“Tantrum” is the only word I can think of for what Violet does, but it isn’t accurate. She does not drum her heels on the floor screaming, “I want!” before exhausting herself into a much-needed nap like a toddler. She wails and screams, “I hate all of you! I wish you would die and go to hell!” and throws hand weights and kicks. She bites and slashes skin. She is autistic. She is intense. I love her.
When most people hear the word “autistic,” they either think of the Rain Man variety, the troubled savant who rocks and counts cards, or the “little professors” that all the books say kids with Asperger’s are supposed to be. Violet is neither. Her wild imagination is more real to her than the world in which she lives and when the world of her imagination clashes with the world of reality, her rage reigns.
Take Wuhu Day. Violet had talked about this holiday she had invented for weeks.
“Wuhu Day is September fifteenth. The celebration begins at six o’clock,” she said. She waved her arms and opened and closed her mouth like a fish, imagining. “All the animals get in a circle and sing the Wuhu anthem. Then we have dinner and tell ghost stories. Then we have a slumber party. I put it on the calendar.”
At the time, I only smiled. She had filled in many boxes of our Yoga Cats calendar with her holidays: Friend Day, Little Bit of Blood Day (alarming, but she would never explain what it was), and, my favorite, Eighty Squirrels Day. 80 Skwerls Day (as she’d written in pink gel ink) was on the fifth of March last year. I didn’t know what this holiday commemorated, but Violet told me that all the squirrels gathered inside a tree to “eat Shrikka-Shrikka Candy and messy salad.” I loved the thought of flying lettuce and all the brown and gray squirrels frenetically nibbling, their round eyes glittering, their fuzzy mouths slicked with gluey salad dressing. Before Wuhu Day, it was enough for Violet to see the day she had imagined inked into the calendar, legitimizing its existence.
We went to Rudy’s barbecue for an easy dinner the night of September fifteenth. I had forgotten it was Wuhu Day.
“Will we be back before six?” she asked.
“Oh, probably,” I yawned. It was a Friday and I was tired. We left the house about 5:15.
The line at Rudy’s was long, and when we finally sat down with our food Violet glared at the sausage and pinto beans on the white butcher paper in front of her. She didn’t touch her food.
“Eat up, baby,” I said after a while.
“I’m not a baby.” A growl. Not good.
“Are you not hungry?”
“I am.” Foot stomp. This was going to be bad.
I turned to Cal’s ear. “Let’s go. She’s close.” My husband’s mouth straightened and he heaved himself to his feet. Wordlessly he gathered our paper cups and used butcher paper and threw them in the garbage.
Violet had begun her breathing. When she begins to get mad, Violet sounds like a cartoon bull looks, great puffs of steam seething in her throat. “What time is it?” Violet asked. Her eyes had tightened into slits, and her mouth turned exaggeratedly down at the corners. She could frown better than anybody I knew.
“Uh…” I pulled out my phone. “It’s 6:15.”
Louder stomping. “RRRRRRR!” The sound tore from her throat.
Leaving a place pre-tantrum feels like Cinderella must have felt when the clock struck twelve. There’s always a rush to get onto the road before onlookers understand who we really are. We might come to the restaurant disguised as a respectable family, but some invisible clock chimes inside Violet and the pretending is all over. It was easier when Violet was younger. Lots of three-year-olds have tantrums, but not many fifth graders.
Still, we keep going out. Sometimes Violet’s clock never chimes, and we fool the public for the whole meal. Even when we leave in disgrace, those minutes before the tantrum when we’re quiet, amiable, legit are so needed. It’s as if we can even fool ourselves.
“I told you Wuhu Day was SIX O’CLOCK!” Violet grabbed the styrofoam container of pinto beans Cal had fitted with a take-out lid and threw it on the concrete floor (we always sit outside; this has happened too many times before. We figure a patio can be hosed down. And the furniture is sturdier). Beans and brown gravy splattered all over, on the cement, into her hair, on all of our clothes. She grabbed her velcro sneaker from her foot and flung it at the man sitting behind us. It whacked him in the center of the back. He turned his head sharply in our direction.
“I am so sorry, sir. Are you okay?” I was smiling, fighting the shame curdling in my stomach. I hoped my eyebrows conveyed contrition.
“Fine.” His mouth was open a little and he squinted his shock.
Cal was on his knees, scooping the beans into what remained of the Styrofoam bottom of the container. His jeans were brown at the knees from bean blood.
“YOU STINK! I’M GLAD I HIT YOU! I HATE YOU ALL!” Violet flung her other shoe at a grackle picking at a bread crust. She nearly hit it too, but it flew off in time.
“Violet,” I was using my calmest voice. One of the things I used to believe: utter calm is crucial. Words must be few. Facial expression must be neutral. The more words I used, the angrier Violet became.
“Let’s go home.” I took her hand and tried to lead her away. She yanked it back.
“It’s Wuhu Day! You disrespected me!”
“Hey. Let’s go home right now and celebrate. I can set all the clocks to six. All the animals will understand. Parties sometimes get started late. Happens all the time—” Too much talking, I realized.
“NO! YOU DISRESPECTED ME!”
“Come on.” Cal grabbed Violet under her armpits and lifted her to his chest. She thrashed and struggled, digging her nails into the skin of his forearm. Cal didn’t respond. Maybe the endorphins kept him from feeling the pinch. At any rate, we fled out the door, Cal pinning Violet’s hands against his chest so she couldn’t use them. Another thing we’ve learned: go to places without waiters. If we pay at the counter, we can get out faster.
The ride home was precarious as always with Violet chanting,
“YOUDISRESPECTEDME! YOU! DIS! RESPECTED! YOUDISRESPECTED!”
I sat in between the car seats in the back, laying my legs across Violet’s, handcuffing her wrists with my hands. Road tantrums were no joke. We were one well-aimed fist away from a wreck. We could have stopped, pulled into a deserted parking lot or the shoulder of the road. Then we risked other problems: stares from passers-by, policemen asking us what was wrong, sitting in the hot sun for an indefinite amount of time with an unhinged autistic kid. Instead Cal drove as fast as he could, I held on to my daughter and hummed lullabies nobody could hear until we were home at last.
Cal carried Violet up to her room, still screeching and flailing, and dumped her on the carpet. The second before she began throwing her toys and thrusting her feet into the wall I felt a pang. Sheepie, her stuffed sheep with the blue bow tie, sat in a circle with her other stuffed animals: Waznoofa the penguin, Copperhound, Gray Purrs the cat. They were all waiting for Wuhu Day. She had created a banner out of printer paper which she’d strung from the ceiling fan with a piece of twine: Happy Wuhu Day! Her rug was covered with multicolored confetti she had painstakingly torn from sheets of construction paper.
I thought about what it was like to have the battle of a festive heart and the inability to connect: the lonely space of her imagination provided her only intimacy with others. The real people who loved her the most forced her to live in the world outside of herself, made her miss Wuhu Day and then restrained her like a criminal.
It was a fleeting thought. Immediately she kicked a hole in the wall, breaking it as easily as an egg with her foot. She threw every beloved stuffed animal as hard as she could across the room. She stuffed some confetti in her mouth and chewed it into a wet ball, then took it out of her mouth and stuck it on Cal’s cheek.
“That’s how you want it? You wanna spit on me?” Cal said. Words plus temper never ended well.
“BAD PESTARD!” You had to hand it to Violet. Even her epithets were creative. She launched her toy accordion at his face but missed.
We didn’t know how to stop her. She was most dangerous when she threw objects out of her window into the street below, where they could fall on passing dog walkers. Finally Cal did what we always do when Violet is out of control. He sat on her. It doesn’t hurt her, but she hates it. It’s the only way we can keep her from harming herself or anybody else, and somehow the weight eventually calms her down. Cal sits like the Thinker, knees like a desk with his elbows resting on them, chin in his hand. I retrieved the earplugs from their place in our nightstand, flesh-colored marshmallows that plugged up the steam in his head. He sat like that for an hour and I sat next to them, closing my eyes, singing. I always hoped my calm could sprinkle the air with soothing molecules and act as a sedative.
Finally Violet calmed down. Sheepie had ended up between the blades of the fan, and she mourned for him until I got him down. Wordlessly she scooped up the bright confetti, untied the banner and threw them all in the garbage. Waznoofa, Copperhound and Gray Purrs did not return to the circle but to their customary places on her bed. Wuhu Day vanished before it ever was. For a while, she stopped inventing holidays.
You can imagine my concern when Violet plopped herself into the car after school last month and announced, “I’m going to a birthday party on April sixteenth.” The look in her brown eyes was intense.
“Really? How nice. Whose party?” I said.
Silence. One of Violet’s rules is that she never reveals the names of her classmates.
“Someone from fifth grade? From your class?”
“Girl or boy?”
“Girl.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead. Austin springtime feels like summer.
“Well, that should be fun.”
I was hoping this party would be a passing fancy, like Little Bit of Blood Day. I was sure she had invented this birthday. She had been invited to actual parties before in the younger grades, when the mommies dictated the guest list and the whole class was invited. Violet never wanted to go. I made her go to one when she was in second grade, and the birthday girl opened Violet’s present like it was infested with germs, shuddering for her friends when her mother’s back was turned. While the other kids bowled Violet sat at a table with her hands over her ears, scowling. After that I stopped forcing her.
When we got home Violet found a purple marker and wrote Birthday Party on the calendar. I noted that this “party” was two weeks from now — I’d better make sure not to go out the night of the sixteenth. No more was said about it. Maybe it was a passing thing.
The next week, though, Violet was talking about it again. “The party on April sixteenth will be a slumber party,” Violet said as we walked to the car after school.
“Are you making pajamas for Sheepie and Gray Purrs and Waznoofa?” I asked.
“No. They’re not invited.”
“They’re not?” This was a new development.
“No. But I need pajamas. Also a toothbrush. And maybe my pillow, but not Lellow Blankie. That’s too much like a little kid.” Violet never smiled, but reported this information, ticking off each item on her fingers. I felt a twinge of foreboding: when she told me about Eighty Squirrels Day she was excited, all smiling eyes and flapping hands. This event was different. She fixed serious eyes on my nose, the closest she comes to meeting my gaze. Was she really giving up Lellow Blankie? She slept with the ratty coverlet every night. It had long ceased being yellow, having become the vague colorless hue of all children’s love objects, as if love was so potent it leached away vitality.
“Okay, honey. Sounds like you have this all figured out.”
“Need a present.”
“Do I need to take you shopping?” I asked.
“You want to shop for something?” I repeated louder.
She sighed gustily. She heard me, the sigh said. She was just tired of talking about it.
At the house Violet began making paper cranes. She is an expert at this. Her origami skills are impeccable: sharply folded lines, perfect symmetry of wings. Her cranes look store-bought in their precision, but they have soul too—she chooses the paper she uses with great care, sometimes adding an expressive eye with a pen, sometimes an indecipherable message written between the folds, where nobody else can read it. She made one thousand of them for herself, but refuses to display them as a banner or mobile. Instead they are secreted away in a brown U-Haul box in her room with the flaps closed, their brightness shut away from the world.
She approached me holding three perfect miniature cranes on the flat of her palm. Something about their perfect fragility hurt so much I had to drop my eyes.
“Here’s her present.”
“She’s a lucky girl. You make better cranes than anybody.”
She nodded. “Need a birthday bag.”
I pushed past the suitcases and boxes of Christmas ornaments in our storage room until I found the plastic bins overflowing with wrapping paper scraps. I did most of the gift wrapping but I have none of Violet’s skills with paper.
I dug underneath the paper scrap mountain until I located a battered-looking gold bag. “Will this do?” I asked.
“Yes.” She barely looked at it, but placed her cranes carefully in the bottom of the bag. Her hands circled joyfully and she started pacing. She was pleased with her present.
If Violet had made a present, that meant she was invested in and meant to celebrate this “birthday.” This time I would be ready. The sixteenth was on Friday. Three more days. I already planned to order a pizza that evening, and I had a boxed cake mix waiting in the pantry, in case the “birthday party’ Violet had planned included cake. We still had leftover streamers and candles from her own birthday last summer. No more Wuhu Day catastrophes.
When I saw Violet Friday afternoon, I knew something was wrong. She hung her head and grimaced at the ground. “Hey, Violet. What’s the matter?”
She glowered at me. I tried to rub her back but she pushed my hand away.
“That bad, huh?”
We walked to the car in silence. I tried again as we drove home. “You still won’t tell me about it? I could help you if I knew what was wrong.” I felt her kick the back of my seat in response. When we reached the house, Violet spoke.
“Check the mail,” she growled.
“Please,” I reminded.
“Check the mail please,” she mumbled. I pulled out the mail key and headed for the cluster of mailboxes. I unlocked our box and funneled out the usual bills, catalogues and junk mail. “I wanna look at it.” I handed the slithery paper avalanche to Violet, who began to search through the stack, her brows furrowing more and more deeply. “Not here. It’s not HEEERE.” There was a keening note that emerged from the sludge of her anger, something wounded.
“What? What’s not here?”
“My invitation. I should have gotten an invitation.” She beat her hand against her forehead.
“You were expecting an invitation to the birthday party?” I felt an unexpected cold prickle of dread in my veins. I was just afraid, I was sure, of not handling the party right. I hadn’t planned on invitations. I didn’t think I had any.
“Everybody else already got an invitation. I’m supposed to go. She sits at my table.”
Maybe this was good news. Violet was including real people in her fantasy, not just stuffed animals. She was thinking about engaging in a social activity with a specific person she knew. This was progress. Yet I was heavy with a churning sadness, the deep ocean under the origami boat of my optimism. I would not allow myself to sink into it, even if some part of me knew the truth.
“Tell you what, Violet. Let me call this girl’s mother. Maybe she can tell us what happened to your invitation.” Maybe we could invite this girl over for cake and a few episodes of My Little Pony, Violet’s favorite show. It would be her first playdate. Violet nodded, her eyes full of tears.
“You just need to tell me her name.” Silence. I don’t understand why she won’t divulge names. “Honey, I can’t help you if I don’t know her name. Please tell me. Can you write it down?” She just looked at her feet. Suddenly I knew how to find out.
“Okay. I’m going to bring the school directory. I’m going to read out all the names of the girls in your class. When I come to her name, you just say yes. Okay?”
Violet looked up and nodded. I pulled out an orange booklet illustrated with an armadillo from the upper desk drawer and thumbed through it until I found Mrs. Meyer’s class.
“Okay. Here are all the girls in your class: Annie, Tabitha, Priya, Megan—”
“Oh, well that’s good. Her mom’s name is Nikki. I think they go to our church.” I already knew the mother in a friendly-nodding sort of way. It would be easier to explain my predicament to someone who wasn’t a total stranger. “Why don’t you go upstairs and wash your face while I get all this straightened out?” Violet headed upstairs, disaster averted for the moment.
I took several deep steadying breaths. This would be a bit humiliating, explaining to this mother about an imaginary birthday party her daughter was supposed to be having. It would mean explaining about Violet, exposing the oddness of our family. There was always shame in this, though there shouldn’t be. Violet can be impossible to parent at times, but when she’s content she is one of the most inventive joyful people I know, more honest than anyone because it’s almost impossible for her to dissemble or charm. When she hears a word she likes, she repeats it and thrills in it, appreciates the feel of it in her mouth. She creates words: “rinchin” is a mixture of salt and pepper; a “tadie” is a tiny container of souvenir sand. Her delight over just the right order of crayons in a line is kinetic: her arms and legs wiggle, her pleasure vibrating outward.
Yet her difference makes her a homework assignment nobody wants to do. Kindness and acceptance of her idiosyncrasies is expected in a society that stresses tolerance; therefore it is a burden. Our family as a whole is flavored with her autism. We’re perceived as tainted, freezer-burned, a real gut bomb. It’s hard to meet someone autism-side-up because they only get a whiff of our strangeness without tasting the whole brew.
I picked up the telephone receiver and sank into the recliner in the living room. I said a quick prayer and dialed Megan Bigelow’s number.
A harried voice answered, “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Nikki?”
“Yes…” She was speaking loudly, competing with kid noise: shrill voices and stamping feet.
“Hi, Nikki, this is Melissa Randall, Violet’s mom? We go to Westover Hills Church? I’m the lady who likes polka dots.” She had complimented me on my polka dot skirt last week.
“Oh, yes! I always see you but I never learned your name.”
“Just call me Mel. Listen, I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you—”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear that. You were wondering…”
“I needed to ask a favor.”
“Yes—just a minute.” There was a beat of silence while I imagined her giving the kids a quelling look, finger to her lips. “Okay. Yes. What is it you needed?”
“My daughter Violet is in Mrs. Meyer’s class with Megan—don’t know if you know that. Anyway, Violet has autism and she’s always inventing holidays and parties and things, and somehow she’s got it into her head that Megan was having a birthday party this weekend. I know it’s strange. Anyway, I think she might want to be friends with Megan and this is her way of going about it. Would Megan like to come over for some cake and maybe a movie? It would mean a lot to Violet.” It all came out in a rush.
“Oh. Well. The thing is…Megan is having a party this weekend. I’m sorry. She only invited the girls who sit at her table in class. It was too cost-prohibitive to invite everyone, I’m afraid.”
Violet hadn’t invented anything. My hand trembled on the receiver. “I think Violet does sit at her table,” I said. I hoped I sounded pleasant. It was hard to push the words out through the tightness in my throat.
“Really? Oh. Well, I didn’t know about that. I’m so sorry. We’re going to a show and we only bought three tickets for Megan’s friends.”
“That’s okay. I really thought she had made the whole thing up. I’m sorry to interrupt the party.” We were always interrupting, weren’t we? We yelled during restaurant dinners. We flailed in public parking lots. We called during other people’s parties.
“No problem. Maybe some other time,” Nikki’s voice was bright and contrite.
“Sure. Thank you.” I hung up.
The thing I had hoped for had happened: Violet had planned to attend an actual birthday party. She had been coaching herself: don’t bring the stuffed animals, bring a present, don’t act like a baby. She was trying to make friends, and they didn’t want her.
I stayed in the recliner for a while. I didn’t know what I would say. I knew what the books and parenting magazines would advise: Tell your child that just because she wasn’t invited this time doesn’t mean she won’t ever be invited. There will be other parties, other friendships. Use this as a teachable moment. This is not a rejection, but a chance to develop your child’s resilience.
None of it was true. She would never be invited. There would be no friendships. Her parties would be things she dreamed, stories she told herself about characters she invented. Every day she sat with these girls, invisible. I imagined Megan grabbing four dictionaries off the shelf for all the other girls at her table, and Violet stumbling over to fetch her own. The group projects where four girls brainstormed in chirpy voices and Violet sat, waving her hands, lost in a reverie about squirrels. The giggling and planning for the birthday party to which Violet would never go.
I stood up and returned the phone to its cradle, then climbed the stairs to Violet’s scarred and aching room. I opened the door and looked at her sitting on her bed. “Hey.” I sat down beside her. She looked out the window. “I talked to Megan’s mom. You were right. Megan is having a party tonight, but you… you weren’t invited.”
My voice broke on the last word. My throat closed and my hands shook and I started sobbing. I held her in my arms the best I could. She never molds to me so it felt more like I was supporting myself, holding on to the mast of a rocking ship. She was crying too. I could feel her tears dropping into my hair. We swayed clumsily back and forth and I realized I was trying to rock her to sleep the way I did when she was an infant. Violet had buried her face in her hands while her back shook. She wasn’t destroying anything. Only her heart was broken. I took a few steadying breaths. “Violet, about Megan,” I began. I meant to say that Megan was only allowed to invite a couple of friends, but wished Violet could come too. I tried to say that I was proud of Violet for trying something new.
Instead I said, “Screw Megan. Screw Nikki.”
“What?” Violet looked up.
“I think we should have our own party. A Not-Megan Party,” I said.
“A Not-Megan —?”
“Let’s do the opposite of everything Megan would do at her party. We can minus it out. If you have four apples and I take away four apples, you’re left with zero apples. If Megan has cake, we’ll have pie. If Megan goes out to the movies, we’ll watch TV. We will reverse everything she does until there’s nothing. We’ll take it all away.” I led the way to the kitchen, stomping down the stairs.
I rummaged around in the freezer.
“I thought we had frozen pie crust,” I said.
“I like cake.”
“All right. We’ll make cake. We’ll have to zero out Megan’s cake some other way.” I turned on the oven to 350 and sprayed a glass Pyrex dish with oil. I found the cake mix I had bought and dumped the contents in the stand mixer. I added oil, eggs and water and turned it on with such force, a cake mix dust storm whirled out.
“I’ll bet Megan’s mom never does that. I’ll bet she always follows the rules for proper cake baking. We’re zeroing out her cake already.”
I poured the batter into the Pyrex dish and banged it in the oven.
“Let’s eat popcorn while it cooks. She’s having popcorn at the movies, so we’ll have it right here. Violet, here’s the popcorn. Put this bag in the microwave and press this button.”
Violet obeyed and we watched the bag expand like a paper lung. She put her hands over her ears when the popping started. “You don’t like that sound? Imagine it’s a village of tiny popcorn people all fighting to get out. Even better, pretend it’s us, popping Megan in the nose.” She shook her head and kept her hands on her ears.
I poured each of us a bowl and we ate it while the cake baked. “Violet, you’re better than a hundred Megans.” She kept chewing her popcorn. She had invented a rhythm: two chews with her mouth closed and two with her mouth wide open. She opened and closed her eyes with her chews.
“Did you hear me? I said I love you better than —”
“I heard you.” Two chews closed, two open. She must like the sound.
When the cake had baked and cooled, I cut it into two parts. I placed the pieces in two bowls and set them on the kitchen floor. “Here’s how we eat Not-Megan cake,” I said. “She probably has a pretty store-bought cake with icing, and her mother will serve it in neat slices on party plates. Not us. We are going in with our hands and smashing, got it? Dig your hands in and squish!” I demonstrated, tearing my cake into tiny pieces with my hands. Violet seemed shocked, staring at me while I cackled and crumbled.
“Well? Why aren’t you smashing?” Violet poked her finger into her cake, then poked it again. She smiled and plunged all ten fingers in. “That’s it! Pulverize!” I mashed my cake until it was nothing but a moist mountain. I pretended it was Nikki.
“Check it out! I’m making a snowman!” I packed the cake together with my hands to form a ball but it crumbled. “Snowball!” I yelled, and threw the remains at her. She didn’t like the bits in her hair and shook the crumbs into the trash can. Then she washed her hands. Not-Megan cake was too sticky and I was too loud, so I handed her a towel and stopped ripping cake. I knew she needed me to calm down.
We fed each other crumbs. We ate them like Cookie Monster, throwing them into our mouths. Violet bent her head to hide her tiny smile. Not-Megan cake wasn’t exactly delicious, but it was satisfying.
We trooped into the living room and flopped on the couch. I found SpongeBob Squarepants on the TV. We had washed our hands but the cake smell was as cloying as a cheap vanilla candle. Then Violet leaned against me. She didn’t exactly snuggle, just planked herself against my shoulder. I resisted the urge to kiss her or smooth her hair. I just closed my eyes and enjoyed it.
The door creaked open and in walked Cal. “What happened here?” he asked, taking in the crumbs and the cake-splosion in the kitchen.
“I had a tantrum,” I said.
I smiled at him, pointing at the daughter I loved remotely, volcanically and absolutely who leaned against me and loved me back.
“I should have done it years ago.”