The Last Red Day (and Other Memories)

When you go out and tell your story in public, you never know what people are going to ask. I was speaking in a bookstore in suburban Chicago the other day when an older woman in the front row raised her hand with a question.

“Can you tell me about Ezra’s school?” she asked.

I told her that Ezra attends a school primarily aimed at students like himself: kids with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome and related challenges. It has what it calls a “social skills curriculum.” He’s been there since fourth grade.

“And psychotherapy?” she asked.

That seemed a bit personal. Following Ezra isn’t primarily focused on therapies or treatments. In writing, I carefully avoided anything clinical, except where it seemed necessary. I explained that Ezra, like many children with autism, can have difficulty navigating the social world and understanding the nuances of social interactions. Many therapists have helped him along the way with those skills.

“And medications?” she said.

I didn’t like where this was heading. That’s when my friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a writer I truly admire, came to my rescue.

“I have a question,” she said from another part of the room. “Do you remember the day Ezra stopped having to wear only red?”

Now that’s my kind of question.

In Following Ezra I describe how Ezra, like many children with autism, has gone through a series of obsessions. (I like to use more positive term: passions.) Animated movies, breakfast cereals, alligators: each became all-consuming and each one he embraced with all of his energy. One fixation was red. For an entire year, my son would wear only that color: red sweatpants, and a red t-shirt, bright red Stride Rite sneakers. He couldn’t explain why at the time. But if Shawn or I tried to dress him in another color, he would resist, screaming and stripping off the offending shirt or pants.

I told Amy I didn’t remember exactly when all of that ended, but I was sure that we celebrated at the time. Among  the gifts of raising a child like Ezra are the remarkable moments in which parents celebrate the kinds of things other moms and dads take for granted. When he was three and four years old, for instance, Ezra wouldn’t answer to his name. If Shawn or I called him, he rarely responded. Then, one day, he was in the back yard and Shawn called to him from the playroom.

“Ezzzzzrrraaaaaa!” she said.

And then, instead of silence, there was a reply: “Whaaaaaattttt?” Ezra said, in that sing-songy delivery children use

I was stunned. “Did you hear that? I asked her. We smiled and, both in delight shock. Ezra had responded! We laughed. We hugged. We danced with Ezra and sang the “Hooray” song from Winnie The Pooh.

I remembered that.  But the last day of the Red Period? That moment had gotten lost in the morass of the past.

“I’ll bet Ezra remembers,” Amy said.

The next day, back home in Los Angeles, I asked him.

Ezra didn’t hesitate. He recalled that the year he wore only red was from age 8 to 9 — from the summer of 2005 to the fall of 2005.” Funny, I thought he was younger. But he’s rarely wrong.

“When did you stop?” I asked.

“It was August or September of 2005,” he said. “Around the time Valiant and Corpse Bride came out.” That’s how Ezra remembers things — in relation to the release dates of his beloved animated movies. I calculated that, averaging it out, that would make it some time between August 19 and Sept. 23.

I asked him if he remembered why he had insisted on wearing red exclusively for so long before that. His answer: “Because it’s my favorite color — it’s a very bright color.” Why was he able to adapt to wearing other colors? “Because I was growing up.”

I reported those answers in an e-mail to Amy, and thanked her for the great question. And smiled to myself, remembering that little boy in the red Stride Rites.

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  1. Sandey Fields
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I love this and all of your blogs!

  2. Sarah M.
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    My husband and I had a great time listening to you speak in Scottsdale. I see what you are trying to say here about staying with the positive and not discussing the clinical aspects of autism (because lets face it, unless you have a breakthrough kind of day, therapy is a little stressful). Its funny though, because my husband made an interesting comment to me after the presentation. He said that it would be easy to see the positive when your autistic child has “superpowers”, (referring to Ezra’s memory and his talent for animation). Our son’s prognosis is much less advanced and so sometimes seeing the positive has its obstacles : ). On our drive back to Tucson, we kind of took what you said and started applying it to our own lives and while there are always similarities with kids with ASD, its sometimes discouraging when your child’s “passion” is repeatedly opening and closing the refrigerator door and sometimes taking a moment to break every egg open onto the floor. . .or you spend the day fearful that while you lay your infant daughter down for a nap your autistic son will unlock the front door and be gone down the street sending your heart into still mode (we’ve since installed locks up on the top of the doors but it is still unsettling to do anything with him out of sight-even for a moment). Still, having a higher functioning child has its downsides: everyone unaware of Ezra’s diagnosis expects him to be a certain way and that is very frustrating to both you and him I’m sure. At any rate we took away with us the fundamental lesson that over a decade of living with autism has taught you (at least what we thought was your message): autism has challenges that make you stronger, more tolerant, funnier, and a better person (and probably a better parent than we would have been without it). It can reach into your soul and find gratitude you never knew you had. When a parent of a child with ASD says they are proud of their child, they mean they just won the nobel prize proud! My son waved good-bye (well he raised his hand appropriately) to me the other day on the school bus and I felt goose bumps and tears. I got on the phone and told everyone right that minute. They teach you the meaning of the words exhileration, perseverance, love and again. . pride. That is worth every challenge along the way. Maybe this woman from Chicago was simply trying to relate with your experience. . . maybe she was feeling overwhelmed and looking for unavailable answers. . . and maybe (I hope) on her drive home she came up with the same message we did.

    • Tom Fields-Meyer
      Posted January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Sarah, thanks for those beautiful reflections on my talk and Following Ezra. Your husband makes an excellent point: It seems easier to celebrate when a child displays unique talents and abilities. What really resonates for me, though, is your story about your son waving goodbye from the school bus. That captures one of the true gifts — if you can see it — in raising children like ours: the opportunity to celebrate moments that other parents don’t even notice. At the synagogue where I spoke last night (Valley Beth Shalom in Encino), Rabbi Ed Feinstein introduced my book by describing how parents can find holiness in precisely those moments, those remarkable points of connection.

      In Following Ezra I write about the afternoon when Ezra, then four, was playing the back yard and I called to him from the house. At that age, he almost never responded to his name. It was as if he couldn’t hear; he seemed not to perceive that he was being called. But on this particular day, I called out: “Ezzzzraaaaaa!” And after a second, I heard emanating from the yard, his high-pitched reply: “Whaaaaaat?”

      I was so shocked that I ran to tell Shawn. “Did you hear that?” I asked. Together, we savored that moment the way other parents celebrate a baby’s first steps. Our son was responding!

      Believe we, we experienced (and still do) many years of Ezra doing the equivalent of what your son is doing with the refrigerator door: dumping bins of Lego; emptying dresser drawers; spreading flour around the kitchen floor. It can be disheartening. You wonder how long this can go on, or what will come next. But every once in a while we get to experience those those moments, those remarkable, holy moments.

      Other readers: I’d love to hear other parents’ responses to Sarah’s thoughts!

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