17 Chapters
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Sit, Quiet Hands, Look at Me

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Sit, Quiet Hands,

Look at Me

July 1993. I pulled into the parking lot of Walnut Hill Elementary

School, the Total Communication Unit where five-year-elevenmonth-old Ben was housed. His new teacher, Ms. Seevers, had called me. She was waiting for me in the office. I was not looking forward to meeting her.

“Come with me,” said Ms. Seevers. “I want you to see something.”

What trail of destruction had Ben left behind him now? As we walked to the portable building, the cellblock, I apologized for

Ben’s behavior. “He’s off his medication. It’s making him worse.

We’ve tried everything to control him.”

Ms. Seevers swung open the door and there was Ben, standing on the seat of his little desk chair, waving a drumstick, and screeching like a power saw.

“Sit, ” the teacher commanded. Ben sat down. She took the drumstick away from him and gave him a piece of goldfish cracker. He waved his hands in front of his face and hummed like a band saw.

“Quiet hands,” she said. He rested his hands in his lap and stopped humming. “Look at me,” said Ms. Seevers. To my astonishment, he did

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Aftershocks

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Aftershocks

Within a few months, Sue’s apartment deteriorated, the second

one she’d trashed. Roaches erupted and multiplied as if by spontaneous generation, hatched from festering food. The apartment smelled like a cat box. Judy refused to do therapy at Sue’s. She brought Ben over to my apartment. “Sue said something about my mother that was so repulsive and hurtful that I can’t repeat it.”

“Oh, that wasn’t really Sue,” I explained, “That was the White

Bitch.”

“I’m not going back there.”

Sue didn’t see her apartment as a rattrap; she saw it as a treasure box. She’d dubbed herself the Salvage Queen of Dallas. When an old

Highland Park mansion was scheduled for demolition, she’d sneak into the site looking for collectibles, pull up in her red Ford Escort, branded with yellow-and-green sunflowers the size of basketballs painted on the car. Camouflage, she thought, but it stood out like a circus clown car. She packratted chandeliers, fancy light switches, window boxes, exotic plants, carpets, drapes, and once even ten pounds of wild rice, found in the upper reaches of an abandoned pantry. She made art, kinetic sculptures, wind chimes, hanging mobiles, vases, and planters out of these recovered treasures, and she populated her living quarters with them.

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Sunrise

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Sunrise

The collision with Dr. Hitzfelder whiplashed us into action. There

had to be a medical treatment for Ben. She had just not been keeping up. Sue and I were going to beat this thing.

“Dan, the doctor didn’t say he was autistic.”

She didn’t have to.

I supposed Dr. Hitzfelder was trying to spare us. For her, the word autism was a label that would lock Ben forever in a padded cell, no medical treatment, beyond help. For me, it was the key that would let him out.

The battle began.

Sue and I had a secret weapon. In the early days of the Internet, few doctors had network access. But I had a dial-up modem.

Screech! Bawk! I logged into Medline, gateway to five thousand biomedical journals, and typed in “autism.” A stream of green letters scrolled across the screen: “Clonidine, an Alpha-adrenoceptor

Agonist, Reduces Melatonin Levels in Mice.”

Hieroglyphics. Would Clonidine help Ben? The article didn’t say. How about the next article? Hundreds of titles. Which of these arcane texts contained clues to the cure? I was going to need a medical degree to decipher the mind-numbing jargon.

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Sunset

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Sunset

But even as Ben rallied, the stress on the family was taking a toll.

July of 1991, Sue and I entered family counseling, trying to save our twenty-four-year marriage. As summer blended into fall, our relationship continued to unravel.

July 23, 1991. Sue and I met with Russ Dunckley, Ph.D., a family

therapist, to discuss some issues in our relationship. Sue and I had struggled repeatedly with my sexual orientation, beginning before we were married. She knew I was gay—my affair with Joel was no secret— but marriage was supposed to keep me on the straight and narrow.

An unlikely expectation, from a twenty-first century perspective, but one that we held on to in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

By late summer of 1991, I was losing control. Beneath the fortress of our marriage, tectonic plates were shifting. I dreamed about a small city in Iowa, like Iowa City, where Sue and I had lived during our first three years together. In my dream, a building collapsed, burying hundreds. Then the top half of a glass-and-steel tower imploded.

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Going Home

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Going Home

In September, Ben and I marched in the 2008 Alan Ross Texas

Freedom Gay Pride Parade with our church, Cathedral of Hope.

Marchers wore red, blue, green, or yellow shirts, rainbow colors, and the church’s theme, A Rainbow People, reminded me of The

Wizard of Oz.

As Ben and I waited for the parade to start, standing in the shade of a huge old cottonwood tree and sharing a blue snow cone, I thought about how far we had come, and not come. Two decades earlier we began our journey. Me, the Cowardly Lion, kicking holes in the wall and fearful that I was not up to the task of raising a disabled child. Sue, our Tin Man, rusty with grief. Ben, our Scarecrow with a head full of straw. The Yellow Brick Road is an image of the changes taking place in our lives, our journey, the gifts we have received.

Ben is a work in progress. The full force and fury of the autism storm have passed. Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, damage is extensive and repair work is underway.

Standing there in the shade, sipping my melting blue snow cone,

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