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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

A FAMILY AND A FUNERAL

Roger N. Meyer

Copyright 2002

All Rights Reserved

 

 

     Twelve years old.  He sat with his mother in the front row pew, his soft-toned green patterned short-sleeved shirt a contrast to his mother's white blouse.  His face was vacant with shock and confusion.

 

     During and after the service he spoke in the same gentle, reserved manner as he did when I interviewed him and his parents five months ago.  At the reception, I drifted over to relatives and overheard them saying that he was outside, playing with some younger children who had come with their parents to the mass. After many people had left the reception hall, he sat at a table near the door, alone.

 

     His father was 58, a wildlife and fish biologist with the state, a Portland-born man who went to the University of Oregon in Eugene and started his career in a small southern Oregon town close to the center of our state's national and state forests.  The boy was their only child.  His mother and dad knew he was someone special from the start.  Deeply religious, his parents realized that their son was not going to survive public school, so they home schooled him.  When you saw his father David, he didn't strike you as a rugged, outdoorsey type, yet his life's work took him on short trips deep into the wilderness all over his assigned territories, loving the fish restoration projects, wildlife censuses and studies and the companionship of men and women with the same passions and similar interests.  A man comforted by structure, sustained by adventure, David's work took him to wild places and into service for his country.  He was in the active military, and then the reserves.  David's work colleagues loved him.  The family's life revolved around David's work, his friends, and their "church family."  Tammy was a stay-at-home mom.

 

     A fatal auto accident at the age of 58.  Tammy said they always talked about what would happen if she were to go first.  Who would take care of Joseph?  They both came from close families and were in the midst of the details when David's death cut the planning short. The Portland suburb they moved to a few years back seemed a good place to settle.  David was working on the house, expanding it, making room for an active boy about to become a teenager.  They never considered that it was David who would go first.

 

     Our connection was the Portland Asperger Network's Game Club.  Since its modest beginning two years ago, Joseph and his parents attended every second Friday of the month, driving the thirty miles to another Portland suburb where Joseph could bring his hand-held electronic games and play video games with other Asperger children.  Game Club had grown to the point where other parents looked forward to sharing time with each other, keeping watchful eyes on their children, knowing they were safe, un judged by their peers, free from harassment, teasing, belittlement, shame and embarrassment at having missed the subtle cues, the invitations to speak and play with other children who did not understand or tolerate their different ness.

 

     For a family so private in their own community, they had a big church family.  The sanctuary was nearly filled by the time I arrived, just in time for the beginning of the mass.  Jewish but unaffiliated, I had listened to the local Catholic radio station and knew the mass, the prayers and responses, the order of the service.  I didn't need to fumble to feel comfortable.  We were all there, strangers and friends, together focused on matters quite outside of our different lives and faiths.

 

     During the hour's video interview last fall at their home, I had no idea how complex and full was David's life, how absorbed in its every detail were Joseph and his mother.  His parents sat there on the couch talking about their son, both so involved in enthusiasm over the opportunity that one night a month gave them all to feel welcome members of a larger community, a community composed of children who were strangers to one another, their school mates, and to many of their families.  By themselves, each of the three families and their children I interviewed were not strangers, not in their own homes anyway.  But their interaction with "the world out there" was often strained, confused, colored with doubt, shame, anxiety.  Every outing provoked a vigilance leading to a drawing together around their child, often leading to withdrawal upon the first signs of tantrum, anger, vocal and bodily confusion, of behavior from their child acting like an infant.

 

     My hour's visit with the three families was at their invitation, a safe structured interlude focused on a single theme.  The objective of the documentary project was to preserve a visual story of a very special monthly event in the lives of three families, interspersed with footage of the controlled chaos of two Friday nights' vignettes and a separate interview with the founder-facilitator of Game Club.

 

     The documentary remains as raw footage, two hours of material waiting to be edited into a twenty minute video.

 

     When I heard of David's sudden death two weeks ago, I waited several days before expressing my condolences on the listserv used by the Portland AS network families.  At the time I interviewed them, none of us could foresee that those 22 minutes would be a gift, a living memory for Joseph and Tammy.  Suddenly, that hour and this family became very special to me.  Discovering my own Asperger Syndrome--nearly five years ago now--has drawn me into relationships with children and adults sharing our common condition.  While I've never married, like my insurance salesman father--a man whose own AS was as unknown in his 81 year lifetime as mine was for 55--I've adopted the children and their families on behalf of whom I advocate as my proxy family.  It is good knowing that under conditions I can control, like my father's professional interventions in the lives of his insurance clients' families, that I can partake of the good experiences without having to be there for the bad ones.

 

     But not this time.  This time my "extended family" has begun to touch me in ways maybe not open to my father.  Perhaps I never saw him grieving over his losses in private.  As my father's child, I am sure I could not recognize the signs of grief even if he expressed them.  Insurance is the kind of business where you know your clients and prepare them for adversity.  Your business is to encourage them to tell you about family secrets, secrets you may have to keep from others in order to provide them with assurance over their financial future when the secrets break into the open occasioning loss.  My father was so stoic during most of our time as father and son that I rarely--and only at the end of his life--saw the cracks, the fragility, the pain in the eyes of a man whose volcanic temper I feared as a child.

 

     Knowing what I now know of myself, learning more of my father as his memory comes even clearer to me through my own understanding of our common condition, I now see in others what I couldn't see before.

 

     Twelve.  A difficult age for any child to lose a parent.  For many of us with AS, age doesn't matter.  Many of us at my age--a few days short of sixty--are children yet.  Decade-old events live with us as vibrantly today as if they happened a moment ago.  For some of us, yesterday "is" today.  In our panic and fright, we aren't as much transported to our past as buoyed by it, riding the crest of each new experience as the inexperienced deckhands aboard a rudderless, drifting ship in high seas.

 

     Twelve.  The look was in Joseph's face.

 

     Joseph has a strong mother.  Joseph has a loving, large extended family, and a church community that doesn't know the meaning of selfishness.

 

     In their friends, their love for one another, their community, I know they will have the strength--both of them--to find their way.

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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