I’ve posted sporadically the last few weeks because Martin and I were abroad. Martin had the week off school for Presidents’ Day, so I packed him up for a visit to Adrian’s country of origin, in South America. We flew overnight, Friday to Saturday. We spent Saturday at my mother-in-law’s apartment in the nation’s capital. Sunday morning my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, Martin, and I flew a couple hours farther south, to the small town where my sister-in-law Cecilia lives with her children, Luke and Rosie. You may remember Luke and Rosie from an earlier post; they vacationed with us in Florida after Christmas. Adrian’s other sister, Claudia, also came south, from her summer home, with her three children.
Confused? Here’s the cast of vacation characters: me, Martin, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my sister-in-law Cecilia, Cecilia’s children (ages 13 and 11), my sister-in-law Claudia, and Claudia’s children (ages 9, 7, and 1).
My mother-in-law, Martin, and I rented a lovely apartment with a well-equipped kitchen where I could prepare stock and breakfasts. Half a mile away, Cecilia allowed everyone else to stay in her three-bedroom home: my father-in-law, Claudia, and five children, including the two who usually reside there. Why did they all go for that arrangement? No idea.
I anticipated challenges on this vacation, and my anticipation was not disappointed. Adrian’s parents know that Martin has autism, but his sisters and their children do not. Adrian has opted not to tell them. He explains that we don’t see his sisters often, and if Martin is going to recover from autism, as we expect he will, then there is no good reason to affix a label that, especially outside the United States, might haunt him long after its applicability. Although I don’t agree with Adrian’s logic or decision, I respect his right to handle his own family. Ergo, mum’s the word.
I could explain away Martin’s ultra-restricted diet with the catch-all “food allergies.” How could I explain his awkward attempts to play? (“Um, he’s nervous because he doesn’t speak much Spanish at home.”) How could I explain his tendency to hide his face when adults speak to him, and in response to any questions only wave backwards? (“He’s so shy! Just wait till he gets used to you.”) What about his appearing, sometimes, out of it? (“Can you imagine? He’s still so tired from the travel.”) How about the fact that he couldn’t spend the night with his cousins, as he wanted to, because I have to carry him, asleep, to the bathroom during the night to make sure he doesn’t wet the bed? I was happy that none of Martin’s South American cousins is exactly his age; the fewer bases for comparison, the better.
If Adrian’s sisters noticed Martin’s challenges—and I assume they did—they kept silent, except once: Cecilia said, “You have so much to do, with Martin.” I responded, “You mean with his food and all the time it takes?” She said, “His food, of course, and also his attention, how you need to watch him all the time.” We were in a crowd, when she said that, and when someone else came by, that conversation fell fallow. I was left wondering whether Martin’s autism will be a fact that everyone knows and no one mentions. Families have those facts.
Martin didn’t “fit right in” with his South American cousins, unfortunately. How could he? For starters, the other cousins live in the same country and see each other often. Martin’s the youngest, save for the one-year-old who doesn’t yet run with the pack in any event. Martin speaks Spanish, but without as much confidence as English, and even his English, while now conversant, remains awkward. And then there’s the autism elephant lurking. I wished I could have told at least Luke and Rosie, the oldest cousins, that Martin has autism. I wanted to see them take ownership of Martin, count him as one of their own and defend him against, for example, the 10-year-old named Valentín who hung around our group and treated Martin poorly. (¡Cállate, cállate!, he complained, pushing Martin away whenever Martin tried to share.) If Luke and Rosie knew why their little cousin is different, I reasoned, they would be more likely to look out for him. We might even have obviated the moment when Martin, in frustration, shut a door on his baby cousin because his seven-year-old cousin said everyone could come into the bedroom except Martin.
Forget all that. Let’s talk about what went right. Over a week-long vacation, Martin had virtually no meltdowns. Not when the horse-riding instructor brought sandwiches for everyone and, because I hadn’t realized we’d be eating, I had nothing for Martin. Not when a neighbor barbecued sausages for the children and, because I couldn’t verify the source or ingredients, Martin had to have a steak instead. Not when we rented bicycle-carts and Martin, as the youngest, had to ride in the front basket seat instead of pedaling. Not when he didn’t get a sleep-over with his cousins. Not even when my mother-in-law was late so I made him walk with me the dusty half-mile to Cecilia’s house.
I attended a concert, a German trio, with my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law. Of the cousins, only Martin and nine-year-old Matías opted to come. Martin took his cue from Matías. He mimicked everything Matías did. When Matías rose from his chair and sat on an aisle step instead, so did Martin. When Matías moved back a step, so did Martin. When Matías played with the cable barrier, so did Martin. When Matías inexplicably made a fist and shoved it in his mouth (I’m serious), so did Martin. At intermission, when Matías decided to leave and go find the other cousins in the theatre café, so did Martin. Admittedly, that terrified me. Martin, for an hour, in a food establishment with a dark, railing-less outdoor deck on a lake, attended only by one-to-13-year-old cousins, none of whom knows Martin has autism and might need extra supervision? What could have gone wrong? Everything could have gone wrong, and nothing did. After the concert we reclaimed all kids and went to an Italian restaurant, where Martin ate GAPS-compatible fish with capers, showed off how he could cut the meal himself, and didn’t complain that the other cousins had pizza. That night Martin chatted by phone with Adrian—read that again: Martin chatted by phone with Adrian—and renewed my fears by saying, “In the café, Luke gave me a bar to eat.” A bar? A what? Crap! The next day, however, I learned from my sister-in-law Claudia that she’d slipped Luke a pre-approved fruit-and-nut bar in case Martin wanted something. Good, thoughtful in-laws.
Martin went horseback riding with his cousins. The seven-year-old cousin was able to ride by herself. For Martin, the instructor had to tether Martin’s horse to his; Martin was too distracted to hold the reins and guide his horse. Still, Martin went, and happily. The first expedition, I was looking for some exercise and hiked alongside the riders. The second expedition, I had a massage scheduled and left Martin and the other cousins to ride on their own with the instructor. A couple hours later, in post-massage haze, I was at a café, sipping coffee with Cecilia and my mother-in-law and musing about whether we should go find the children, when the whole gaggle of them entered, with Luke holding Martin’s hand. They’d finished up riding, surmised that we were probably at the café, and come to find us. Martin took no issue with the uncertainty and evolving plans.
Our vacation site was two hours’ time difference ahead of New York, and South Americans keep late summer hours. We rarely ate dinner before 9:00 or 10:00. Martin hit the sack at midnight or so, and slept peacefully until 10:00 or 11:00 am. He tried new foods. (Among them was horse jerky. My bad. I should have read the label more closely.) When I forgot his swimsuit, he swam in his underwear. He watched television, which we don’t really do at home. He relished drinking fresh juice from a hippie-van-cum-juice-stand parked on the beach. He had a good time. Not an autism-accommodated good time. Just a good time. The kind of good time that might not have been possible if we still dealt with sleeplessness, limited language, meltdowns, and the absence of social interaction.
I’ve been bugging Adrian to ask his sisters, or at least one of them, for impressions on how the week went, and how Martin did. So far, no luck getting him to do so.
The last day, before we started the 16 hours of flights home, I asked Martin what had been his favorite part of vacation. He didn’t even hesitate:
“When I rode horses with my cousins the second time and you didn’t come.”
He wanted to be with his cousins instead of me. One cool thing about being an autism parent is that you can find an achievement in any insult.
P.S. As to Valentín, the 10-year-old who didn’t like Martin and showed it, eventually, when no one else was listening, I told him off. “Valentín, Martin is only six years old. He’s a guest in this country, and he doesn’t speak Spanish well. All he wants is to play with you and his cousins. So enough with the ¡Cállate!, got it?” He got it. Even if Martin’s cousins don’t defend him yet, I can.