Our oldest son, Sam, has autism and Tourette’s, with powerful obsessions and compulsions. Some were episodic, one-time things that he had to do and had to do now, like go over the barrier at the zoo’s gorilla enclosure. Climb over the fence on the edge of a 200-foot fall into Lake Superior. Wander off at sunset in the Porcupine Mountains.
Others were more periodic, things he had to do every single day for a period of six months, a year, a year and a half. Some were harmless, like the year he wore a Band-Aid on his face every single day. And some were a little more frightening, like the stretch when he had to run out and touch the yellow line in the road with his finger to a count of four.
You couldn’t stop him. He could take off while I was cooking dinner or we were all asleep. The best you could do was to try to protect him. His obsessions and compulsions were like an itch that, if he didn’t scratch it, just grew and grew. We’d survived each episode with no casualties. But when he was about eight years old, there was one that I misunderstood.
Sammy was compulsively removing the wire ties that connected our chain link fence to the upright supports and top bar. He was using his little fingers to wiggle the ties back and forth to get them loose. It was taking him forever, but he was working his way down the fence. I’d go out at night regularly with my pliers, and I’d put them all back on.
Sam is not our only child. Over the years, my wife and I have raised 17 children. At the time, we had five other children, so I’d fallen behind. One day, I looked out the back window, and I saw the fence between our house and the neighbor’s house lying flat in the grass. Over by the power lines was Sammy with a wobbling 20-foot-long pole.
We’ve learned over the years that you can’t panic, you can’t yell. That only makes a bad situation worse. So I said, “Sammy, let me have the pole. Give Papa the pole, Sammy.”
Before I could get ahold of it, he swings it. Wham! Wham! You know that gray cylindrical box attached to a utility pole where the power line goes in? He hits it hard, and as he hits it, he yells, “Oscar! Come outta you can! Come outta you garbage can, Oscar!”
He thought the transformer was Oscar’s garbage can from Sesame Street. I had thought his compulsion was bending those wires, but no—it had a singular purpose.
I said, “Sammy, Oscar doesn’t live up there. Oscar lives on the ground.”
“He live on the ground?”
“Yes, he lives on the ground.” Then I said, “If you hit that, you could die.”
“I could die?”
“You could die.”
“I could die?”
“Yes, you could die.”
So 45 minutes later, I’ve persuaded him to come inside and see the Sesame Street video and show him that Oscar does indeed live on the ground.
But I’m not foolish enough to think I’ve talked him out of his compulsion. So I run to the fencing store and buy three big bundles of those wire ties.
Navigating Sammy’s diagnoses over the past 20-some years has taught my family to appreciate the little things.
My wife summed it up beautifully on one of our family camping trips. We were sitting around the fire having a well-deserved nightcap in our little tin cups. She looked up at me and said, “Honey, it was a good day. No fatalities.”
* Told live at a Moth show at the Gem Theatre in Detroit, MI