There is the "Feed me now I don't care if it's 3AM cry". The "How many more episodes of Friends are you going to watch before you change my big, puffy, soggy diaper?" cry. The "I'm never going to nap, no matter how long you hold out so just get in here and pick me up because you know you are going to pick me up anyway" cry. And of course, a personal favorite of mine, the "Oops Mommy forgot the baby's head sticks out farther than Mommy's elbow and when Mommy walks through the door she whacks baby's head on the door frame." cry. Even as our babies get bigger and are able to communicate with more than a cry, a wail or a scream, the cry is still what gets our attention. The cry calls moms to action. And as crying experts, regardless of the age of our child, we moms are still able to differentiate the cry of fear, hurt, heartache, stress, and anger.
Yes, we moms know the wail of a skinned knee, the crocodile tears of a broken heart, the stifled, hiding the face in a couch pillow sob of a Disney movie death (AWEnestly, someone always dies and 9 chances out of 10, it's the mother), and the terrified scream of a nightmare. We know when mommy's kiss will make it all better or when more extreme measures are necessary. Maybe it comes with years of training our ear to hear a cry that signals a real emergency so we don't have to pause the DVR during the season finale of Downton Abbey, or maybe it's just that moms have a direct line from our child's heart to our own. We feel their needs, so we know when and how to respond. Whatever the reason, a child's cry is mom's signal that help is wanted or needed, and so, we act.
When Ryan was little, I use to worry that he had some freakishly high threshold of pain. I'd put him in the tubby in what felt like "just right" tubby water only to discover he was firetruck red from the waist down with not so much as a peep out of him. Then as Ryan got older, I believed his threshold for pain was so low that I wondered if he had some type of neurological problem. A tiny little bump to his finger or toe would elicit blood curdling screams of what he believed was certain impending amputation. Then once I knew, once we heard The A Word, than I realized that Ryan's pain level may vary somewhat due to his overtaxed sensory system, but, for the most part, Ryan's level of pain isn't much different than yours or mine, but, how Ryan expresses his pain, or doesn't express his pain, is what varies from you or me.
Ryan had to do a writing assignment about himself. Some of his major accomplishments, things he enjoys, as well as writing about "some of the worst things that have happened to you". It was in this category where Ryan's cry was finally heard. He wrote, "4th grade" then "massive humiliations that I don't want to mention here". What? Fourth grade? There were no cries of help, no screams of injustices, no tears of pain. How did I, his mother, his protector, his translator of cries, not know Ryan had suffered "massive humiliations"?
After a bit of prompting, Ryan admitted that a boy in his grade had been bullying him for years. I felt like someone kicked me in the stomach. I truly thought I might throw up directly on his writing assignment, which would have lead to one more example for my poor boy to put in the category, "some of the worst things that have ever happened to you". I had my suspicions about this boy, in my gut I knew something was going on, but, Ryan did not cry, he did not scream, he did not wail so how could I interpret silence? I was terrified, that somehow, when Ryan needed me most, our connection, the line from his heart to mine, had been disrupted.
As I tried to go back and recall signs of what I had been missing, I wondered, was it my good old bullying friend Denial whispering in my ear, "He's fine, there would be signs if he was being bullied." the reason that I didn't hear Ryan's cries? What parent wants to believe their child is being harassed, taunted and made to feel badly about himself? Even with Denial's influence, I followed my gut and I still warned Ryan's teachers, his principal and his guidance counselor to be on alert for this bully. They watched out for problems, they listened for cries, they looked for tears, yet they were as blinded by bullying as I was. Ryan saw it, he heard it and what's worse, he felt it, yet, Ryan never cried. He never told Mommy to kiss it and make it better. So I didn't.
When I asked Ryan why he didn't tell me, or tell one of his teachers, he said, "I couldn't find my words". Along with my dinner contents, the blood from my heart spilled over onto Ryan's writing assignment. Ryan's words, along with his pain, were buried deep inside his AWEsome brain and he wasn't sure how to get the words out. Along with processing his pain differently, autism causes Ryan to process his feelings and his language differently. It's hard for him to put words to feelings, so instead of trying, instead of crying, he suffered in silence. A silence that even Mommy's kiss couldn't break through.
Bullies are sneaky. Bullies are manipulative. Bullies prey on those they perceive as weak. Bullies are nice to their victims in front of school personnel, in front of students who will "tell" and even in front of the victim"s mother. The bully hides in the shadows where no one is looking, where no one can hear the cries of his victims.
The irony for you bully, is that my son is not weak. Despite your name calling, your teasing, your harassment, my son has thrived. My son has reached goals you could only ever dream of reaching. My son has more accomplishments under his belt than mean names that you shamelessly carry under yours. You did not win bully. You will never win.
In the middle of my angst this week, one of my BFF's said, "One day (insert bully's name here) will be washing Ryan's Mercedes". In that moment, it felt good to picture this bully washing the rims of Ryan's shiny new Benz, while Ryan sat inside looking down at the boy who no longer posed any kind of threat, feeling like justice had finally been served. The moment of gleeful retribution quickly passed though because Ryan does not have a Mercedes today.
Today, Ryan is not worrying about who will wash his imaginary car or what he will be when he grows up or what prison the bully may wind up in, Ryan just wants to go to school, to learn about the metric system and algebraic equations, and to continue singing his heart out in a safe place free of bullies. In a place where Ryan feels valued, a place where Ryan feels pride, a place where Ryan feels special, a place where Ryan feels protected.
Yes, I will probably always suffer from the guilt of not hearing my son's silent cries, for not listening more with my heart than with me ears. I will wonder if autism stood in Ryan's way, if autism made it hard for Ryan to "find his words" and to find his cry. As Ryan continues to grow and mature, I may not always be able to kiss it and make it better, that is the sad reality for all parents. However, just like a newborn baby knows that even if you don't hear their cries at first, eventually you will be there to pick them up, to soothe them, to hold them, and to kiss it and make it better.
Autism may sometimes disrupt the line of communication between Ryan and me, making it harder for me to hear him, but, that disruption doesn't make our line, our connection, or the message Ryan is conveying any weaker. Ryan's difficulty with expressing himself just makes me appreciate the words, the cries and even the banshee wails all the more because I know how hard he worked to"find his words" which makes the line from my heart to his, even stronger.
In this instance, although my heart may ache and lead me to believe that my connection with Ryan was weak, and that I failed him, my brain knows our connection was strong and even though I didn't "hear" him, the love, support, and encouragement Ryan felt at home, helped him prevail. The only thing weak here, is the bully and his meager, failed attempt to keep my son from succeeding.
Ryan is not weak, Ryan is strong. Strong enough to know that even though this bully's teasing and words may have caused Ryan "massive humiliations", when he was in 4th grade, and even though the bully still makes Ryan feel "uncomfortable" today, Ryan now believes in himself, not in the empty words of a bully. I believe going forward, it will be Ryan who will find his words and it will be the bully that will be at a loss for words, for names, for taunts and the bully will find himself cast out of the shadows. And we all know, that without the shadows, the bully's words, his actions, and sometimes even the bully himself, amount to nothing.
As for my friend's glimpse into Ryan's Mercedes driving future, and the bully's soap and bucket car washing future, well, all I can say is, I hope Ryan picks a white or a black Mercedes because those two colors are very, very, difficult to clean and Ryan is incredibly meticulous.