Robert stopped speaking for the first time on December 25th, 1996 during his second birthday party. It happened moments after he unwrapped his red tickle doll with the squeaky voice. At first Maggie was delighted as she watched her baby push the button on Elmo’s tummy and then sit quietly observing as the doll giggled. But as Robert continued to push the button again, and again, and again, a tiny alarm chimed in her head. Finally Mike gently took the doll away. “Time for cake and ice cream, Big Guy,” he said as he picked Robert up and swung him through the air. No one was prepared for what came next: Robert began to scream, and he screamed nonstop for two hours until Maggie begged Mike to return Elmo to Robert. The frightening thing for Maggie was that when he returned the doll it seemed as if Mike had flipped a light switch. The screaming stopped mid-stream, and Robert resumed pushing the button as if nothing had happened.
It took two years of specialist visits to finally get the diagnosis of Regressive Autism. It was two more years of intensive therapy before Robert was once again speaking. Maggie watched with a breaking heart as her beautiful, solemn, blue-eyed, boy struggled to make sense of the world around him. Even worse was that he couldn’t tolerate her touching him, while she couldn’t bear to feel him flinch away when she tried to hug him. The closest she got to a hug was putting both her hands over her heart and telling him that it meant she loved him with all of her heart and soul. She cried the first time he replied in kind. It became their special hug without the distress of physical contact.
Eventually Maggie could see that Robert had finally become part of this world again instead of a confused observer of it. She watched in amazement as he achieved honours and awards for his academic achievements. Both she and Mike had been average students at best, but Robert was doing math beyond her abilities by the time he reached grade six. “I got a call from your teacher today,” she told Robert one afternoon. He looked up at her with wide blue eyes. “Don’t worry,” she soothed. “Everything is okay. In fact it is better than okay. Mr. Anderson said that you are so far ahead of the class that they are going to move you up two grades.” She watched him as he returned his attention to his homework. “You are going to love it,” she said. She didn’t sound convincing even to herself.
Robert finished outlining the picture he was drawing. “I want to stay with my class,” he said quietly. And that was the end of it.
On December 21st, 2008 Mike was in a serious accident at work; he died on Dec 24th. Robert stopped speaking to Maggie on Dec 25th; he was fourteen years old. He sat in front of his mother with both hands over his heart while she lay curled in a fetal position on the bed. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes as he strained to reach out to her. A month after the funeral Maggie found a full time job. Life goes on, and we have to eat, as her mother would have said. With no money for therapy, home life became a one-sided conversation.
Mother and son quickly fell into a routine. Robert would come home first and start supper; Maggie would come home from work and finish it. She would chat and tell him of her day while he listened intently. Robert was still able to speak at school, and continued to excel in his studies, so at least she did not have to worry on that front. Sometimes she would pop over to his school and peep through the door on the off chance she would hear him speak. But as the years wore on he withdrew from her so much that he was barely able to look directly at her. One day as she stood in front of him with both hands over her heart he walked by, his gaze glued to the ground, his hands hanging down by his side. Maggie died a little more inside.
Laundry day was on Saturdays and this Saturday Maggie walked into Robert’s room and was surprised to find several large new paintings adorning his wall. They were simple but beautiful. A blue background with a brilliant yellow circle done freehand with two coloured blobs inside. Soon she found this drawing everywhere in the house; Robert even decorated a Christmas cookie the same way before carefully pushing it across the counter to her.
Then one day his teacher called and set up an appointment at school. “He stopped talking last week. I didn’t notice at first; he’s usually very quiet anyway,” Mr. Baker said.
Two days later on December 14th, 2012, Robert took his shoes and socks off and walked into the frigid waters of Lake Atawan; he was eighteen years old. After the funeral Maggie sat on his bed and stared at the hundreds upon hundreds of paintings of the yellow circle on a blue background, which covered every square inch of the walls. Suddenly all she wanted to do was find that red doll and burn it. Jumping to her feet she pulled the lid of the toy chest so hard it came off in her hand. Then she stared into the box. It was filled to the brim with journals, hundreds of them. All the covers painstakingly labelled with the dates.
Maggie pulled them all out and opened the first one. January 1st, 2006: “Today I learned that lots of frogs are female because of the estrogen in the environment from plastic bags. Mrs. Peel said that even male frogs would turn into females. I wonder if people are going to turn into girls? My mom says no because there can only be so many logical people in the world. I think that was a joke but she didn’t make the joke sign so I don’t know.” Maggie laughed, and cried, and read on until she came to December 21st, 2008: “I told Dad about the Higgs/Boson particle today. He said, ‘Sometimes you kill me with the stuff you say’. Then he got into an accident. December 25th, 2008: Dad died from his injuries of the accident, but it could also have been from my telling him about the Higgs/Boson. I don’t want to take the chance that mom will die I love her too much so it would be better not to kill her with my words.” Maggie squeezed her eyes shut and took deep breaths.
September 23rd, 2009: “Today I learned about parasites: it’s an organism that benefits at the expense of another. I think I might be a parasite because I heard our neighbour Mrs. James tell my mom that she was still young and could get a new husband but my mom said no because Robert wouldn’t be able to handle it. I have to think of a way to stop being a parasite off my mom. Jan said that if she doesn’t think I love her she will find another husband.”
December 1, 2012: “It is getting too hard not to tell my mom I love her but I thought of a way which will help me to get it out so it doesn’t make me sad inside. I painted a blue picture which means my mom, then a yellow circle, that is my body, then I painted a heart and a brain, and connected the two with a line. That is my brain saying that even though it knows that emotions come from it that it is connected to the heart. It means that I love my mom heart and soul.”
December 9th, 2012: “Today I have decided to stop being a parasite on my mom. She is 37 years old which is still young enough to get a husband. I won’t be able to write any more after this because my heart is connected to my brain and it wants me to make my mom happy.”
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