The countdown started 29 days ago just like it has since he learned how to talk. He was afraid before then too and it was worse to see tears streaming down his cheeks without knowing what was wrong with my youngest son. He has autism. I know his “normal.” It has been known to be more normal than my normal. This was different.
We figured out he didn’t like wasps or bees even without words. He saw a bee or wasp and he would get the look he wore now and his eyes never wandered off of it even if I was holding him and the tiny insect he saw as a killer beast was on the other side of a rolled up car window or screen door. His teachers said they were sure he had never been stung there. We would have known if it happened at home– he was rarely without one of us or his siblings. When something went wrong, he wasn’t the kind that could brush it off and move on quickly. But then again, his idea of something going wrong was very different than most.
The music is helping tonight. After so many years, I am sure he will be saying the words– our words, long after me and his daddy have departed from this world. No one knows for sure what happens after here. I imagine if there is a hell it will be a tour through swamps and cold dark places. Tricks that make me believe I’m in an airplane then I look out the window and realize where I’m at when I open the little window over the emergency door and push the fat clouds away and see that below my son is all alone. A little old man in an empty room and a calendar full of red x marks. He can’t hear me even when I yell to ask him if he’s eaten anything.
I push myself to do more. It’s the reason I can’t ever give up. I need to be sure what I told him is true. If he learns the words and can remember something happy and good, that’s enough. This truth might be more important for my own comfort than his. My husband and I knew we needed to build up the kind of reserves that Gustavo could carry with him no matter what. My own stomach would get knots in it as the day neared. I paced and knew the countdown was nearing. We’d be sick of popcorn before we hit the 7 day mark if that particular year the neighbor’s kids graduated to Roman candles. We had mastered synchronize corn popping to see if connecting the loud sounds to something harmless like delicious popcorn would be the magic bullet heralding the 4th of July joined the good countdown league filled with birthdays, Christmas and release dates for summer blockbusters with anything having to do with dinosaurs.
Even though they would thank me for the boxes of sparklers, I knew a freak rainstorm was the only thing that might buy us some time. Having myself wielded not one but two Roman candles at a time the first year my mom finally gave in, I knew there was no way the neighbor kids would let the chance to hold something so closely resembling a stick of dynamite in their hands that shot colorful bursts of smokey POW POW POW into the sky.
He asks the question and then answers the question himself.
“Mom, what is that?”
“Mom? Estela? I said it’s 29 minutes until the TNT goes POW. What’s that sound?”
“Mom, I’m afraid of today.”
“Gustavo is using the words, the talking, mom.”
“Gustavo, what do mommy and daddy say when it’s 29 days or 29 minutes away? When momma hugs you and Mikey hugs you, what do we say? What do you know?” he asks himself out loud. Mikey says, “Gustavo, it’s just fireworks. You’re safe.” Vanessa goes in for a big tickle hug and says, “Gustavo is safe. It’s only a sound.”
He places his hand on the top of the cats head and keeps the puppy at a safe distance from the cat. The new puppy just joined the family at 42 hours before the TNT comes this year. The puppy doesn’t have a name yet. Everyone calls him by the name they are lobbying for. The usual system of naming is on hold. Whoever publicly declares they will clean up anything that falls out of either side of the puppy, makes sure he has fresh water and puppy chow gets to name him. Beta fish, a parrot and flightless duck became Caballeros under the naming promise and it worked surprisingly well until my husband exposed a loophole. The deal was struck but he kept using the name he wanted for the duck. He said he wasn’t saying that was the duck’s official name, he was just calling him that but if someone asked what his name was he would answer with the official name.
Countdown or not, the cat still doesn’t want to be friends with Machete. If Fluffles could talk, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t use his newly found ability to reinforce the message. He would have words and the only reference to safe would be a list of what the puppy better not even think about sniffing if he wanted to stay safe. Fluffles had learned how to open a door using a combination of something resembling The Insanity Workout and gymnastics. I’m pretty sure he knew how to talk or at least use the keyboard when we somehow started receiving gourmet cat treats from a cat treat of the month club. Nothing was safe if it got on Fluffles’ bad side.
The little teddy bear looking puppy smells fresh. The cat hates taking a bath and it’s been a long time since he smelled that way and it’s likely going to be a long while before that changes. Gustavo puts the puppy down next to his newest tin of Pokemon cards to start rolling up the little rubber mat he uses as a game board to play a game too complex for his momma and daddy to understand. We only know he is good at it and understands the rules. He can beat people who are not trying to let him win because they feel sorry for him. He is a force to be reckoned with in the world of Pokemon. His skill and strategy honed every day and people often comment on how well he cares for his collection. He used his last batch of coins to buy a packet of thin plastic sheets with pockets that the cards fit perfectly into. I pointed out to him that he still had some free spaces in some of the sheets in a few of the binders now full.
“Super rare,” he says as he gently takes the lime green binder from my unschooled hands. Colors like lime green and hot pink appear to be where he keeps special cards and I sense that if he had ever picked up the bad habit I had mastered at his age, his eyes would have been rolling as he made some comment under his breath with annoyance.
He slipped his earmuffs back over both ears after the binders where returned to his shelf near the bed. The earmuffs were presented to him on Christmas Day, his poppa bought them last year. He had the same pair he wore when he was target shooting. They replaced the orange and blue earplugs that our youngest carried in his pockets as soon as the countdown began. I was working late and when I got home I found Gustavo curled on the couch with his head rested on his dad who had fallen asleep on the couch too. They looked like the earmuffs the employees at work had to wear when the audiologist came out to do the hearing tests to see if anyone had a shift or loss of hearing.
My husband stretched out his neck to return my kiss and asked how my day went. I hadn’t noticed the cat sleeping in the space between them. He looked like a furry coil, almost like the caterpillars who go into corn overdose and are caught in the tiny pockets where a fresh kernel of corn used to be. Sometimes they unfurl themselves when you pull back the soft waxy sheets to uncover what will soon become corn on the cob. Some just keep lying there like the cat– the corn in their belly doing what turkey does to humans on Thanksgiving. I brought them a blanket. He didn’t want Gustavo to wake up and feel afraid. The countdown was over. It was time. I neared the little plush powder blue foot rest near the side by where our teenage boy had his long legs stretched on. I joined them on the couch and dozed off to the sounds of Noche de Paz. Silent Night playing in Spanish on repeat for the last 15 minutes. It had become part of the countdown and seemed to make the minutes crossing into the 4th of July a little easier. If he was still awake we would have been talking about what tin he would buy next for his Pokemon collection. The 4th behind us and the Caballero family could sleep. No winding down period for Mikey or Vanessa. Gustavo would correct us when we pronounced the names of the strange players that I learned morphed into even stranger shapes with special abilities. It reminded me of the days the speech therapist would visit our house once a week with toys to help Gustavo learn how to find his voice. “Moo goes the cow,” we would all say when she pulled the lever on the See N Say.
Noche de Paz was over and he has fallen asleep. He will wake up a few times and say, “We’re safe. I’m safe. My mom loves me. My dad loves me. I have a brother. I have a sister. Gustavo is safe. We take care of each other. We are safe. It will be over soon. It’s a celebration. Don’t be afraid, Gustavo. You are safe my son.” He will repeat this and insert the cat’s name in one cycle of question and answer. The dog’s also get the same assurance from Gustavo even though it’s probably not his real name. He taps me on the shoulder from his sleeping bag on the floor. He is silent. It’s our annual living room camp out each 4th of July. I turn on Noche de Paz one more time. “The countdown is over. We’re safe. You are safe my son.”