A few weeks ago, I drove the kids to Portland, like I do every other Friday night so they can spend the weekend with their dad, John. Ivan was registered to play at a Friday night chess club for a few hours, and so we drove to the church in suburban Portland where it's held. John typically gets off around 7:00, so we had to wait a little while for him to show up. I got Ivan signed in, grabbed a table in the room for friends and family, and waited.
I always wait in situations like these even though I could leave the kids. Chloe's 14 now, Ivan nearly 13, and it's a church in suburban Portland, for chissakes. But I like hanging out with them, like making sure they get handed off to their dad easily. I like to account for all the backpacks and things they take, too. And this time, I needed to talk to John about Ivan.
That Tuesday, I had gone to Ivan's Open House. Ivan's in 7th grade now. Seventh grade, and, for the first time in his entire scholastic career, he's not in Special Education. The team and I decided he didn't need it in April; in September, Ivan was moved two years ahead in math to 9th grade Algebra.
It had come at just the right time, too. Over the summer, John told Chloe that the twins his new wife was about to have weren't, technically, "his." They had been conceived using a sperm donor since he and his wife "didn't want to have an another autistic kid."
He wasn't devastated; he didn't cry. Instead he asked a lot of questions: "Why wouldn't anyone want an autistic kid?" "Were they sure the babies wouldn't have autism?" "Why do they think that about me?" Then, finally, "But haven't I gotten a lot better?" I have spent so much time telling Ivan that he's amazing and that he's worked so hard, and I've also said how lucky we are that he got so much better, and I think having to confront the idea that to his dad that still wasn't enough was difficult.
Soon after, Ivan started talking about math and trying to place in a higher class. And his interest in chess livened, too. "I'm gifted in math--the state said so," he'd proclaim. "This means there is proof that I'm smart. I will go to college and have a good job."
I spent that last month of summer consoling him in the smallest, thinnest ways. I didn't want to bring up what his dad had said, but I understood the way his mind was working through the problem that had presented itself.
And, truthfully, focusing on Ivan made it easier to ignore that John had said. It wasn't that I thought it was a bad idea--the sperm donor, I mean. I did. John didn't handle it well the first time, and his wife is described by the kids as "self-centered." But to tell any of your children that this was the (presumably) difficult choice you made is unconscionable. Even if Ivan had never gotten wind of it, to burden Chloe with it was irresponsible at best. That there was any chance of Ivan finding out makes it even worse.
That's why Ivan skipping ahead two years in math was no small thing, and it came at just the right moment. Ivan beamed when he found out, promised to study hardand do all his homework.
Still, when I approached Ivan's math teacher at the end of Open House, it was with the queasy stomach mix of anticipation and anxiety because I knew how much it meant to him.
"I just wanted to check in," I said, "about Ivan."
His teacher, Jens, looked a little surprised and said, "Oh! Ivan."
My stomach did a quick flip-flop. This, I already knew, meant things weren't going well
As it turned out, things weren't actually terrible yet. The problem was that so much of the class centered around small groups working together to solve complex problems. Each group member had a specific role and set of tasks, but Ivan wasn't participating in his group. "He's one of the few I haven't been able to crack yet," Jens said. "He just doesn't talk at all. He shuts down."
That night, I asked Ivan what was happening in math.
Ivan looked down. "There's a kid in my group from Edison,*" he said. "In second grade he called me a retard a lot. Then when he saw me in math, he looked all shocked and said, 'You used to be stupid. So what happened?'"
Ivan started crying. Then it all came pouring out: how everyone else in his group was a year ahead of him, how he'd spend minutes thinking of what to say, how he'd not be able to find an entry point.
At one point, Ivan wailed, "And I know if I don't figure out how to do this, I'll never have a job!"
"Ivan, what are you talking about?"
"That's what studies say. That the biggest reason people get fired is that they don't get along with others." Ivan shook his head, then buried his head in a pillow and cried harder. "I know it's my autism."
"It's okay that it's your autism," I said. "It's okay." I could not bring myself to say what I worried he was thinking: that this was why his dad didn't want another kid like him. That even Ivan with all of his wonderful traits, his quirky laugh, his ability to memorize, the way he tries to learn what to say and when so that he can fit in (every day he asks me, on cue, how my day was), that this was not enough for John. There are many ways to reject a child, but perhaps the worst is to literally choose not to have another child like him, and to make that choice known.
Instead of talking to Ivan about John, I set about righting the situation. I figured out who he'd work better with, I emailed the teacher, and then I checked in with him every day until, one day, he smiled when I asked, and talked about the way his group had solved a particularly difficult equation.
And despite everything, I wanted to tell John about the math class. All week, I felt it, this nagging at the edge of my consciousness: call him. I do not call him unless a kid has been injured. I sometimes send email. This was not an email kind of story though, and as John's weekend came up, I felt the urge to tell him get stronger. It felt like a compulsion, and it sickened me a little.
So I waited in the church, listening to the whispers of parents and siblings in the hallway, and the thin click of chess clocks in the room next door. I imagined how I'd leave without saying anything, how I'd let this thing by my own victory. Wouldn't it make it my own if I don't tell him, I thought. Keep this for yourself, Heather.
I kept to this plan until John and I were headed to the parking lot where he'd get the kids' backpacks. It started with, "Something's going on in Ivan's math class..." As we walked, I talked, hands gesturing. John looked at me once or twice, but stayed 3 feet ahead of me at all times. Look at me, I thought. Come back here and look at me. Listen to what I'm saying.
We passed the backpacks from one car to the other, and I was still talking with almost nothing from John. He closed the car right when I said, "So, it's been hard for Ivan, But I think..."
It was at this moment that John turned away. He turned completely around, and for a second I thought that perhaps he hadn't heard me, so I stopped.
I started to repeat myself, saying, "But I think that Ivan will be okay..." before John started walking back to the church. I watched him disappear through a set of glass doors and down a hallway decorated with Jesus posters.
"Come back here," I muttered.
I could not explain it, but I wanted him to finish hearing the story. I don't even like him, but I was filled with a sudden, inarticulate rage. I would go into the church, down that hallway carpeted in that cheap gray-blue church carpet, and finish my fucking story.
I didn't do it. A church in suburban Portland is a bad place to invoke a principled rage. I thought I probably couldn't pull it off.
The drive home was long and punctuated with headlights along the Willamette Valley, and I thought about John. A memory hit me, unbidden. We were sitting in a taupe and mushroom gray school office, waiting for another round of tests. Ivan was 2, just a few months post-diagnosis. For reasons I cannot remember--fatigue, worry, grief--I had started to cry. John put his arm around me and said, "You just have to remember that this will be the hardest thing you ever do." He repeated it over and over, the way you might tell a child that the shot won't hurt, or the medicine won't taste bad, or how you repeat the small, simple benediction of "I know, I know" when there is nothing else to offer.
In the car, I thought of that moment, and his precise wording, the way he said "you and not "we." First, I thought, he said that because he knew I'd end up doing all the work--all the driving to appointments, the scheduling, the yelling at administrators and counselors to give him what he needed. In that scenario, John turned away at the church because he knew I was telling a story about me, and not Ivan. And isn't that partially true? Maybe what I wanted was praise, some sort of acknowledgement that I am the person who does these things for Ivan, who makes sure that his life runs as smoothly as possible.
Then I thought that perhaps, even then, he knew that he was already gone. That I'd discover that he wasn't capable or competent in the ways I needed him to be. In that scenario, when John turned away, he was turning from a story where he was no longer an actor, and so no longer needed. It was a story I was telling only for my benefit.
For a few days, I was stuck between these two possibilities. Then I remembered that John was the person who called our families after Ivan was diagnosed because I refused to--I couldn't. I know that I cried harder than he did, and that when I described the months after Ivan's diagnosis, I said it was like the world had been knocked off its axis.
It was a moment of generosity to say "you" and not "we." It meant that he knew it was harder for me than it was for him, that it always would be. What a difficult thing to acknowledge--that we were already, just a few months in, on separate trajectories. I think sometimes of that old biblical verse repeated in weddings: "What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." As though marriage, divorce are such simple matters. One time, I called John late at night because there was no one else who could remember the old Ivan, the one who spun in circles and licked the tv screen. Into the static, I said, "Tell me again how bad Ivan used to be."
There was a long pause and then he said, "What happened?"
Asunder. We have not been put asunder, even though it would be so much simpler if we were. If we were, then I could easily dismiss him over the comment about the sperm donor, or a hundred other things. But I know that when John turned away from me at the church, he was just turning from the old wounds that bind us together.