The Club

Adrian and I attended the Metropolitan Opera last Friday, to hear Russian soprano Anna Netrebko perform Adina in Donizetti’s Elixir of Love.

Adrian was super-duper excited about this event, really quite out of his mind. He adores all things opera, Anna Netrebko is his favorite soprano, and we narrowly escaped disaster, insofar as Ms. Netrebko fell ill and had to cancel her January 9 and January 13 performances. We’d long had tickets for Friday’s performance, and that happened to be her return.

I was mildly excited about the opera, which is four degrees north of my usual reaction to opera. My usual reaction to opera can be summed up as, “Are the Rangers playing? No? Okay, I’ll go to the opera.” I was mildly excited Friday because Ms. Netrebko and her former partner, the Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, have a son named Tiago who is about Martin’s age and who also has autism.

I feel a kinship with parents who have children on the spectrum. The kinship extends as well to celebrities. Doug Flutie (just from a football perspective, the Bills should have kept him, not Rob Johnson!), Dan Marino, Toni Braxton, Sylvester Stallone, Aidan Quinn, that “real housewife” from New Jersey, of course Jenny McCarthy and Holly Robinson Peete—I know them all, even the stars who appear to have children with autism but don’t comment. (Not going to call out any celebrities here. My family also has chosen not to “go public” with Martin’s diagnosis.) I want to support all these celebrities and their careers, because in some way, they know what we’re going through. They know us. We’re friends, even if we’ve never met and this post makes them think I’m a stalker. The fact that Anna Netrebko’s son Tiago has autism means that I want to see Anna Netrebko perform. I want to cheer her on.

Adrian says he doesn’t feel the kinship. Without trying to speak for Adrian, I think he just wishes he weren’t a member of the families-affected-by-autism club. But we are. Regardless of whether, or how long, Martin remains on the spectrum, we’re in the club for life.

It isn’t that misery loves company. I’m not miserable, and I don’t think autism should make any family miserable.

It’s that hope and understanding multiply. It doesn’t matter whether other parents choose biomedical intervention, or homeopathy, or only traditional behavioral therapies. The point is that they want to help their children. We all want to help. What a cool club.

(One more thing about Friday evening: Mr. Schrott, Ms. Netrebko’s former partner and Tiago’s father, was also on stage, playing Dulcamara. He was fantastic. Apparently he and Ms. Netrebko broke up recently, so every time they sang together, I was thinking, “Oh, awkward!” Maybe I’m just a celebrity gossip-monger after all.)

(Okay, one more “one more thing” about Friday evening, this one for readers who’ve stuck by me for a while: Adrian and I were seated next to a retired schoolteacher from Berkeley, who said he flies to New York once or twice per season to catch a string of Met performances. We started talking about which productions he’s seen, and he mentioned Madame Butterfly. What did he think? I asked. “I liked it,” the schoolteacher replied, “except for the puppet. That ridiculous puppet ruined the show for me.” I could have high-fived him.)

Disturbing Operatic Puppetry

Friday evening Adrian and I went to see Madame Butterfly at the Met Opera. In this particular production, the role of Butterfly’s two-and-a-half-year-old son was performed by a puppet.

Yeah, a puppet. A faceless three-foot figure operated by three puppeteers in black. To my conservative artistic range, kind of an unsettling choice.

Five minutes after the puppet’s stage debut, Adrian whispered, “That puppet is weirding me out.”

I whispered back, “I effing hate that puppet.”

I know—totally gauche, right? Adrian and I are not opera-talkers. (Not even movie-talkers, I promise.) At least not usually. But slogging through autism makes parents do strange things.

During the second intermission we hustled to the Met bar to parse our feelings.

Adrian asked, “Why do you hate the puppet?”

I wanted a sanity check before answering, so I responded, “Why was the puppet weirding you out?”

Adrian said, “Tell me why you hate the puppet.”

An impasse. I took a chance and admitted, “I hate the puppet because the puppet is neurotypical.”

Now, wait. Don’t roll your eyes.

I’m not delusional. The puppet’s handlers had manipulated its eerie non-face in an impossibly neurotypical manner. The puppet checked its mother’s expression eight million times. Before walking across stage. Before approaching any actor. Before sitting down. Before gazing upon the harbor for Pinkerton’s arrival. And though its mannerisms were child-like—even too conscientiously so—the puppet shared adult emotions to a flaw. The puppet comprehended anticipation, resignation, desperation.

To an audience member who doesn’t spend her days striving to achieve “emotion-sharing” and “face reading,” or pondering the organization of movement, the puppet’s actions might not have stood out. I, on the other hand, thought, “What toddler does that? They’ve made that puppet the opposite of autism. Why would they do that?”

Okay. Maybe I’m a little delusional. At least let me point out, however, that although Adrian declined to elaborate on his own feelings, he did not disagree that the puppet was affrontingly neurotypical.

It’s possible that, on occasions like this, my emotions would be more manageable if I accepted that Martin has, and always will have, autism. Then I could tell myself, That’s the way some kids are. Martin is different.

But I don’t accept that Martin always will have autism. I accept my son. I do not accept anything holding him back. And so I tell myself, That’s the way some kids are already. That’s the way Martin will be.

I want it to happen now.

I long.

I get angry at puppets.