The three-by-five-inch portraits of each person in the program had been spread across the table in front of Robertito. The little boy rubbed his nose like an infant, mashing the palm of his hand into his fingers as he pushed haphazardly against his face. A satisfied rumbling gurgled in his throat. He raised his eyebrows and then sighed.
“You are ready now?” Roby asked gently, admiring the chiseled features of his son’s face. “Good. Who is this?” he asked, pointing at his wife’s photograph. He watched his son, trying to retain each movement, each little facial expression. Roby had tried to wish this day away, but couldn’t.
Robertito looked directly at his mother’s portrait and touched the surface of the print with his finger tips. “Mama,” he blurted.
“Yes. That’s perfect. Perfect!” Roby clapped and cheered. He took his child’s hand. “Soon you will have your Option degree. Okay, ready? Who is this?”
The little boy identified Lisa quickly, then Laura, Carol, Suzi and me. His recent progress and participation amazed everyone. When Roby introduced a book, his son flipped the pages like a scholar, then tapped the cover with his finger. He cocked his head to the side and listened to the rhythmic sound. A simple gesture became a self-stimulating activity.
“If you want to tap, papito, you tap,” Roby said, participating and waiting patiently until the boy exhausted his impulse and pointed to an owl. “What’s that?” When Robertito did not answer, his father proceeded to make the sound of the animal.
Robertito touched his nose to the picture and said owl. Elated, Roby pointed to the turtle, a difficult word to pronounce in Spanish. Within seconds, Robertito identified it. In addition to the more common farm animals, he named the seal, a beaver, a crab, kangaroo, squirrel and cricket.
“Musica ” Robertito announced as he left his chair and picked up the tape recorder.
“Yes. Yes,” Roby chanted, delighted with his son’s continuous contact. He had worked both his and Francisca’s session today, insisting on monopolizing his son’s time … at least for this day. Father and son danced together for a short period, then Robertito ran over to the life-sized Popeye balloon. He “ismed” at it, almost in the form of a greeting, then hugged it, kissed it and finally dragged it into the center of the room. He initiated a “two-step” and rocked to the music with Popeye as his partner. His father laughed. Despite the “isms,” the lack of sophisticated language and the periods of withdrawal, Robertito appeared worldly to him in comparison to his vegetative-like existence only six months before.
Toward the end of the second session, Roby Soto sat opposite his son as he fed him dinner. Each time the child looked beyond the spoon, he tried to engrave the glance in his memory. In a teaching context, he spoke very simply and directly to his son as he had been trained. But since having watched Suzi and me, on occasion, talk to Robertito as a peer, he freed himself to communicate his feelings and thoughts to his child without needing to know if his son understood. He wanted to express himself and risked using speech as one less-than-perfect path through the silence. He knew something of what he felt would touch his son.
“Papa has something to tell you.” He delivered a heaping spoonful of fish to Robertito’s opened mouth. The boy smiled. “Good, my son. You like it. It’s protein. Very good for you, papito.” While the youngster ground the food between his teeth, Roby imitated that same chewing motion and made the same purring sounds echoing from his throat. Robertito giggled as he stared at his father’s mouth.
“Tomorrow I will have to leave,” Roby said. “This time, papito, it will be a long time until I return. Many months will pass before I can come back to, you and Mommy.” He turned away from his son and stared at the floor. He sighed heavily before resuming. “I must help my business so you can stay here to learn and grow. Do you understand?”
Robertito delighted in the meal. He did not respond directly to his father’s words or question, but his face reflected a certain attentiveness to the spoken sounds.
“I don’t want to leave you or Mommy, but I don’t know any other way to help keep you here. I don’t want to leave, Robertito.” He had to stop talking and fortify himself. He wanted to be clear for his son. Roby knew he would not see Robertito for at least four or five months, maybe half a year. He worried that somewhere in that strange and complex brain, his child might interpret his absence as desertion. “Papa loves you, more than anything in the world; Papa loves you and Mommy and all the nice people who help us.” Robertito tried to grab the cup of food. “You don’t have to do that. I will give you all you want.” As soon as he fed the child another gulp, the boy sat back into the chair and chewed with great concentration and satisfaction.
“You will always be with me in my heart. I will never forget you, not even for a second, papito.” He stroked the hair off Robertito’s forehead. He thought of his own father, who never touched him except to hit him or hurt him. Hadn’t he understood? Couldn’t he see? To Roby, nothing was more precious than his own child. He felt himself blessed, not burdened, in the presence of his son. He couldn’t imagine striking this little boy. As he touched his son’s cheek with the tips of his fingers, he closed his eyes. He wanted the impression to be so intense that he could re-experience it thousands of miles from here and many months from now. He wanted his finger tips to remember in the same fashion that he commanded his mind to retain each image and each sound his son made.
At the airport, Francisca handed her husband a small package wrapped like a gift. He peered at her, surprised and slightly embarrassed. He hesitated, wishing he had something for her.
“Go ahead,” Francisca said. “Open it.”
Roby removed the tape carefully without destroying the paper. When he uncovered the overalls which his son had worn on their last day together, he pressed his teeth together, trying to be strong, trying to smile. He held the garment in front of his face and inhaled deeply. Then Roberto Soto began to cry. Francisca took his hands and squeezed tightly. They stood alone, facing each other, as people pushed past them in the busy terminal.
“You concentrate on Robertito and yourself,” Roby counseled, forcing a tearful half-smile. “Sometimes I am very sentimental, but I will be fine, especially if I know you and our son are happy here in New York.” His voice began to crack. Roby inhaled deeply, then hugged his wife. “Mommy, I am very proud of you.”
The following week, Laura gave notice , offering her continued support and input until we trained a replacement for her and Roby. Rather than search for two people, we tried to find someone who could give us enough hours to fill all the gaps. Suzi and I began the hunt at local high schools and colleges. Carol, who had been pressed by her fellow students, submitted several names. We tried to pre-screen people on the telephone, explaining our perspective and our program. The idea of learning Spanish frightened most people. To our amazement, despite the huge Hispanic population in and around New York City, no bilingual students applied.
Our particular young lady made a very special impression on the phone. She didn’t say anything particularly insightful or memorable. She didn’t attempt to dazzle us with references or any academic accolades. A special warmth and enthusiasm permeated her every word. She knew Carol, attended the same college and had heard my talk as guest lecturer the preceding year. We decided to schedule her for the first appointment.
Jeannie didn’t walk through the door, she bounced into our living room with an amazed smile on her face. She wore a white polo shirt with a funny Snoopy-type character on it. “I’m here. I’m really here,” she giggled. She embraced us without hesitation. “I feel I know you and Raun and Robertito. Thanks for seeing me.”
We smiled at each other and laughed spontaneously. Her vivacious grin displayed her immediate comfort. Suzi and I both knew, in that very instant, that Jeannie would be a wonderful addition to the program. She relaxed her tall, trim form on the couch and listened attentively before responding. “I want to help,” she said. “I do very much.”
In many ways, her easy smile and open affection reminded me of Suzi. As a special education major, Jeannie had worked with a variety of children with different problems. She had just begun to question techniques and attitudes when a teacher exposed her to Son-Rise. The method articulated in the book seemed like a dream, a fantasy rather than fact. And yet, at the same time, she talked about it as being direct, simple and obvious. Her interest in education was based on her attraction to people who were loving, yet she reported finding many harsh professionals working with children.
Jeannie hoped she could add something special to a student’s life … like caring and humanity. As we sat together and talked, it seemed as if we had all known each other for years. Even her nervousness in answering some questions could not sedate her vigor and animation.
“You’re on,” I said to her, acknowledging what Suzi and I already knew.
Jeannie looked at us.
“I think you’d have something special to offer Robertito and all of us,” Suzi added.
“You’re kidding.” She laughed self-consciously this time, then smiled. “You’re not kidding.” Without saying another word, Jeannie hugged Suzi, then planted an impassioned kiss on my cheek.
“When could you start?” I asked.
“Today. Now. Whenever you want,” Jeannie blurted.
“C’mon with me,” Suzi said. “I’ll bring you over to the Soto house and you can begin by meeting Francisca and Robertito.”
For the next two weeks, we concentrated all our energy on Jeannie. In our dialogue sessions, she confronted her doubts about herself willingly, even questioned her talents as a teacher. Her fear of being judged by an observing supervisor plagued her most. I could have assured her she would not be judged in our program, but I chose, instead, to help her deal with the anxiety and underlying beliefs. Since she would tandem teach and participate in feed-back sessions, eventually, I wanted her to find her own strength rather than rely on us for support.
When she arrived for the second teaching session with Suzi, Jeannie brought a huge, stuffed monkey slightly larger than Robertito. The big, blue furry animal wore a Scottish plaid hat with a matching jacket. Together with Suzi, she introduced “Chango” to our little friend. On request, he hugged and kissed the enormous doll. Often, while working puzzles or lottos with Suzi, Robertito glanced at the new figure leaning against the wall. Finally, he broke away from the teaching session to confront Chango directly. He tried unsuccessfully to push his little fingers between the monkey’s sealed lips, then he flapped his hands in front of the doll. Suzi half-expected the animal to respond in kind. Thoroughly confused by the doll’s inertia, Robertito pushed it several times. Then, he leaned forward and hugged and kissed Chango spontaneously.
“I don’t believe you, Robertito Soto,” Suzi exclaimed. “You’re beginning to make friends with the whole world.” She cheered the little boy as did Jeannie, who laughed boisterously, flattered by the effect of her gift.
After that session and the others which followed, Jeannie bombarded Suzi with questions in an attempt to understand every aspect of the teaching process. Later, she observed Robertito’s other mentors. Carol and Chella spent evenings with her, helping her learn Spanish and perfect her pronunciation. Jeannie Kannengieser gushed with enthusiasm, turning a face full of love toward all of us.
The transition of changing teachers, the initial phasing-out of Laura and the constant monitoring of Robertito consumed a massive portion of our time and energy. Like all the others in the program, Suzi and I sought to keep ourselves clear and vitalized, but our efforts were diverted rudely for several days after the arrival of our “Son-Rise” script, which we had submitted during the summer. Changes, which represented gross inaccuracies, had been implanted throughout the draft. In effect, a Hollywood writer, having no clear awareness of actual situations, worked diligently under the producers’ direction and added formula changes which included a bit of violence, a subdued version of a car chase and two token bedroom scenes. Rather than risk trusting the story, violence, action and some sex had been added. The revisions we demanded and ultimately received, resulted in a final script very close to our original. But the battle to force the producers to adhere to the original story required over four months of constant legal skirmishes. Often, in the midst of a Wednesday night meeting or while observing Robertito, an urgent phone call or courier from Los Angeles interrupted. Each time I considered walking away, I thought of Raun’s comment to Lisa: “Everything happens for a reason.”
The moon illuminated the room with a blue-gray light. I propped my head against the arm of the couch at an angle which afforded me a panoramic view of the sky through the windows of my one-room Option house. I waited alone, silently – my phone unplugged from the jack. The wind whistled through the trees. Clouds, trimmed with white halos, whipped across the horizon at great speed. Then the footsteps intruded. Twigs cracked under the pressure of heavy shoes. A caped figure suddenly appeared outside the sliding glass doors.
Bizarre limbs slowly rose from its side, giving the form a bird-like appearance. A groan penetrated the walls of my room. Then two hands separated from the outer garment and hung precariously on either side of the head of this hooded figure. The flapping gestures were oddly familiar, but the hissing sounds were unmistakable.
“Eee-o, eee-o, eee-o,” Laura whined, entering the room with a flurry.
I began to applaud as she tackled my legs, dumping me rudely off the couch onto the floor. Carol arrived for her session seconds later.
“I don’t want to take Carol’s time,” Laura said. “I, sorta, you know…” She assumed a boxer’s stance and jabbed me several times in the chest and shoulders, then hugged me. “Jeannie took over my sessions with Robertito. I watched her for a while. She’s good … real good.”
“That’s because you helped train her,” I said.
She nodded her head, forcing a bright smile. “I won’t take up your time with more Rha-Rha crazies. I, a…” Laura touched Carol’s hand, hugged me, then scooted to the door. She turned, her face engulfed in another smile. “I thought it would be easy to leave.”
“You’re not going to get rid of us so quickly,” I said.
“I know,” she whispered. “Thanks, Papa Bear,” she mumbled as she left.
Carol and I sat facing each other without talking for several minutes.
“First Roby and now Laura. I can’t imagine the program without them,” Carol said. “Every time I arrive for my sessions with Robertito, I think I’m going to get my good morning greeting from Roby. It’s hard to believe he’s not there.”
“Maybe that’s because he’s still there,” I offered. “For the moment, only his body is missing.”
Carol grinned. “Well, at least Laura’s body will be here.” Her expression clouded. A faint rocking motion dominated her body. “Bears, I think I’ve been pushing Robertito and he knows it. Today, he cried and avoided me for over an hour.”
“Why do you think you’ve been pushing him?” I asked.
“It’s something we’ve never really talked about.” She squinted her eyes. “You see, ever since I started, I’ve had this little arrangement going … sort of an expectation. I thought if Robertito could make it through autism, then, well, I could do it with epilepsy. During the middle of the summer, when he drifted real far away from us, my seizures actually increased. Like I was tied to him.”
“Do you believe you are?”
“That’s just it. When I realized what was happening, it didn’t affect me any more. I kind of pushed away.” Her eyes fluttered nervously. “Now that he’s on the move again, I hooked myself in all over again. I sort of need him to move.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s going to sound silly, but I’m right back to – if he can make it, so can I.”
“Why do you believe his movement has anything to do with yours?”
She laughed self-consciously. “It’s ridiculous. I know that. I mean…” Carol aborted the sentence and closed her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice dropped an octave, reflecting the inner strain. “It’s kind of like a sign.”
“What do you mean?”
“I needed something to believe in. My doctor said both our diseases are incurable. But if Tito could break out of it, then what he said couldn’t be true … and if it’s not true for Robertito, then it’s not true for me.”
“Why do you need Robertito’s progress to decide whether it’s true or not for you?” I asked.
“It sounds dumb, doesn’t it?”
“In what way do you see it as dumb?”
“I know better, I do,” she answered. “That’s what I’ve really learned from these sessions. Nobody does it for Robertito. We might help, but every time he learns something or builds something, he does it… not us. It’s kind of like my wishing him to do it for both of us … like some sort of magic. How could I do that to him?” Carol pressed her hands against her temples and groaned.
“What are you feeling?”
“Guilty. Like I laid my problems on some little kid. This would be easy if I didn’t care about him, but I love him. Sometimes I feel like I’m his mother too.” She shook her head. “I’ve been pressuring him for something that has nothing to do with him.” Her face flushed. “I feel terrible.”
“Look what I did.”
“Why do you feel terrible about what you did?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t you feel the same way, Bears?”
“If I did, I’d have my reasons. What are yours?”
“I don’t know,” she declared.
“What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t feel terrible?”
She slumped into the couch. “Then I guess I might just be stupid enough to do it again.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Do you believe that if you didn’t feel terrible about what you did, you would do it again?”
Carol looked at me quizzically, then exhaled noisily. “No. The more aware I am, the easier it is for me to handle things the way I want. I won’t press him any more, I know that now.”
The remainder of the session focused on her seizures, which had decreased since she began working with us. She attributed that, in part, to her burgeoning happiness and comfort. The subsequent increase and decrease of the seizures during that short period in the summer furthered her conviction about the impact of her attitude on her illness. It also reinforced her awareness of the separateness between her and Robertito. Even as he had continued to withdraw, she noted a small improvement in her own condition.
“Do you think I could stop them?” she asked, leaning forward.
“What do you think?” I countered.
“C’mon, Bears, I want to know what you think.”
“Carol, it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not a doctor giving you medicine or a priest giving you advice. It’s your body. It’s your illness. Ultimately, it’s your decision. Nobody knows more about you than you.”
“Okay.” She closed her eyes again. “My neurologist said Dilantin would control it, but the drug didn’t … not really.” She peered at me, locking her eyes into mine. “Even after years on the medication, I have had almost as many seizures. It’s only in the past four or five months, since I’ve been with Tito, that it’s decreased. I can’t remember feeling generally as happy or clear as I do now. And, you know, I haven’t had one seizure in the last two weeks.” Suddenly she grimaced. “It gets so damn confusing. What controls it? My body chemistry? The drugs? Or my attitude? The doctor insists it’s out of my control, just like the other experts insist brain damage and autism are out of Robertito’s control. I wish I was as courageous as … as Raun.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He went the whole route.”
“And why do you think he did it?” I questioned.
“Because he wanted to,” she acknowledged. “He did it because he wanted to.”
Chella sat on the opposite side of the table from Robertito. The morning had been a series of ups and downs for her. First he worked beautifully with the puzzle and pegboard, then he paced and “ismed” for over half an hour. They danced together for ten minutes, then he refused to participate for almost twenty minutes. As part of a new thrust, she asked him to use words as a whole, rather than break them into syllables. He seemed to understand completely for the first hour, but, soon afterward, he broke every word he used into sections again. Ca-ba-llo instead of caballo. Rober-ti-to instead of Robertito. She didn’t want to ask him for more than he could handle. Chella remembered how her sister would often explode into a tantrum when the world became too difficult for her. She felt a protectiveness for Robertito.
“Okay, my silly friend, I’m going to make it easy for you. She set out five blocks on the table, all different sizes and colors. “Can you give me the blue one?” He pushed the blocks off the table. “Well, I can see you want to try something else.” She opened the animal book in front of him. “They’re a lot more fun to look at, aren’t they?” She surveyed the forms depicted on the two opened pages, trying to decide which was the most familiar to her student. Perhaps, she thought, if he could succeed in such an easy exercise, he might be willing to tackle more difficult tasks. The cow. He had been able to identify the cow for many months. Before she could make her request, Robertito picked up his hand and aimed his index finger at the cow.
“How did you know?” she murmured out loud, laughing at his move. As she searched the page, she concluded the duck might be the second-best choice. Easy. Make it easy for him. When Chella turned to address Robertito, she knocked the peg set off the table accidentally. She bent down and retrieved it. Smiling at her own clumsiness, she climbed back into the chair. Robertito’s pose startled her. He had his finger pressed against the picture of the duck. Her body stiffened as if shocked electrically. She knew she had not verbalized her request. The child’s soft, infantile smile sedated her initial panic. Her eyes drifted across the page one more time. She purposely looked at the ceiling and visualized the spotted dog. Within seconds, Robertito changed his position. Chella hesitated, biting her bottom lip. Finally she forced her eyes to peer at the table. Impossible! Ridiculous and impossible! Robertito touched the spotted dog while watching her, apparently awaiting her next request. She kept mumbling denials of what she saw. The little boy withdrew his hand and started flapping it beside his head. The calm evident in his face fractured as he began to whine.
Chella pulled the book away and closed it. It was the second time in a week that this had happened with Robertito. Though she had begun to trust her dreams, like the one about visiting New York two weeks before she ever knew she would come, this event frightened her. Could he know her thoughts? Could she move him without speaking? Chella mumbled the word “impossible” over and over again, hoping to convince herself by repeatedly denying what she suspected.
“Dance, Robertito. Come, dance with me.” She stroked his face with great tenderness as she voiced her suggestion. Chella danced with Robertito, refusing to engage in any complex games. She wanted to strip her mind, to start again. Her increased relaxation in the session and her love for this child had solidified a bond which scared her. Chella tried to lose herself in the music in an effort to diminish her discomfort.
An hour passed. As she sat on the floor feeding Robertito, he pointed to a spot about a foot below the ceiling. This was the same point he stared at often during his work sessions in this room.
“Mira, mi amor, comida para un nino fantastico,” she bellowed, drawing his attention momentarily to her. While he chewed, he looked up and pointed again.
Suzi entered the room to take the next session. Initially, she sat against the wall and watched, thankful for the moment’s rest, having worked a four-hour training session with Jeannie earlier in the morning and then spending two hours with me on the phone with our lawyer concerning the “Son-Rise” script dispute. Robertito appeared more attentive than earlier in the day when she, too, had experienced his constant moving toward us and away from us. The sessions had a seesaw quality. “What is he pointing at?” she thought as his arm snapped up four different times. Chella tried to ignore the diversion. When Suzi took charge, Chella kissed her and Robertito. Just as she turned to leave, she heard Suzi ask a question that she herself had suppressed for the last half hour.
“What do you see, Robertito?” Suzi asked.
The youngster stared into space. Although he had turned away many times, his eyes returned to the exact same spot. “Face,” he answered, matter-of-factly. Suzi’s mouth dropped open. Chella gasped and left the room immediately.
Alone with Robertito, Suzi wanted to test his response a second time. She asked him to touch his nose, hair and eyes, then she remained silent. The moment he completed the short exercise, Robertito turned and stared at the same spot again.
“What do you see, Robertito?” Suzi questioned.
“Face,” he said.
Suzi took a deep breath. “What kind of face?” The child did not respond. “What kind?” Again he did not answer. She rephrased the question. “Is it a happy or sad face? Happy or sad?”
Without hesitation, Robertito said: “Happy.”
Suzi laughed, releasing the rush of tension which had just assaulted her body. “Thank God … at least it’s a happy face.” She did not want to draw any conclusions from what Robertito thought he saw. Just as she would not want to deprive him of his autistic world, she would not want to diminish any other openings he might have discovered in the cracks of the universe.
The scene I encountered upon my arrival defied anything I could have fantasized. Suzi and Robertito faced each other on the floor. They both sat in perfect yoga positions, legs folded in half-lotus, palms upward with the backs of their hands resting on their knees, the index finger and thumb forming perfect circles. They breathed and hummed in unison, keeping their eyes closed. I couldn’t decide whether Suzi was serious or whether this was a product of her incorrigible sense of humor. Later, she explained that she used this device successfully to help him relax when he became hyper or listless.
For the next two and a half hours, they worked together on the table. Demonstrating with her hands, eyes and a book, she tried to teach him the concept of open and closed, which he mastered rather rapidly. Teaching him the idea of same and different appeared more difficult. Despite grouping letters and blocks, he floundered with the notion, which, in fact, articulated a very sophisticated concept. Suzi created several intermissions, using dancing and exercises as activities to combat any fatigue. I engaged Robertito in a quick basketball game. He landed three shots out of nine directly into the basket. I wondered if he thought of his father when he aimed the ball, for Roby had been instrumental in teaching his son athletic skills. The session continued in the same spirit for another twenty minutes, then our little friend whined and “ismed . Suzi invited him to the table, but he remained on the floor, rolling his. head back and forth. Did he feel pressured again? Was he psychically fatigued? Did he understand, finally and irrevocably, that if he joined us it was his choice?
I jumped to my feet and squatted, as best I could, into Robertito’s miniature chair by the table. Suzi looked at me dumbfounded. When I pointed to the book, she understood.
“Okay, Bean,” she said loudly. “Where’s the red car?” I searched the page with great theatrics, moving my finger through the air like an airplane approaching a runway, My throat rumbled like the exhaust of a jet engine. Robertito side-glanced at us.
“Aqui,” I announced, landing my finger on the small painted form.
“Bueno. Fantastic,” she cheered as she patted my chest and kissed my lips. “Now, Bears, where is the yellow bus … the big, yellow bus?” Again I played the charade of an intense hunt, landing on the proper form. Suzi repeated the applause and affection. By this time, Robertito had turned on his side and started directly at us. We continued our little interaction for at least fifteen minutes. Then Robertito rose to his feet and circled the table several times. When Suzi fed me some of his food, he came right to my side. He fiddled with my shirt, twisting the material between his fingers.
“Listo, Bears?” Suzi asked, signaling the resumption of the lesson.
“Si, Sushi,” I said, mispronouncing her name purposely. We both laughed. Robertito stood at my side and watched for several minutes. When I pretended I couldn’t locate the school bus, he pointed to it.
“Yes, Robertito,” Suzi shouted in disbelief “Yes, yes, you wonderful person. That’s the bus.” She kissed him and hugged him, fighting back her own tears as she embraced our little friend.
For the next ten minutes, he actually competed with me, trying to point out the answers before I could. Robertito Soto had taken another giant step. Although he vacillated back and forth and in and out, his grasp of our actions had marked a new level of sophistication. His interest in applause, cheers, hugs and, ultimately, food, motivated him more than the abstract concept of competition, but the introduction of another student had, obviously, re-ignited his interest. Suzi congratulated both of us with equal intensity. Thus, the notion of a second student as part of the program developed. Often, it became a useful device in rekindling Robertito’s interest in learning and participating.
Before I left, Suzi illustrated how Robertito could match numbers of dissimilar objects: the Roman numeral three with the number three with three blocks. Though, here again, he was inconsistent, he did demonstrate a basis of understanding of numbers and the function of counting. Just as I opened the door, Robertito pointed to the top of one wall. Suzi motioned to me to wait.
“Robertito, what do you see?” she asked. He did not respond, but tilted his head and smirked. “Tito, what do you see?”
“Cara,” he said, again identifying a face.
I looked from him to Suzi several times, then focused my attention at the wall. Nothing. I saw nothing but the flat surface of the wall painted yellow.
“Robertito, what kind of face do you see?” she pursued. Again, he remained silent. “Do you see a happy face or a sad face?”
“Feliz,” he responded.
“Wow,” I muttered, trying to catalogue what I witnessed. Did I believe what he said? Would anybody? In the immediacy of that moment, I decided if something lived for Robertito, then it lived for us in terms of working and helping him. He knew his world and derived comfort from it no matter how different it was from ours. To belittle or deny that would be to move away from him. In accepting him, we also accepted his experiences.
“Bears, I think you should talk to Chella on your way out.”
I nodded and left the room. Francisca, Carol and Jeannie greeted me in the kitchen. They worked together in an elementary Spanish book.
“I think we’re getting better than you, Bears,” Carol boasted, rattling off a quick idiom for my benefit.
I pointed to my ear and bowed slightly. “Tin. It’s made of tin. A genetic handicap, if you guys believe in handicaps.” We exchanged smiles. Francisca offered food. “Are you playing Mommy again?” She stopped in the midst of a motion. Mommy. She had not heard that word since Roby left. Carol looked up at Francisca, wanting to say something, but finding no words to match her thoughts.
When Francisca offered Jeannie food, she said: “Graciass.” Even I could detect the mispronunciation. Carol pounded the table in hysterics, then corrected her. Jeannie still had difficulty reproducing the word correctly.
“You know, Bears, I think it’s easier working with Robertito,” Carol quipped.
“Hey,” Jeannie giggled.
“Where’s Chella?” I asked.
“In her room.” Jeannie pointed.
“She’s been kind of weird today,” Carol added.
Chella sat on her bed and stared out the window. She did not acknowledge my presence in the doorway.
“Chella, can I come in?” I asked.
She looked at me and smiled nervously. “Sure, Bears.”
“I’ll be okay,” she declared, a little too forcefully.
“I know that,” I said, “but if something’s rattling around in your head, maybe we could talk about it.”
“My session’s not until tomorrow,” she teased.
“Ah, and you only talk on schedule,” I said.
“Yep,” she smirked.
“How about twenty questions?” I asked.
“Shoot,” Chella replied.
“It has something to do with the face Robertito saw.”
“Yes. But that’s not it, exactly.”
“Then what is it?”
She stretched her arms over her head and pulled her knees in toward her stomach. Chella twisted her hands through her legs and rested her head on her knees. She always managed to wrap her small, subtle form in compact, pretzel-like positions. Without looking at me, she talked about her dreams, her tendency toward so-called psychic experiences and the apparent responses of Robertito to her thoughts.
“It scares me,” she whispered.
“‘Cause I’m manipulating him with my … my ideas, my thoughts. It’s like I’m in his head or he’s in mine. That’s frightening.”
“What’s frightening about it?”
“It’s like controlling somebody. God, I don’t want that responsibility. Not now. Not ever!”
“How do you imagine your thoughts control Robertito?”
“Well, maybe they don’t always control him. But he did exactly what I wanted him to do in my thoughts. I thought dog and, bingo, he pointed to the dog.”
“How does that differ for you when, for example, he does exactly what you want when you ask him?”
She cupped her face in her hands. “He has more of a choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“He can still do anything he pleases. It’s different when I think it.”
“I don’t know. Maybe, then, he just does it, like a robot.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well…” she paused. “If that were true, I guess he’d be doing everything I thought all day long. He only did it twice.”
“So can he choose, just like he does when you verbalize your requests?”
“Yes, I guess so. Sure.” She peered at me intensely. “All I wanted to do before was to stop my thoughts, to cut them off.”
“And now?” I asked.
“I don’t know. At least I don’t feel quite as sinister.”
“Chella, if you can reach Robertito on a more direct wave length than the rest of us, that’s not sinister… that’s a gift.”
“How do I remember that next time it happens?”
“If you don’t judge it, you’ll be clear on the value and meaning of the experience.”
“Maybe I’ll join the others in the kitchen now.” A smile of relief rippled across her face. “But I want to talk more about this during my session … okay?”
“It’s your session.”
As we walked into the hall, Chella stopped me. “One more thing, Bears. When I heard you in the kitchen, I thought about you coming to talk to me. I imagined you coming into my room and you did.” We both laughed.
“I guess the question you could ask yourself is … do you control the universe,” I offered, “or are your thoughts in harmony with it?”
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Maybe it’s a little bit of both.”
No matter how many times she oiled the hinges, the door creaked when she opened it. Francisca pushed very slowly, not wanting to awaken her son with the noise or the light from the hallway. She slipped through the narrowest opening and shut the door behind her. Once inside, she switched on the flashlight and aimed it at his bed, which had been positioned beside hers. Empty. She rarely found him in the appropriate place when she retired. Francisca shined the beam on her own bed…also empty. Then she scanned the room with the light beginning her ritualistic hunt for her son. She located a head and arm sticking out from beneath one of the beds. Robertito never opened his eyes as she lifted him carefully into her bed and tucked the covers around his body. Francisca sat beside him, stroking his chest.
“We love you very much,” she whispered in his ear. “Papito,” she said, wanting Robertito to remember always his father’s nickname for him. “Papito, we accept you as you are. We do. We accept your world. All of us are very happy and we’re with you in every way.”
Her blossoming comfort gave her a greater ease with herself and her son, even in her husband’s absence. Could she run the program with Roby back in Mexico? The sting of the summer was too vivid. No. Not yet. Francisca prayed for more time as she sat next to her son. She brushed the hair from his face as she chanted the names of each person in the program, part of a ritual closing for each day that she had begun at the end of the summer. “Good night from Mama, from Papa, from Suzi and Bears. Good night from Carol, from Chella, Jeannie, Laura, Lisa. And Bryn and Thea and Raunch. We’re all with you.”
Francisca leaned her head on the mattress and slipped her hand into Robertito’s. Her eyelids closed slowly as she visualized Roby beside her and heard him say: “Good night, Mommy.”