capable woman. Your lifelong timidity has started to shed, as an unnecessary and binding carapace not suited to the brashness and ingenuity and sheer dogged effort the situation requires. Zack’s potential is unknowable, and no one but you is going to figure out what he can do.
And yes, over your husband’s objections you insisted on the obstetrician who delivered Zack (my body, my choice), a woman who administered misoprostol to speed up your contractions because, who knows, maybe she had a golf game waiting, and your unborn child’s breathing slowed till they quick-quick-quick reversed the drug but maybe, you will always wonder, not fast enough. The person Zack could have been if you had chosen another doctor will be your shadow son forever.
So your fear and sadness and guilt aren’t going anywhere, but, like cockroaches, they hide when the lights are on.
For now, the two of you are safe at home. You ask the doctor why Zack is restless and shaky; he says it’s the drug. As you talk, it’s surreal to see Zack buzzing around the living room, hyped-up but fine. You consider a scenario where you can’t find the EpiPen and Zack stops breathing and you call an ambulance, finally, and maybe it arrives in time, maybe it doesn’t. Then the almost-tragedy veers away, like a roadside car crash that happened to someone else.
You make a mental note to get a refill.