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I got fired.

I got fired today.

Well, not today, exactly. Today…as in this date. 10 years ago.

I’m not proud to admit this. It is, so far, my biggest failure both personally and professionally. Looking back on it, I still wince at the experience.

With COVID-19, and the tumultuous upheaval in the world economy, I’ve been retrospective. You’ll see why.

My journey through this particular briar patch began through simple necessity. I needed work. Due to a confluence of factors leading up to what would eventually be termed ‘The Great Recession,’ I was slated to be laid off from my job as an airline pilot. ‘Furloughed’ is the technical term for this in my industry. And it would be, at the time, my second furlough, the first being soon after the 9/11 attacks. These, understandably, sent the airline industry reeling as people shied away from air travel en masse. Too many empty airplanes, too many pilots. The result? “Welcome to the unemployment line.”

So, in 2009, basically the same thing. Like in 2001, I had to find another job.

But this time it was different. I was married now. I had a family. A stay-at-home wife and two toddling little boys. Mouths to feed. A mortgage. We had savings, sure. And unemployment insurance would help in the short term. But eventually we’d be doing what economists call ‘deficit spending.’ Bleeding red ink.

Did I mention that the U.S. unemployment rate was around 10% at the time? It wasn’t going to be easy to find something in my field. I had already tried to find work as an airline pilot, this after almost 20 years of experience in the industry. The prospects were slim. None of these pilot jobs were anywhere close to where we lived, either. I definitely didn’t want to move–or commute–to a job that paid essentially what I had made 12 years prior–when I was single and practically living out of my car.

An old college friend of mine, a fellow I had known since flight school, had told me about his job as a pilot inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration. My buddy and I had almost identical pedigrees up the aviation food chain; flight instructors, cargo pilots, bizjet pilots and, ultimately, airline pilots. Knowing me as well as he did, along with my knowledge base and work ethic, my friend assured me I would be perfect as an ‘Aviation Safety Inspector’ (an ‘ASI’ for short) with the FAA.

He also told me about some of the perks of the job. An entirely livable annual salary. A 40 hour workweek. Solid benefits. Weekends and holidays off –I’d be a government employee, after all. Even an honest-to-goodness pension–something most airline pilots lost after 9/11.

“This sounds good!,” I thought, “I’m experienced, I’m knowledgeable, I work well with others…I’m enthusiastic about the ‘mission’ of the FAA (safety, right?’) Be around airplanes and pilots all day making things safer?” The altruist in me shouted “Sign me up!”

I applied for the job. I solicited myself at the local FAA office. I made contacts with a few of the inspectors there, cultivating my professional relationship with them. Finally, I was interviewed by someone who would eventually be my boss. After another interview by his boss, the ‘Office Manager,’ I was offered a position as an ASI.

I started a few weeks later, raising my right hand in a sworn oath to uphold the good book of FAA regulations. They even issued me a very official looking badge, lest my nondescript shirt and tie belie my bona fides. No gun or other weapon. Just the mighty power of the federal government.

To most pilots, that’s intimidating enough. For you see, FAA inspectors have a bit of a reputation. They are the aviation equivalent of cops; sticklers for detail, hard-noses on check flights, cold, uncaring. Pricks even, sometimes. This flying business is serious, dangerous stuff. Bust a flight regulation or get crosswise with an inspector and a pilot could lose his license for a long time, which many of my flyer friends would consider worse than prison. That was the stereotype, and I knew it. Friends of mine considered working for the FAA as “going to the dark side.” Some raised their eyebrows and chuckled at the thought of me as a “G-Man,” but, knowing my need for a paycheck, wished me well.

I told myself I would be different. Kinder. Gentler. That this reputation of heartlessness was unfounded. I was certain I could bring my enthusiasm for aviation in all its’ facets to the office each day and make a difference.

I was wrong. I just didn’t know it yet.

At first, I thought I was doing what was expected. Novice inspectors like me had to complete a mountain of training during our probationary first year with the agency. This essentially amounted to lots and lots and lots of self-study at my desk, staring at my computer. Hours of it. Desert-dry subjects like electronic document security and workplace harassment, or how to refuel the office vehicles with E-85 gas, because it was less expensive than regular unleaded.

I also learned how to ‘properly’ fill out expense reports. But I learned this the hard way.

Some of my initial training required I travel to Oklahoma City, where the FAA has a sprawling campus not unlike a small university. In order to do so, each inspector is to fill out a requisition form that estimates, to the penny, the cost of every aspect of travel–from airline tickets to hotel rates to per diem. This form is then submitted to my bosses and, hopefully, approved. Duly submitted and having received official blessing that all was well, off I went to OKC.

I returned about a week later with a stack of receipts and carefully filled out my post-trip expense report. I clicked ‘submit’ on my computer and got back to more of my online self-training.

After what seemed like only a minute or so, the voice of my boss summoning me to his office boomed over the PA system. I soon figured out that whenever someone was hailed over the PA, it was pretty important–and usually not in a good way.

I briskly walked to his office. My boss was seated behind his desk. He was a tall fella, pear-shaped and bespectacled with a salt and pepper mustache and a personality as distinctive as a glass of tap water. He told me to shut the door and have a seat. He stated that he had just received my expense report and had a few questions.

He read off of his computer screen. “It says here, your taxi from the airport to the hotel was $25. You estimated it would be $35.”

“Yes,” I agreed with him. “It cost less than I had expected. I guess traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so the taxi ride didn’t take as long as I thought it would…” My honest explanation hung in the air like a fart in church. My boss just looked at me blankly.

Finally he spoke. “That’s not correct. If you say it is going to cost you $35, you need to submit a receipt for $35. Understand?”

Umm…not really, I though. Hadn’t I just saved the federal government $10?

“No,” my boss replied flatly before launching into an explanation of fiscal year spending and office travel budgets and the like. “The less we actually spend this year, the less we get next year. Got it?”

Ahh yes. Eat everything on your plate. Spend it or lose it. I see.

I related this story to my training supervisor, a fellow inspector, on the way back to my cubicle. He, too, had heard my name over the PA system and wondered what I had done.

“I thought I had saved the office ten bucks,” I said sheepishly.

“Let me tell you something,” my training supervisor said with a smirk, “The federal government doesn’t save money. The federal government prints money.”

Welcome to the Dark Side, son. You will be assimilated.

And so it went. Months of training, some of which even had to do with flying airplanes. I was told not to expect to fly much–that the job of an Aviation Safety Inspector really wasn’t a ‘flying job.’ It was a paperwork job. Like researching FAA regulations and how they apply to specific pilots and aviation companies. Surveilling those operations. Conducting the occasional flight check. But mostly paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Forms to submit. Checklists to accept. Operations manuals and specifications to grant. There’s a joke among more experienced pilots: “What makes an airplane fly?” It’s not lift and thrust. “Money and paperwork” is the punchline. It’s totally true.

So, while I toiled at my desk in my cubicle at my office 25 miles from home, my wife Kat toiled too. Knowing the challenges we faced trying to keep our family budget in the black, she was able to secure a good job as a paralegal for a local pharmaceutical manufacturer. It did necessitate, however, the need for us to put both of our boys in day care.

We had found a very nice small Montessori school only a few minutes away from our home where Kat could drop Drew and Alex off before heading off to the office herself. Given her hours weren’t as long as mine, she would be in charge of making sure the kids were up, dressed and fed before dropping them off with the ladies at the school.

All went smoothly in this regard until the teachers at the school remarked offhandedly that Alex, our 2 year old boy, wasn’t talking as much as his peers. Alex was also exhibiting some strange mannerisms, like fixating on small plastic letters, arranging them in order over and over again. He seemed obsessed with them. When Kat or I tried to engage him in other toys like we had with his older brother, Alex didn’t show much interest. And even though we knew he wasn’t deaf, after a while Alex wouldn’t respond to his name when we called out to him.

Approximately 6 months after I began my tenure with the FAA, our son Alex, aged 2 years 10 months, was officially diagnosed with autism.

This clinical determination was shattering to Kat. And although I had a strong hunch that Alex’s behaviors pointed to autism even before his evaluation, it still stung to hear those words. My older brother Tom and his family have a son on the autism spectrum. In fact, it was his wife Sherilee and her incisive observation of Alex’s quirks months before his diagnosis that hit me the hardest. She was much more knowledgeable about autism traits than I was. And in Alex’s case, she was exactly correct. The official confirmation simply removed any doubt we had.

Kat and I struggled with this, becoming short and ill-tempered to each other. Tom and Sherilee had struggled, too. We soon discovered every case of autism is unique and different. So are all the strategies, therapies and treatments. Tom and his family fought through this no-man’s-land of bewilderment with action. They tried out all kinds of different ideas with their son. Many of them worked, too.

This offered Kat and I a little bit of hope. But there was no ‘cure’ or magic pill for what afflicted our son and theirs. We would have to find out what combination worked for our little Alex through trial and error. And it wouldn’t happen quickly.

By now I was over halfway through my probationary first year at the FAA. The tasks that I needed to learn, become proficient in and then demonstrate to my training supervisor were still lengthy. But like a ‘regular’ inspector, I had plenty of routine tasks to fill up my 40 hour work week. Staff meetings, public inquiries, certificate renewals, the occasional check flight–all stuff in which I had demonstrated proficiency were now part of my daily duties. I did not have the luxury of simply working on my training coursework like I had at the start of my tenure. I had to make time to complete my training.

But instead of coming to the office each morning with a clear, focused mind, I often arrived distracted and irritable.

As is usually the case with most families, our morning routine revolved around getting the boys up, dressed and fed. Kat and I would take turns juggling each of them while we put ourselves together for the day. Office attire for Kat, a shirt and tie for me. Drew was 4 years old by now, so he was pretty easy. Alex, on the other hand, was not.

In the weeks and months immediately after his diagnosis, Alex started exhibiting a disturbing trait. He began to deliberately hurt himself. Many mornings would find Alex crying inconsolably at Kat’s feet while she attempted to put on makeup. To punctuate his angst, Alex would suddenly begin bouncing his skull off the tiled bathroom floor. When Kat first noticed it, she gasped in horror, instinctively shoving her hand between his head and the hard flooring in an attempt to cushion the impact. Often, this seemed to enrage Alex even further, causing him to lunge his skull toward the ground with even more force.

Luckily, the first few times this happened, I was mere steps away. I could scoop Alex up in my arms and attempt anything to sooth him. I’d sing to him, I’d give him a cookie, I’d rock him in my arms vigorously. Like sticking a pin back in a hand grenade before it explodes, my ad-hoc defusing techniques would work. Alex would calm down.

But sometimes Alex would begin hurting himself as I was literally walking out the door. I needed anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get to the office most days. And when Alex first started hurting himself, I admit to being late to my office chair by a couple of minutes a few times.

Eventually my boss noticed my tardiness. I apologized immediately, promising that it wouldn’t become a habit. But unfortunately Alex’s perverse bouts of self-injury were getting more frequent. Several days I recall leaving Kat in tears, splayed on the floor in our bathroom as she struggled to hold Alex in a futile attempt to quell his agony. Alex would be writhing in discomfort with a red, golf ball-sized bump on his forehead and his brother Drew hiding in another room, holding his ears to block out the cacophony.

But I had to leave. I’d be late, again. I would reach for the door handle of my car, slam it closed, then start bawling my eyes out as I drove away from our home.

As one might expect, this personal discord began affecting my work. I found myself staring at my computer screen, rereading the same dull sentences full of legalize so commonplace in technical material I was supposed to be auditing. Occasionally, I would make simple math errors when typing out the expiration month of a flight instructor certificate, or a third class medical. All of these mistakes were minor and harmless–paperwork errors. But errors they were nonetheless. And now, because of my sloppiness, all of my work had to be double-checked by a co-worker or my boss before it was approved.

My third quarterly progress evaluation reflected this. In my boss’s office (again with the door closed), I struggled to clearly explain the root cause of my less-than-adequate performance. I described how Alex’s behaviors had devolved, including the mention of golf ball-sized bumps on his forehead that he had inflicted himself. My boss, in his impassive, unemotional manner, barely offered any support. I left knowing what I told him was the truth of the matter–my home life was a wreck.

The summer dragged on, with Alex’s bouts of self-injury continuing. Normally a sound sleeper, I began to wake in the middle of the night covered with sweat, exhausted. I lost interest in eating. I felt my blood pressure rise. I even dreaded walking into the building and seeing anyone else. By now, everyone in the building knew I was on thin ice. It felt terrible. I felt like quitting.

To try to catch up on my office work, I would go to the office on the weekends–unpaid and non-sanctioned–unheard of behavior for an inspector. My training supervisor even asked me how much money my wife was making in her job. I understood why he was asking me, too. I now knew that being fired was a distinct possibility.

Finally, in late August, a “plan of action” with my name in all caps was cobbled together by my boss and his boss, the office manager, then shared with me at yet another closed-door meeting. This document laid out all of the tasks I had to perform before completing my training. It also curiously appeared impossible for me to finish by my one year anniversary, though it listed no specific date of completion. They told me to sign my name to it. It seemed pretty straightforward given all of the paperwork I had dealt with.

I actually considered this a vote of confidence in my efforts. I even decided to celebrate this development with Kat in a tiny way. With my folks babysitting the boys, I took Kat out for ice cream. 10 years ago yesterday.

The next morning at the office, I recall finishing up several tasks required of me on that plan of action. I also noted that a few of the still-outstanding assignments were unable for me to even begin until the next week at the earliest. In what I thought was a show of great initiative, I even strolled into my boss’s office, saying I had run out of things to do on the list.

My boss, ever the wordsmith, didn’t even look up. He simply said, “Yeah…that work’ll come.”

About an hour later, I saw him again in the lunch room. This time he spoke to me first. “Are you all caught up with logging all of your training activity?”

I told him I was. It was a curious question.

About a half hour later, I was summoned yet again by my boss–in person for a change. But this time it was his boss, the office manager, who wanted to see me. I was surprised at this because as far as I knew, she had been out of the office in Washington DC for the past week and was still supposed to be there. But now, apparently, she was in her office wishing to see me.

I felt a pit in my stomach. I don’t even remember feeling the floor beneath my feet as I walked in her direction. Just kinda numb.

I entered her office–the only corner office in the building that overlooked the airport ramp where you could actually see airplanes. I shut the door. She stood up from behind her desk and handed me a two page letter.

“I need you to read this,” is all she said.

The letter was on official FAA stationary, addressed to me.

I read it slowly and carefully. It said I was being terminated from my position, effective immediately. Official reason: poor job performance leading to incomplete training within the probationary period.

I was to relinquish all of my credentials, identification card, keys to the building, everything that officially defined me as a Fed–right there. I unhooked my ID card and key and left it on her desk. Then I sat down in a chair next to the wall and thought aloud. “What am I going to tell my wife?” The office manager said nothing.

Finally, I stood up and said “I’m sorry. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you.” And I meant it.

I shook her hand, turned and opened her office door. My boss, seeing the door open–and knowing exactly what had just transpired–followed right behind me, almost as if he was expecting me to escape with a government stapler.

He followed me back to my cubicle where I handed over the most important piece of government property, my FAA Form 110A, also known as my badge. He and another inspector followed me all the way to my car in the parking lot. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they thought I was going to cause trouble on the way out. But that’s really not my style.

I once again apologized, thanking them for the opportunity. And once again I meant it.

I waited until after the boys had fallen asleep to tell Kat what had happened. I had no idea how she would take the news but I did know I didn’t want her reaction to be detectable to the boys.

Like I had hoped, Kat took the news in stride. And before I fell asleep that night, I do remember thinking I would get to spend more time with Drew and Alex again, and how much better that would be. Being home was so much better than being in that office.

It took me a few days, but how everything went down was pretty textbook government action. How so? I was terminated about a week before my probation was to end. Had I made it past the one year mark, the office would have had to go through a much more lengthy and time-consuming process to remove me–almost as if I had earned tenure.

I was only angry about one detail. I was never told about the existence of the FAA Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by my boss. Had I been, perhaps more of an effort would have been made to assist me with the difficulties we were experiencing at home.

Luckily for me, I found out about it on my own only a week before I was terminated. This program put me in contact with a wonderful local counselor who eventually worked with me and my family for almost 7 years. Her help likely saved our marriage.

My wife just asked me a few minutes ago why I’m even writing this down, let alone posting it for all to read. My answer to her is that it’s simply cathartic to me. Many if not most of my friends already knew what had happened to me 10 years ago. But, until now, some didn’t. And honestly, I felt terrible hiding this from them.

I did so because I was deeply embarrassed by this. I felt like I had failed. Admitting failure is not something that many are comfortable doing. Also, as you now by know, it’s a really long story–not one that is easy retold in a few minutes. But I freely tell it now.

I learned so much by going through this particular briar patch. I received my share of cuts and scrapes. But time heals all wounds and mine are no different. Ironically, it is entirely possible I might be facing a third furlough as the airline industry reels from the effects of COVID-19. I just don’t think I’ll be looking for work at the local FAA office any time soon. I don’t think I’d fit in.

Good Grief?

Are you mad, Bro?

Wait. Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You can’t find any more toilet paper.

No?

Are you ticked off that you couldn’t find any more Clorox disinfectant wipes in the value size three pack at Walmart? Or maybe it was the jumbo 12 roll package of Kirkland Create-A-Size paper towels at Costco? Or that economy size 5 lb. tray of chicken breasts, all cold and plump and juicy looking squished into that yellow styrofoam tub now gone missing?

Ah…it’s okay. Your #2 freezer in the garage is pretty much maxed out for space anyway. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise?

Maybe it’s that enviable number of stock holdings you have in Apple, or Google, or perhaps Tesla? You sure know how to pick ’em! Or, rather, you did. You might be mad because, man, those companies took a wallop in the markets this week.

No? It’s your 401k? Your retirement savings! Ah, yeah. That doesn’t look good either. That’s a reason to punch a hole in the wall, for sure. Lotsa cashola tied up in that one.

Or maybe you’re upset that this spooky virus is no longer some ominous headline from January creeping across the news ticker at the bottom of your cable news channel that you dismissed with a shrug. You’re possibly furious that, somehow, that rascally bug got out of control and they cancelled March Madness. Or Major League Baseball spring training. Or the Masters golf tournament. Even your gym is closed, for crying out loud.

Is it your vacation to Cancun (non-refundable)? You know, that all-inclusive resort with the sun, sandy beaches, buffets and bottomless margaritas es no bueno because travel south of the border has been nixed?

What? That’s still not it? You’re still pissed off? WHY?

Oh. Now I get it.

The restaurant that you work at just closed because nobody’s supposed to go out to dinner at them anymore and you’re out of a job.

The work you found as a roughneck in the oilfields of North Dakota is over because the price of a barrel has fallen through the floor.

You just found out that your kids won’t have school for a month while they clean and disinfect the classrooms of the virus, forcing you to take another shift at the auto plant to pay for their day care. But that plant just shut down too. You now must work to repay a debt that will continue to grow, depleting your meager savings. You will never catch up.

You just heard that the assisted living facility where your elderly mother lives has just announced their first case of COVID-19 inside those walls. Your mom is now quarantined to her room. You cannot visit her.

You went to bed last night after a 12 hour shift as a respiratory therapist at the county hospital and then woke up today with 101º fever, a dry cough and the inability to catch your breath. But you’re out of sick time and rent is due in 10 days. You stay home anyway, because you’re smart. You know…you went to college and learned a little about communicable diseases. (Too bad about those student loans you’re still paying back all these years later…) You now have to go to the Emergency Room in the hopes of getting tested.

You have reason to be mad. Really mad.

I do too.

My career as an airline pilot will soon be over, again. This’ll be the third time my wings will get clipped. Yet another 100% pay cut. The whole global travel industry stands to be decimated.

My family is now sequestered from others. My wife and elderly parents each are considered a much greater risk of contracting a severe case of the virus due to their preexisting conditions and weakened immune systems.

And the world I know, perhaps worst of all, is rapidly shrinking to the size of our homes, stuck here as we are. Towns, cities, states and countries all around the globe are reporting spikes in cases of COVID-19. More deaths due to the virus are tallied each day.

And it doesn’t take much intellect to figure out that this pandemic could be cataclysmic to economies near and far, small and large. Everyone will feel this, if not physically, certainly financially. For a long time.

Anger seems fitting. None of this seems fair. It is not.

This is loss on a staggering scale. This is grief. We are all experiencing grief. My heart breaks just writing this.

Most psychologists agree that there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most people go through them in order, but it is entirely possible to lightly brush against one or regress to another. It’s a continuum, not always distinct.

Unless you’re truly living with your head buried in the sand, you’re probably past the first stage, denial.

What I see from the words and acts of colleagues of mine, they are squarely camped out on the second stage–anger. For all the reasons I mentioned above and more. Rational or not, people are furious. They have every right to feel as they do.

But where I differ from them is this need to blame someone, something, some place, like China and all its people, wherever they reside.

Why do I feel this way? It’s pointless, that’s why. Does anyone think China will somehow send us a check in recompense for everything we’ve lost? I don’t think so. It is therefore a waste of emotion to me.

Personally, I wouldn’t do a damn thing differently. I love my chosen occupation. Best job in the world. I didn’t want to go into dentistry, though that certainly would have kept me employed through all these twists and turns in our world history.

I could have kept my earned money beneath my mattress, too. Just not a wise idea. It would have been lumpy too.

And everything living we know one day will die. This, my friends, is irrefutable. I hope it’s a natural death, of old age. But we have no control of this.

I get it. You’ve lost a lot, and possibly much more to come. Me, too.

But perhaps it is better to focus that energy and emotion on solutions to our struggles and compassion for those that have it even worse than we do. I think it is.

Grief and the stages of it are a part of any loss. Good grief, just admit this.

And don’t stay mad, Bro.

Wind The Clock

I started this blog a long time ago (it seems) with the simple hope that it would allow me an outlet to how I was feeling. I didn’t care who read it, if anyone. Back then, I decided that nonplussed was an accurate descriptor of how I felt. Surprised. Chagrined. Bemused.

But also not disconcerted, an important distinction.

At the time, I was in my 3rd year of furlough from my work as an airline pilot. It was my second furlough–the first one lasted 5 years–a grand total of 8 years exiled from my dream job.

‘Furloughed’ is a just kind word for ‘laid off.’ It still means one is unceremoniously shown the door from their place of employment through no fault of their own, with a full 100% pay cut as a parting gift. Being furloughed sucks.

Why do I bring it up? Why do I resurrect a moribund blog that I haven’t added to in almost 4 years? Because I’m feeling nonplussed again.

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past 3 months, you know about COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, which germinated in China and has now spread across our world like so many dandelion seeds in the springtime. The virus is pernicious and possibly deadly to a small percentage of the population. The kicker–there’s no known cure.

And it’s now pretty much everywhere. Why? Because people seem to spread it. Those unlucky infected souls merely cough or sneeze, then touch something with the same hand they just used to contain the snot, then someone else comes along, touches the same spot or inhales the microparticles and, ta-dah!, you’ve just spread the disease. Nice work.

How the virus became bad and worldwide looks simple. It boarded an airplane. An unwanted stowaway without a ticket, passport or visa. More coughing, sneezing and in some cases, dying. And as of today, on six continents.

It took a while for some countries to react. I’m not about to touch the third rail of politics to rant about what should or should not have been done sooner to stem the spread.

But I am going to feel nonplussed.

Countries both free and totalitarian, like Italy and China, have essentially locked down their citizenry as their heath care systems grapple to cope with the sick. The hope there is that when people don’t physically interact with others, the virus won’t spread so fast.

Here in the USA, we are rapidly headed in that direction. Major sporting events, concerts, trade shows, any place where large groups of people might congregate–all postponed or outright cancelled. Schools closed. Workers told to telecommute. No more touching your face. And for goodness sake, wash your hands!

For me? Another kick to the balls, professionally speaking. 9/11 and the terrorists who perpetrated it did the first one. My airline parked almost 200 aircraft and shed 2172 pilots by 2003. And in 2009, after the collapse of the banking industry, the real estate market and a nonsensical spike in the price of oil, a good 1473 of us pilots were again tossed out on our asses.

But when you work in an industry like mine, aviation, which exists to bring people together–not separate them–well…it’s hard to do that when those people are told to stay at home.

Empty airplanes don’t need pilots. Or flight attendants. Or mechanics. Or dispatchers. Or a thousand other jobs held by good people in the travel industry. Business leaders know this. Hence the layoffs. The ripple effect of this is obvious. It’s devastating and tragic.

I know, I know. This is all for a very good reason: to stem the spread of a pandemic. I don’t want anyone else to suffer or die either. I mean that. My job is trifling compared to someone’s life, mine included.

I’ve seen, heard and read dozens of stories about people reacting to this whole new epoch of life here on Planet Earth. Everything from a dismissive “Meh.” to a smug “Serves ’em right for trying to eat bats!” to a breathless “What a great time to get into the stock market!” and, finally, a desperate “This last package of toilet paper is MINE!” Even in my home town, news spread that bottled water was in short supply, notwithstanding the tasty and safe stuff that pours freely from our taps.

All of this reminded me of a phrase old pilots used, and which was defined for me while I was still a junior birdman: Wind the clock.

Way back in the old days before airplanes had electricity, many were equipped with clocks right there on the control panel next to the altimeter and oil pressure gage. Used for basic navigation, they were set each time the aircraft flew, with the pilot dutifully turning a small black knob on a regular basis, lest the clock stop, leading the airman astray.

But the term “wind the clock” was also a euphemism for “slow down and think. Stay calm. Don’t do anything rash.”

Pilots are taught to carefully analyze a situation before acting. Sometimes a knee-jerk response is completely wrong and potentially dangerous. If a pilot were to pause and “wind the clock,” he would hopefully allow more clarity to his mind and less distraction to his problem solving.

Which is what I plan on doing. And I hope more people consider before running to the grocery store and buying every last wet wipe and can of kidney beans.

Yes, I am deeply concerned at the physical, mental and economic impact that this virus is presently unleashing upon the world and, especially, my industry. I am rightly nonplussed at the thought of a third furlough.

But I also know to not be disconcerted by the threat, either. We survived the last two. We will get through this one, also. We all just need to wind the clock. Then go wash our hands.

Gifts

Alex’s birthday was today.  He turned 10 years old.  He’s into double digits now!  An auspicious anniversary, for sure.

I’d love to regale everyone with jolly tales of celebration and parties and streamers and balloons and presents.  But there wasn’t much of that.  In fact, I was the only family that physically saw him today. Plenty of reasons for this. I did try to make it as nice for him as I could, however.

Alex has been living in a group home for boys with autism for 8 months now.  Other than a few brief trips back home to celebrate the major holidays with us, his time has been spent at the group home or at school—a special place exclusively for kids with autism.  This has provided him a certain order and predictability—a routine that he can adapt to, that doesn’t add to his anxiety. Keeping him mostly at the group home was preplanned by Kat and I as a means of establishing and reinforcing his home there.  The staff agreed with our strategy.  It seems to have worked.

I haven’t written much about how he’s doing.  To be honest, I’ve been struggling—to describe the strange calm in our house in his absence, to measure the angst we feel knowing that someone else (many people actually) are feeding him, clothing him, trimming his fingernails, toileting him, tucking him into bed.

If you read my Facebook feed, you may know that Kat, Drew and I have enjoyed some far-flung adventures in the past 10 or so months, traveling to Europe twice, then to California for spring break.  All without Alex.

This is what’s hard to describe.  A feeling of juxtaposition, of being torn—between struggling to care for him under our roof while his behaviors corrode our patience and morale—and reveling in the swells of newly remodeled bathrooms, freshly painted (and repaired) walls, uninterrupted mealtimes, and even—gasp! —the time to travel away from home further than a short car trip.  All of which feels luxurious and extravagant.  And gratuitous.

While Alex spends the better part of his days at a group home.

Is this life? Is this living? For whom?

Yeah, we are living.  We are fine.  Kat loves to travel.  I do too—I even get paid for it.  Our lives have become easier.  But is this a good thing?  What would Alex say?

What would Alex think? An incredibly simple, obvious question.

Does Alex think?  What does Alex think about?  How complex are his thoughts?  Does he think only of himself?  Does he think of his family? What the hell is going on inside that mop-haired head of his?

I am fortunate to have widely varying interests and activities that vie for my attention.  But if you ever want to see me fall into a deep, sticky hole of rumination, just ask me if I have any idea what goes through my son Alex’s mind.

Yes, Alex is still nonverbal.  Yes, he still is prodded daily to use his iPad in the attempt to bridge the chasm between what he thinks and what we know.  But it’s slow going.  And not easy.  We’ve replaced Alex’s helmet, the one he wears to protect himself from, well…himself, twice in the past year.  It gets plenty of wear and tear doing its’ job.  It’s a sign that Alex gets frustrated a lot.  Still.

Which makes his birthday today a little bittersweet.  10 years seems an epoch ago, yet as vivid as this very moment.  So much has changed in that time.  And yet, with his mannerisms, Alex doesn’t seem much older than a toddler.  Besides, what kind of gifts do you give to a 10-year-old toddler?

I’m not trying to be grim about it.  Much of what Alex and autism has uncovered and demonstrated for me is fascinating and rich.  I consider him a gift that I don’t even fully appreciate yet.

I came by Alex’s school at lunchtime with cupcakes for everyone.  Those, plus a lengthy session of bubble-blowing seemed to leave Alex pretty satisfied.  Tonight, I planned on spending the evening with him at the group home.  Another round of cupcakes for the staff (and him of course) along with more bubbles.  But—I wanted to stay with him until he fell asleep.  That would be my “gift”.

The treat of watching endless YouTube Sesame Street videos after getting snuggled up by Daddy in his favorite fuzzy blanket was enough to elicit smiles and giggles.  He finally fell asleep next to me watching “Ladybug Picnic”, one of my all-time favorites. I think he liked my gift.

See what I mean?  I have guilt, frustration and lots of unanswered questions.  But I also have a wonderful, unique boy with an infectious giggle and endless kisses when I ask for them.  I think he gives me more gifts than I give him.

Placement

I can hear a pin drop.

And crickets chirping outside.  And the tick-tick-tick of the second hand on the analog clock in my bathroom.  It’s that quiet.

Kat is not here.  Neither is Drew.  They’re taking a weekend trip together.  Just me and our pooch Merrows at home right now.

Who’s truly absent is Alex.  He entered a group home for boys with autism just over a month ago.

Kat and I had been trying to find placement for Alex for 6 months now.  Concurrent with this act was a flood of feelings we shared with each other and with Drew—frustration, anxiety, worry and above all, guilt.

This whole concept of “placement” sounded odd and clinical to me.  Artwork gets ‘placed’ on a wall.  The ‘placement’ of tableware is important if one hosts a formal dinner.  Even Merrows knows the meaning of ‘place’—the command for a service dog to go where she’s to stay.

“A place for everything, and everything in its place”, says the proverb.  But does this apply to people, too?  Isn’t Alex’s place with us here, at home?  As a member of our family?

The idea of Alex residing in a group home hit me broadside.  I hadn’t even considered it.

It happened this past February when Kat and I were in Alex’s psychiatrist’s office discussing his medication regimen.  This particular doctor had only met with us once before that day.  Due to changes in Alex’s insurance, she was new to all of us.  There was a lot of ground for us to cover, a lot of Alex’s history to discuss.

Alex has been on some kind of psychotropic drug for almost 5 years now.  Each medication and dosage were carefully prescribed and assiduously meted out.  We would note any changes to his behavior.  It could be jitters, sleepiness, increased appetite, irritability, constipation, diarrhea, insomnia, nausea, even skin rashes.  Given his inability to speak or harness any other means of active communication, all we could do was observe him.

His psychiatrist, a nice lady named Dr. Lindell, ran through a long list of medications.  Although I did not bring Alex’s list of meds that I had compiled with me that day, I was familiar enough with them to answer whether or not he had been prescribed that medicine before.  The doctor jotted down notes as I answered.

Eventually she exhausted the list of different meds and combinations thereof that could be tried with Alex.  Hope faded that improving Alex’s alertness, attention span or general disposition was just a matter of ‘the correct’ couple of pills, whatever they would be.  Dr. Lindell stated that only two medicines have been clinically proven to work on kids with autism.  Alex had already been on both of them.

And still he struggled.  Banging his head, kicking others, cracking windows at school in a fit of rage, even what seemed like willful acts…a plate of food he used to fancy—slapped off the table and onto the floor.

We all struggled.  Kat, Drew, Merrows, me.

“Perhaps a group home might give you guys a break.” Said the psychiatrist offhandedly.

Her words needed to be processed twice by my brain.

“Wait a minute,” I blurted incredulously.  “What are you saying?”

Kat turned her head and looked at me.  Written across her face was sadness and resignation.  Those blue eyes were filled with it.  She sighed.

The doctor repeated what she had said, but more delicately.  By my reaction, both of them knew this suggestion wasn’t quite palatable to me—yet.

The first word I thought of was a whopper:  “institutionalization”.

We are talking about institutionalizing my son!  Bars on windows.  Commercial grade locks on doors.  Padded walls.  Staff dressed in white lab coats pushing people around in wheelchairs.  That’s one step above a prison cell!

I felt sick to my stomach.

Kat, however, had past experience with group homes.  Long before I knew her, she helped manage a group home for special needs adults.  We weren’t talking about kids with autism here, no.  But Kat could confidently speak to the efficacy of group homes in general.  The psychiatrist nodded and echoed what Kat said.  I needed to seriously consider this as potential help for Alex.

Help for all of us.

A few weeks after this meeting, we had to call 911 and take Alex to the emergency room.  A couple of weeks later, Alex cracked a window in his school classroom with his skull.  After that, Alex hit his helmet so hard against the floor that he broke the reinforced plastic face guard.

The deeper he spiraled down, the more Kat, Drew and I got sucked into the vortex with him.  Alex’s near constant discord and whining—his clamoring for attention and constant need for monitoring made me feel like some Chinese acrobat trying to keep plates spinning at the end of poles.

It was killing us.  Kat and I felt our nerves corroding.  We snipped at each other.  Our family routines revolved in a tight orbit around Alex.  Who’s watching Alex?  Who’s going to clean that spill up?  We’re out of diapers.  Have you changed Alex’s (urine-soaked) bedding yet?  Can you please talk with Drew?  He’s upset and crying in his room.  Over and over and over.

Family meals ceased to exist.  We ate in shifts.  Food was choked down in gulps when we had a free hand.  I fretted about how our lives were dissolving and rewarded myself with junk food.  Kat drank nearly a bottle of wine a night to salve her nerves—but only after Alex had finally fallen asleep.

Small breaks came while Alex was at school.  Kat worked her knowledge of the group home system in Illinois and began her research.  A list of group homes in the area was compiled.  And by ‘area’, I mean places as far away as Rochelle—an honest two-hour drive from our doorstep.  When one needs help badly enough, one casts a wide net.

Phone call after phone call were made.  Most of the facilities on Kat’s list either didn’t have any room for Alex, or simply didn’t accept boys as young as he was (9).  Some only accepted kids who had physical medical issues, like the inability to walk, for instance.  The list got narrowed down pretty quickly.

A group home in Rockford replied to our request for consideration with a date and time to “interview” Alex—and us, of course. “To see if he will ‘fit in’ with our residents,” we were told. We left Drew with his grandparents and road tripped out there.

It was a sprawling campus of sorts—one main brick building with an office, meeting room, therapy rooms and a nurse’s quarters—and at least 5 smaller residence halls.  Each building was separate from each other—if the weather was hot or cold, inclement or not, each resident had to dress accordingly.  The whole place was surrounded by a 6-foot chain link fence.

It felt sterile.  Cinder block walls, laminate tile floors, vinyl furniture, humming fluorescent lights—the kind we remembered buzzing during our school days.  Like a college dorm.  Except no cheesy wall posters touting beer or music groups.  Everything was painted an institutional shade of mint green.  No bars on windows or people in white lab coats.  But it still was stark and depressing.

The staff was nice enough.  We spoke with them for a while.  They even allowed me to make a small mess when I began blowing bubbles for Alex in their meeting room to help keep him calm.  We told the staff just how much Alex enjoyed seeing bubbles.  We all watched them pop-pop-pop slimy circles on the laminated wood furniture. They smiled toothless smiles, nodded a little, then wrote their observations down silently.

We were not invited back.

Which was just as well.  The look of the place left both Kat and I cold.  And being at least 90 minutes away from Alex would be highly inconvenient if we were needed quickly.  I figured with our luck, this was bound to happen eventually.

By now it was nearly Memorial Day.  Soon Drew would be out of school for the summer, and Alex would follow by the end of June.  After that, the doldrums would set in.  Kat and I knew we would have our hands full just trying to keep Alex safe, let alone calm.  And for two months!  This certainly would qualify as a Sisyphean task.  There would be no “break” this summer for Kat and I.

Even Drew, our 10-year-old, could see how his summer vacation was shaping up—and it wasn’t promising.  His interest in any outside activity disappeared.  Fun stuff, like swimming, riding his bike or going to play miniature golf evaporated.

In its place was worry.  “Daddy, when is Alex going to stop whining?”  “Why does he always ask for bubbles?”  “Will he ever be able to go to the bathroom by himself?”  “How come he’s so angry?”

And even sometimes pathos.

“Alex is never going to get into a group home,” he would mutter.

This freaked me out.  Drew, normally the beacon of sunshine in our lives, was becoming sour and fretful.  It coincided with Alex’s increasing self-abuse.  I struggled to understand why.

But Drew could be amazingly compassionate, too.  Seeing his mom and dad at their wit’s end, Drew’s incisiveness would cut through the turmoil and clatter.

“Daddy, how are you and mommy doing?

We were doing shitty, thanks.  But that was my inside voice.  Sometimes I’d lie to him, thinking a lie would be better.  You know…more comforting.

“Fine,” I would croak, practically choking on the word.  It felt terrible.

Car rides, gallons of bubble juice, respite help by the hour, caffeine, alcohol and lots of words of support got us to August 19th.  That’s when we were allowed to enter Alex in a much closer, nicer group home.

All indications are that Alex is adapting well.  He has his own corner bedroom with big windows that look out into a grassy back yard.  He is mixing well with his 5 fellow male residents.  He even has one of them blowing him bubbles—outside only.  Another boy, also non-verbal, appears to make Alex giggle, and when he does, this boy giggles too.

Alex is there right now.  At this late hour, I hope he’s asleep—resting well after a full week of class at his new school.  I hope the house staff has tucked him in and that it’s quiet there, too.

There is peace in silence, but also a hollow emptiness that seems to echo.  After years of clamor, only the crickets and the ticking of the clock and the guilt of being able to hear all of that again.  Without Alex sleeping in his bedroom next to ours.  This is going to take some getting used to.  We miss him so much.

The Hardest Thing

“Are you taking Alex for a car ride, daddy?” Drew asks.  His voice is barely above a whisper.

Drew woke up when he heard Alex banging his head on the pantry door.  Alex was agitated—possibly hungry, though he had already had a snack.  And although I was in the kitchen with him, I wasn’t immediately next to him when he decided he had waited long enough for me to respond to his needs.

“Yes,” I reply to Drew.  We are both looking at Alex.  He’s standing next to the pantry pumping his fists against his hips in anger.

“I’ve got him.  Now go back to sleep.”

“I’m sorry daddy.” Drew says mournfully.

“It’s okay, buddy.  I’ve got him.”  I try to put a slight lilt in my voice, thinking it might ease the anguish that has rubbed off on him.  I shuffle Drew down the hall towards his bedroom as gently as I can.

It is just before 6 this morning.  Kat is asleep again.  She awoke at 4 o’clock to the first sounds of Alex stirring in his room.  I relieved her at 5:30. We’ve been working under this arrangement for months now.  Energizer bunny or whatever you want to call me, I usually am the one who doesn’t need caffeine to keep up with Alex in the morning.

Taking Alex for a car ride has a dual purpose.  Alex appears to be calmed by the motion of the car.  And I am able to restore peace and quiet to our household for a little while longer.  Alex’s banging and squawking hardly makes for tranquility.  It being a Saturday morning, who wouldn’t want to sleep in?  Besides Alex, that is.

Drew knows this.  That’s why he asked me if I was going to fulfill Alex’s wish.

Of course I am.

I grab my wallet and a bottle of water from the fridge.  I put my Cubs cap on and, it being summer, flip-flops on my feet.  I’m a sight alright in my khaki shorts and last night’s undershirt.  Harried Daddy on the Go!

Alex awaits me, standing next to the door to the garage.  He’s holding my car keys.

He needs shoes and socks first.  I tell him this.  He responds with a protesting slap of his hand against his head but knows I mean business. After I point to the chair next to the door, he flops down on the seat and allows me to slip them in place.

Socks on and shoes tied without drama, Alex stands up.  I reach up and flip open the deadbolt we’ve installed at the top of the door to the garage.  Had the door not been deadbolted, Alex would have long ago slipped slipped out of the house.  He has demonstrated this skill many, many times.  He even knows which button to press for the electric garage door opener.  He cannot reach the deadbolt, however.

We step outside.  The early morning air is calm, warm and thick with humidity from last night’s rain.  The sky is opaque grey.  The light is silvery and soft.  With Alex awake or just by myself, this is my favorite time of the day.  It does get old after a while when one has to experience it on just 5 or 6 hours of sleep—day after day.

I tuck Alex in to the back seat, directly behind me.  After clicking his seatbelt, I pad one of his soft, fleecy blankets over his bare legs.  He likes this.  He shifts and wiggles a little, the faintest curve of a smile at the corner of his lips.

A few buttons pushed and levers flicked and we are soon motorists.  I point the car south, then east toward the center of town. The streets are empty—one distinct advantage of these early morning sojourns.  I make most of the green lights, too.

Alex is silent in the back seat.  I look in the rear view mirror occasionally to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep, which is rare.  Instead, he’s just looking out the window with that infinite, soft stare of his.  He seems content.  Every so often I might hear a chuckle.  This is good.

Through Des Plaines we drive, crossing the train tracks that bisect the center of town.  I turn southeast to parallel them for as long as I can.  I’ve learned the secret that if a commuter train is passing by my side and if I keep up with it, I will make all the green lights at all of the intersections.  Plus, I like trains.  Maybe Alex, too.  I always point them out to him.

Some days I relish the peaceful absence of sound.  Other days, I’ll softly turn on the car stereo and listen to XM satellite radio or NPR.  This morning I’ve chosen my iPhone and its’ 6000+ songs shuffled up.  Frank Sinatra’s crooning segues into Muddy Waters’ Delta blues which then collides with Motorhead covering The Yardbirds.  The juxtaposition of all my goofy musical tastes makes me smile and keeps me from falling asleep.  I wonder what Alex thinks.

I wonder about lots of things.  Mostly Alex, Drew and Kat.  I’ve got time to think.  Lately, it’s how Alex’s behaviors have deteriorated terribly and how it has come to affect the rest of us.

Once upon a time we could leave Alex to quietly thumb through a book, or enjoy a nice spin around the neighborhood in the bike trailer.  He used to love romping through the water hose or kiddie pool in our back yard.  No longer.

Now, only a few activities seem to placate him.  If kids with autism can be obsessed with something, Alex is obsessed with the sight and act of us blowing bubbles—soap bubbles.  More and more.  Again and again. Their formation, gossamer buoyancy and eventual popping are absolutely hypnotic to him.  We’ve purchased bubble juice by the gallon.  Our hardwood floors have become slick with popped bubbles.

Eventually, when we are simply out of breath, we will shift to Alex Approved Activity #2:  YouTube Sesame Street videos on our iPhones.  This activity can be fraught with peril too.  Suddenly bored with what he was watching one day, Alex decided to drop Kat’s iPhone in a mop bucket full of dirty water.  IPhones are great, but even wrapped in a sturdy protective case, they cannot swim.  It cost us $150 to replace hers.

Our last resort, and one that appeared to get Alex out of bed this morning—food.  By the looks of Alex, with his distended belly, he is one well-nourished (over-nourished) boy.  Some of this can be traced to the side effect of one of his calming medications, sure, but some of it can also be blamed on Kat and I and the immature, naive idea that food, especially snacks, can be used to satiate him.  I mean, who wouldn’t want two strawberry frosted Pop Tarts at 5 in the morning?  Maybe a handful of barbeque flavor potato chips?  Sure.  Why not.  We win absolutely no Parent Of The Year awards for Alex’s board of fare, I am ashamed to admit.

Absent those three activities (or a car ride) it’s just near constant nails-on-a-chalkboard whining along with slapping, punching, scratching or kicking.  All of us.  Even beloved Merrows the dog.  This, coupled with poop catastrophes, diaper changes, spills, dented walls and miscellaneous bruises have made these past few months brutal.

Two weeks ago, we received final word that Alex had been granted entrance into a group home for boys with autism.  This, along with a school devoted to only children with autism, would help him where we obviously couldn’t any longer.

All of this was very good, hopeful news.  It meant Alex would be getting better care.  And we would get a break from Alex, as harsh as that sounds.

As late as three days ago, word passed to us was that Alex would be allowed to move into this group home on Friday.  Kat and I got ourselves busy with packing Alex’s things.  We exhaled a little.

Well, Friday was yesterday.

While I was out running errands on Thursday afternoon, Kat was told that the agency approving Alex’s residency in the group home was unable to complete his paperwork in time.  Friday’s move-in date would not be possible.  Kat tried to see if any exception to this paperwork requirement would be allowed.  She was told no.

Kat hung up the phone and began to sob.  Drew asked her why she was crying, so she told him.  Ever the compassionate one, much more mature than his age, Drew went to her side and wrapped his arms around her.

“It’ll be okay, mommy.”

Drew called me on my phone a few minutes later and told me what had happened.  I could hear his heartbreak too.  The news felt like the finish line of a marathon was moved an extra mile.  We were already nearly out of breath, our strength gone.

I arrived home and consoled Kat.  She shook with grief as I wrapped my arms around her.  I repeated what Drew said, more or less.

“We’ll get through this.”

I don’t know how convincing I was.  Mostly I just held her.

After Alex went to sleep that night, I called Drew out to sit with me on our wooden bench in the front yard.  Still sultry from the heat of the day, my voice competed with the noise of the cicadas all around us.

“You know what, Drew?” I turned and looked him in the eyes.

“I have done some challenging things in my life.  I have taken some tough tests.  I have passed difficult check flights on a dozen different aircraft.  I’ve flown through mean thunderstorms.  I’ve taken off in thick fog.  I’ve landed in blizzards…”

Drew listened intently.

“I’ve carried your mom to the hospital when she was too sick to walk.  I’ve held your mom’s hand while she gave birth to you.  And to Alex.  She was so worried.”

“All of those things were hard.”  I paused.

“But none of those things were as hard as what you, mommy and I have been through these past couple of weeks.  None of them.”

Drew’s eyes got bigger.

“This is by far the hardest thing your mommy and I have ever done in our lives.”

I continued.

“And do you know what that means?  It means lots and lots of stuff that you will go through in your life will be a piece of cake—simple, a breeze—in comparison.  That is very good news…

Because to any challenge you might face in your life, hard stuff, like what I mentioned and more,” my voice started cracking “…you can say ‘I’ve already done the hard stuff!’  And you have.”

Drew thought about this for a second, then said “Are you crying daddy?”

I smiled, swallowed hard and chuckled a little bit, then told him the truth.  “Not yet.”

 

All of this is on my mind this morning.

Through Park Ridge we drive, then into the corner of the Chicago city limits, still pointing southeast.  The sights along this route is comfortingly familiar for Alex and I.  That old-school Italian bakery in Edison Park.  Those two guys selling the morning’s newspapers out of a tin shack down the street on the corner, rain or shine.  That stately old church, those lush green parks full of big oak trees, the occasional jogger, dog walker or cyclist.

This morning, Alex is mostly calm.  I hear some rustling.  A soft, warm arm suddenly wraps itself around my neck from behind.  With just enough play in the inertial reel of his seat belt, it seems Alex has become a bit of a Houdini.  Alex is now standing behind me, trying to give me a hug.

“Hey there buddy!” I call out.

Any affection bestowed by Alex is uncommon—therefore precious and greatly appreciated.

“That’s very nice, but you’ve got to sit down!”

As pleased as I am, I can’t let him roam about the back seat unrestrained.  I pull over and grab his hips to push him back into his seat.  He fusses some more, but acquiesces.  I reattach his seat belt across his chest and lap.

By now we’ve reached the apex of our morning route.  A hard right turn has us pointed northwest back towards our home.  I feather the car’s throttle as gently as my foot can manage and I don’t speed.  Not here, not now, anyway.  We are not in any type of a hurry.  Besides, the quick acceleration and hard braking so common on the roads later in the day tend to get Alex upset.

We pull back into our driveway.  All told we’ve been on the road for about 45 minutes.  I shut off the car and open Alex’s door.  Through the living room window, Merrows greets us with a wagging tail and a smiling face.

Alex starts slapping his head again.  Sometimes it’s like that—a nice calm drive that he doesn’t want to end.  But end it must, and he’s upset.  I shepherd him inside.

This is how it has been all summer long.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  But our hopes and struggles were amplified this week.  And I believe what I told Drew, it’s the hardest thing we’ve had to do in our life.

And we’re not quite done with the heartache.  Adjusting Alex to the group home will be fraught with challenges.  Our home won’t quite be the same while he’s gone.  But maybe we’ll all feel better when I pick him up for a ride in our car.

It’s hard

Drew likes sitting with me on the little wooden bench outside our home. It’s after dinner, after Alex has gone to sleep, usually.

Yesterday, while we sat together enjoying the warm summer evening, he turned to me.

“It’s hard living here. With Alex.”

The tone of his voice was soft and thoughtful, reflective. Hoping to open that door a little wider, I asked him to elaborate. Drew was quick.

“Alex is whining and hitting himself so much now…all the time.”

I also heard frustration and sadness.

“It’s just…hard.”

Along with Alex’s caterwauling and the obvious discomfort of seeing him wallop himself with his fists, or his tablet, mom’s cell phone or whatever’s hard and nearby, Drew receives little of what a typical sibling might receive in that rambunctious interplay that brothers have.

His is a brother that only shares disquiet and tension–and the occasional thrown punch or kicked shin. Little more. For his part, Alex siphons much more from mommy, daddy and everyone else, including Drew. Alex is not much of a companion. Definitely not like my brothers were to me, even when we were impetuous punks to each other.

But still Drew tells me he loves his brother. He tells me often.

And even while we were on a much-needed vacation in Italy earlier this month–and with it all the richness and beauty of this gorgeous land, Drew would sometimes confide in me, all of a sudden.

“I really miss Alex.” A completely disarming innocence in his voice. “I wish he could be here with us.”

Alex couldn’t, of course. He is far too volatile, far too impatient and far too disregulated to be locked inside an aluminum tube with 200 other passengers for over 10 hours.

Even so, Drew feels like Kat and I feel. All our joyous trips to the beach, or out for gelato or just soaking in the sights…none of it was quite as complete without Alex. Ours wasn’t a true family without him.

This is one of our goals, but we’re not there yet. Today, Kat and I took Alex to tour a small group home.

On the surface, it’s the opposite of including Alex in our world.

It’s a place where autistic boys, aged 10 to 18, might live under special circumstances. And with special supervision. We were invited to leave Alex under the simple premise to see how he would react.

Frankly, this rationale had less to do with Alex and more to do with the other residents of the home. If Alex was going to take too much of the caregiver’s efforts and attention, he might not be invited back. Today was a test for him.
I don’t think you can study for this type of test. You just go and do and let the chips fall where they may.

We did.

Initially, Alex was upset. This necessitated us fastening his helmet to his head. Which got him even more riled. Luckily, Kat remembered that she had packed some bubble juice and a wand. “How about some bubbles, Alex?” She asked.

Like a Hindu snake charmer and his pungi, Kat was able to distract Alex from any other disruptive behavior long enough for us to sneak out the door for the two hours they requested to evaluate him.

I am cautiously pleased to say that Alex seemed to have a ‘typical’ time at the group home. We will hear more later on this week, presumably with more information on what support this group home can give Alex. And us, of course.
Because…for Alex–he needs constant supervision. He needs careful assistance with everything from toileting to tucking himself into bed and so much more in between.

And we as his parents are tired. And weary. It’s hard, just like Drew said. We feel guilty too.

But like Drew said, we still love him. We always will.

Siblings and the Folly of Comparison

Perhaps you can relate.

If you grew up with a sibling or siblings, or, once reaching adulthood you found yourself in a house full of siblings, you know that kids can share surnames, facial structure, hairlines, I dunno…anything that can be connected via chromosome handoff to one another. But that might be as far as it goes.

Maybe ‘sharing’ isn’t exactly the most fitting word. Lord knows having to share an open bag of Doritos or the video game console or even the back seat of a car with my brothers was like asking two warring Middle East countries to put down their weapons and hug things out. It just doesn’t happen sometimes, even with great parents (like we were blessed with) trying to show us by walking the walk.

Drew and Alex shared many common traits when they were younger. Born after almost identical gestation periods, delivery length identical, weight on the baby scale only two ounces apart. They even reached many of the milestones infants and toddlers reach almost exactly the same. It wasn’t really until after Alex reached the age of two that their ‘sharing’ of traits diverged.

Alex was diagnosed with autism officially 10 months later. I had my doubts many months before then. And I rationalized away some of his autistic traits because he and Drew had, until then, been so very similar. I didn’t listen to my gut.

Alex was always a fussy baby. He would always need to be held or rocked before he’d fall asleep. He never took a bottle of formula much to the chagrin of my permanently sleep-deprived wife. She nursed him for 21 months–long after he had teeth. I wince just thinking about that kind of discomfort.

So I’ve long ago abandoned the quaint notion that my two sons would follow down a path similar to each other as they grew.

When I’m on Facebook I see many of my peers posting photos of their offspring siblings playing sports together, or fishing, perhaps dying Easter eggs or decorating cookies. These are bucolic, wholesome and happy moments which should be proudly captured on camera and disseminated to everyone.

But the reality of my world, my family’s world, is different. After last month’s episode with an emergency call placed to 9-1-1, subsequent ambulance ride and many, many little flare-ups of behavior–some disconcerting, some downright shocking–have left Kat and I with the difficult reality that we are no longer able to meet Alex’s needs as we struggle to meet Drew’s and, finally, our own needs, both as a couple and as individuals.

We have been looking into placing Alex in a group home.

My heart is so heavy that my hands don’t seem to move quick enough to type the words that you’re reading. I apologize for the rambling.

As I alluded to at the end of my last blog post, our visit to the hospital emergency room concluded with a determination that there are few “correct” places in the fabric of our society here in our community to accept children that don’t walk the same path as most “neurotypical” kids.

And all the respite we can get, all the Sheetrock I can buy to repair the holes punched in our walls, all the gallons of spilled milk we’ve sopped up, all of the thousands of diapers we’ve changed, all the tears we have wiped off of all of our cheeks–none of it seems to be the last time. We are running an endless, uphill marathon. We are losing our breath at the same time our legs are giving out.

The proper placement for Alex is out there–somewhere. But as I mentioned, it’s not available right now, nor will it be around the corner from our home. We don’t know when we will have to drop off our little guy with his protective helmet, a few fuzzy blankets and a photo book of his family that loves him more than he might ever know and hear the door lock behind us. But it’s gonna suck when that day comes.

I keep on remembering that comparing our life to others is extremely detrimental to our happiness. I even wrote a ham-fisted haiku about it.

But to hope for happier days at La Casa Bertellotti is only possible if our situation changes.

>
Ponder this harsh ploy
Most conniving thief to joy
Is comparison

Mayday, Part 2

The view from the passenger seat of the ambulance is commanding, but totally foreign. In the darkness of the night, I try to adjust to the perspective of my neighborhood from what feels like the top level of a two-story bus. Behind my left shoulder is a rectangular shaped portal through which warm yellow light glows. I lean over, crane my neck and twist my head to look inside.

I can only see the top of Alex’s helmeted head. He’s still strapped to the gurney. The EMT sits to his left, with what looks like a clipboard in his hand. Except for the jostling and bumps from the ride, Alex appears motionless.

The cab is loud from the roar of the diesel engine, so I can’t hear if Alex is crying, upset or what. It’s all very surreal to me, to be perched up here in a big emergency vehicle. And I always wondered who was “privileged” to sit up front. Some privilege.

We lumber towards the nearest hospital. There is little traffic because it’s late—about 8:45pm. We proceed unobtrusively; no sirens, no flashing lights. I take this as a good thing, since any issue Alex might be having doesn’t seem to have risen to the same level of urgency to the first responders as, say, a shooting victim.

Remembering the events of the last half hour, I suddenly realize that Kat is alone back at home with Drew and that no one else knows about what we’ve been dealing with except us. I fish my cellphone out of my pocket and thumb the button programmed to dial my mom and dad’s home. Unless my parents are someplace else, the phone rarely rings more than twice before they pick up. Especially this late in the evening, when nobody calls just to chat. Without fail, my mom answers before the end of the second ring.

“I’m in an ambulance headed to Northwest Community,” I tell my mom tersely. “Alex is having some sort of a psychotic episode. We don’t know if it’s because of one of his meds or what…but we can’t control him.” I sigh.

“I’ve never seen him this bad.”

“Oh God.” is all she says.

She promises to meet me in the emergency room. There’s not much more to say, and I don’t feel much like having a deep, personal conversation without a little bit more privacy. I hang up after instructing her to tell my dad to check on Kat and Drew.

The ambulance rumbles to a halt in the sheltered parking area outside the emergency room. I hop out of the cab and wait for Alex to be lowered to the ground. His eyes are wide open beneath the helmet but he seems remarkably calm considering the circumstances so far this night. Probably as dazed as me, I think. The EMT and a hospital staff member help wheel the stretcher inside the automatic double doors.

As I follow behind them into the slightly darkened main hallway of the ER, it’s pretty apparent that we’re catching the hospital staff on a slow night. Few of the triage areas are occupied. I notice the doctors, nurses and aides are looking up at us as we make our grand entrance. A few of the younger ladies smile as they see our little Alex, the boy with the sweet face—who also is wearing a helmet because he can hurt himself. It looks like pity to me. I’m kinda used to these reactions by members of the general public that are not familiar with him. Whatever. Even pity is better than apathy or denial.

Alex’s gurney is directed to a small alcove defined by two half walls and a retractable curtain. He surveys the area a little and with another atonal bleat worthy of a portable air horn, pronounces the accommodations wholly unsatisfactory. I can’t disagree, but it’s the best we can do right now.

Noting his wrist and ankle restraints functioning as advertised, I go to remove his helmet. He doesn’t fight me. A nurses’ aide stops in to check if we need anything. Given how much Alex has been screaming, drooling and sweating in the past hour or so, I ask for some ice chips, water or juice. Quickly procured, I offer them to Alex by holding them up to his mouth. He’s not interested. I sigh again.

More youthful-looking aides stop by with standard intake questions ranging from the banal (“Is he allergic to anything?”) to the specific (“How much Clonidine does he take at bedtime?”) to the downright bizarre (“When was the last time he had sexual relations?”) Yeah, no kidding. Alex just turned 9.

Finally a true medical doctor shows up. She introduces herself as one of the attending physicians for the E.R. tonight. She is calm and professional. Her facial expression shows warmth and care—much more so than the nurses’ aide. She has more questions about Alex, mostly the same ones I’ve already answered. I take a deep breath and repeat myself.

The doctor conducts a simple look-see of our son. He squirms a little when she touches him, but mostly holds it together. I’m still having trouble accepting the fact that he is literally bound to the bed so even if his nose itches he can’t do anything about it. He doesn’t have the ability to tell any of us, either.

After she’s done with the exam, she mulls things over for a bit. “You guys have been working with a psychiatrist, correct?” Yes, of course is my reply. “Okay. I’ll try to get a hold of her, let Alex relax for a little bit…and see how he does.”

All this sounds sensible, almost routine. Keep an eye on him for observation. He’s certainly safe here, though exactly why he flipped out so hard and so aggressively remains to be determined. And in his red Angry Birds pajama bottom and mismatched blue Cubs t-shirt, he’s not one for the fashion pages. He looks bedraggled.

So am I. I stand next to him and gently stroke his forehead. I whisper softly into his ear how much I love him and follow it with a kiss. It probably makes me feel better than it might to him, I don’t care.

A few minutes pass and my mom shows up. A nurse by training, she actually used to work at this hospital, but in the quality assurance department—not as a nurse. She’s been retired for many years. But her presence is greatly comforting to me. Other than Kat or Drew, there’s no one else I’d want to see more right now. I get a big hug. Nothing can deliver more comfort in those times of need than an embrace by the lady that brought you into this world.

She tells me my dad is on the way to our house so he can be with Drew while Kat heads this way. She also goes over to Alex’s bedside and tries to comfort him. Offering him her iPhone with the YouTube app playing Sesame Street songs offers a welcoming distraction. I’ve never enjoyed hearing Elmo sing more than right then, because Alex is transfixed. Maybe he’ll be able to ignore the fact that he’s just taken an ambulance ride to a sterile hospital room, and that he’s strapped to a bed. For a little while, maybe.

Kat shows up. I squeeze her in my arms and hold her for a long while. She shakes slightly and whimpers.

I catch her up on Alex, the doctor and our initial discussion about psychiatrists, medication histories and the short-term plan. “Hurry up and wait,” is the summation. Kat sighs in unison with me. Alex is still watching videos.

We have to have a pertinent logistical discussion next. As a recently certified Boeing 777 pilot, I was scheduled to finish my final qualification flight this next morning. In basic terms, it’s a very straightforward flight to Honolulu, flown with two extra crewmembers. This means that although the flight is about 9 hours long, I’ll actually be out of the cockpit for half of that time resting. The weather at our island destination is beautiful and the check airman pilot administering my flight is an old colleague of mine. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to this flight with him for months. Rescheduling it would throw many wrenches into my schedule and his. Delays like this would mess up the rest of my monthly flying schedule, the days off of which I’ve already tightly packed with every other obligation of my family life. I need to get this flight over and done with.

I broach all of this with Kat. Finally I ask her, “Do you want me to go?” She understands. And she leaves the decision up to me. In order for me to get adequate rest, I need to put myself to bed as soon as possible. It’s well past 10pm now. My show time at the airport is 8am tomorrow.

The doctor returns from her phone calls and research. “I spoke to Alex’s psychiatrist. We agreed on giving Alex a sedative to keep him mellow,” she continues. “If you agree, we’ll just give him the shot and keep him here to see how he does.”

Before we assent, Kat and I ask exactly what the sedative is and what the side effects might be. I follow up with the question of drug interaction with the other meds he is presently taking. “None, really. Alex might be a little groggy or loopy tomorrow, but he should be fine.” Satisfied, the medical staff prepares the syringe. I’m not one for needles, so I excuse myself. I motion for Kat to join me out in the hallway.

“Do you think you can handle Alex at home tomorrow?” I ask her. Obviously Alex will not be going to school tomorrow. Kat looks over to Alex while he gets his shot, then back at me. We have a trusted caregiver who is available on short notice if needed. I tell her I’ll make sure he can help her in the morning if she comes back home with Alex. She’s satisfied with this.

“I’ll be fine. Go.” Kat is supportive of me and brave. She’s also much stronger than she thinks she is sometimes. This is one more example.

I hug her again, then go back to check on Alex. He’s put down my mom’s phone, apparently no longer interested in videos, but I have noticed that they’ve removed his wrist restraints. I give him another kiss and hug.

“I’m gonna get going, buddy. I won’t see you for a couple of days…”

It’s always hard to say and do this with Alex because I have no idea whether or not he understands what I’m saying.

“I’ll see you on Sunday morning, I promise.” One more kiss on his forehead.

My mom tells me she’ll stick around for a little while longer until my dad picks her up at the hospital. I give her one more hug, then a final kiss to Kat.

“Have a good flight tomorrow.” She says. “That’s the plan,” is my canned response.

That’s always my plan. It will be different, for sure. Hopefully routine.

I arrive back home about 11pm to see my brother Lou and his wife Reen sitting on our sofa with Merrows, watching television. Merrows leaps to the doorway to greet me, tail wagging. She gives comfort to all of us. Not just Alex. She’s the best.

Lou tells me Drew has been asleep since about 10pm. He fell asleep in his own bed, a detail I find odd because lately, when he’s felt scared or otherwise troubled, he comes to our bed for comfort. I take it as a good thing that my brother made him feel safe. I tip-toe into his room and snuggle him up. One more kiss on the cheek, one more “I love you, goodnight” and I quietly close his door. He stays asleep.

I catch up my brother and sister-in-law about the past 3 hours. Frankly, it seems much longer ago than that. I thank them both profusely for coming over to help with Drew on such short notice. They’re compassionate and totally cool with all of it, scoffing at the notion that anything they did was the least bit inconvenient to them. “Anytime Dave, anytime.” Says Reen.

I’m exhausted. I brush my teeth and barely have the energy to take off my clothes. I’m asleep seconds after I hit the pillow.

The incoming text tone jars me awake. My bedside clock says 4am. Kat has texted me with news that Alex is free to leave the hospital and come home with her. She pulls into the garage a few minutes later. I scoop a fast-asleep Alex out from the back seat and gingerly carry him to his bedroom. Tucked in, bedroom door shut. Kat fills me in on the rest of the night spent in the E.R.

“It was laughable, actually,” Kat begins. “They gave him a second sedative and, after noting Alex was literally falling asleep, said we were free to leave at any time.” She punctuates the story with a harrumph. I ask her why the chagrin.

“Because, after you had left, someone from the mental health department came in to say that they were unable to find Alex any place else to go. Obviously he’s physically doing better…” Her voice trails off.

Thus opens up a whole new world of concern we have now for Alex—his mental well-being. Ambulances and emergency rooms are great and fine for stabilizing someone seriously afflicted with a physical ailment. But where does one go when the ailment is within ones’ head?

No solutions in this arena would be forthcoming at 4 o’clock in the morning, so Kat just brought Alex home. She left with some phone numbers of people to call to ask for assistance, presumably during “normal business hours.” What I’ve determined is that the term “normal” doesn’t apply much to our life at home. And it bums me out.

Kat and I share an exhausted sigh and crawl into bed. We powersleep until my alarm clock sounds at 6:30am.

Drew was already up and sitting on the sofa watching Spongebob Squarepants. I am glad to see him doing something he’s done hundreds of times before. I hope that the silly cartoon would help ease the stinging memory of last night for him.

“Hi daddy,” said Drew as I turn the corner from the hallway and walk into the room. “How are you?”

He’s got such an innocent voice, I think. And ever since Alex has been acting up with such severity, he’s picked up on the stress that it creates in our house. He’s always asking me how I am. Kat, too. It’s so sweet and heartbreaking at the same time. Sometimes I don’t think it’s fair Drew has to be a witness to Alex’s unsettling behaviors.

“I’m much better than last night, buddy. Thanks for asking.” I’m not lying now. It feels good to say this.

“Do you have to go flying today? I’m going to miss you so much…” He’s got that hound dog look on his face to go with the longing in his voice.

“Yeah, pal. I do. But when I’m done, I’ll be done for almost two weeks…maybe more.”

I’m not exaggerating here. Once I’m finished with my qualification flight, I’m scheduled for a bunch of time off. I can’t wait. This time looks like it will be well-needed and easily spent.

Drew thinks about what I’ve told him, considers it and responds, “Okay.” I promise him that things will be much calmer today and tomorrow at home. I’ve lined up assistance from our family caregiver and one of Alex’s at-home therapist to work extra for us today and tomorrow (Saturday). I will be home before sunrise on Sunday morning. That’s a pretty good plan, and Drew agrees with a soft smile. He wraps his thin arms around my neck.

My flight to Honolulu and back goes well. I have earned the full qualification to sit in the pilot seat of a Boeing 777 or, as an on-call pilot, in any seat at home waiting for my phone to ring.

I began this story with the concept of emergencies, of needing assistance, and when to ask for it. In the past, many pilots have gone to their graves denying the gravity of their predicament. They’ve made the mistake of thinking that their request for assistance is a sign of weakness, of poor planning or failure to do something.

What I’ve learned is there are many people that can help, are willing to help and that do help—if you only ask them to. By calling “mayday” for Alex, we were able to summon help right away. What we are coming to realize now is, once our immediate needs are met, more long-term sources of assistance are much more difficult to acquire. And there’s no catchy term like “mayday” for that.

Mayday

I had another “first” in my life recently. It happened eight weeks ago. My copilot and I had to declare an emergency.

Every pilot friend I have knows what the term “emergency” means. It means things are bad. Real bad.

Airplanes demonstrate their unique and valuable wherewithal only after achieving altitudes and airspeeds which would otherwise be fatal, as Icarus, from Greek mythology, regrettably discovered.

So when something happens during the course of a flight that would seem to threaten this delicate balance between those unseen Newtonian forces that allow flight in the first place, us pilots are taught how to react.

Hopefully, it’s with clear minds and coordinated efforts, honed over time with diligence, focus and alacrity. That’s what good folks pay us for.

If the poop truly strikes the fan and we need help right now, it is possible to summon assistance from others forthwith. One of us will key our radio mic and utter the phrase “Mayday Mayday Mayday” in as clear a voice as we can muster. All other chatter ceases, even in the busiest of airspace. Someone needs help. Someone is in distress. Right now.

And that was us.

It was 8:15 on a Thursday night, light winds, cool. But I wasn’t in a Boeing 777 at 37,000 over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Hawaii. I wasn’t in any other airplane. I wasn’t even flying. I was at home with my wife and family.

Alex has had a tough past several months. The confluence of medicine changes, assistive technology troubles and therapy disruptions caused by unavoidable changes in his daily routine had our little guy careening off the paved surface. Just like when your car veers off the road, things can go south very quickly.

Alex had been having another one of his ‘off’ days. He had just fallen asleep. Kat was in the bathroom taking a shower. I was downstairs in our basement playing with Drew.

Suddenly, a small toy perched too close to the edge of a kitchen shelf toppled off. It landed with a shattering crash on the hardwood floor.

Normally a pretty heavy sleeper, Alex woke up instantly to the commotion. He screamed.

Kat and I both reacted immediately to the sounds. Even though I lept up the stairs two at a time, she got there before me. When Alex has had a rough day, any extra stress—added chore, disrupted routine, loud sound—triggers a deep, plaintive expulsion of emotion. SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! went the sound of his knuckles bouncing off the side of his head. From what we understand, this is a coping mechanism, however desperate, of people with autism. Any sensation—even his own hard fists against the skull, seem to scratch some itch seated way deep in his mind, a perversely soothing reaction. And if that doesn’t do the trick, perhaps just bashing his head into the bare floor or nearest wall will. At this moment, he’s vacillating between all three.

By the time I reach the room, Kat has already grabbed Alex’s protective helmet. He’s had a helmet like this for over 4 years. When he was smaller, it was relatively easy to slip it on over his head and fasten the straps under his chin, much like a bike helmet. But Alex now weighs almost 100 pounds and is built like a fireplug with moves like a competitive wrestler. He is stronger than he has ever been. And even with Kat straddling him like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco, she cannot secure the helmet to his head. I kneel down astride him and help her close the thick plastic clips. He’s trying to bite my fingers as I do so.

But this alone does not stop the rage from inside of him bubbling out in thick, unsettling globs. For along with the slapping of his hands and thrashing of his body, he’s screaming a torrent of atonal yelps we’ve described as his “pterodactyl voice.” Though none of us have ever heard what a prehistoric flying creature might have sounded like, the image of some massive, seriously pissed-off creature with sharp teeth and a sour disposition are presently what we’re up against.

Just wearing the helmet presents a dangerously ironic opportunity for Alex. Although he is now relatively safe from injury, he lacks the ability to mollify that agonizing need to quell whatever inscrutable feeling he has inside his head. The cushion of the helmet dulls any strike he may attempt against his skull—so he tries harder. The helmet can now be used as a battering ram, like a football player not following the rules of sportsmanlike conduct. He can now use it as a weapon. Alex lunges at me headfirst.

“I got him! I got him! Just get out!” I yell to Kat over the din, trying to at least clear the room of any other potential victims. Kat slams the door behind her just as Alex’s helmet thuds into my rib cage like a punch.

Though surprised, I am not winded, nor hurt. I still am much larger than Alex, and craftier too. Using my hands to push him away, I place one hand on his helmet and hold him at arms-length.

I can hear Drew’s young, emphatic voice, pleading from the hallway, “ALEX! AL-EX! PLEASE ALEX! PLEASE! PLEASE STOP YELLING!”

He’s trying to help in any way he can, though as only a skinny 10-year-old, he’s no match for Alex’s strength and aggression. Kat shepherds him away from the noise and into the living room in an attempt to sooth him. Alex has him rattled now, a still-new and distressing reality.

Back in the bedroom, I’m holding Alex at bay with arms fully extended, my hands on each of his shoulders. Snorting out flared nostrils, he’s now trying to kick me. Bare feet fly wildly like maniacal pendulums. With such force he loses his balance. I take advantage of this and allow him to fall butt first onto his bed. A simple twin size mattress, it rests directly on the floor, partially slid into the room’s small closet, doors removed. This creates a small, slightly enclosed space for Alex to curl up in and fall asleep—normally, that is. Not tonight, not now. He continues to squirm and fight me, fists clenched and coming my way.

Blocking the blows is relatively easy, as their arc is compact and clearly telegraphed. He’s so enraged that any sense of dexterity or cunning is completely absent. But there’s no change in his temperament. Alex refuses to settle down.

“C’mon Alex…calm hands…calm hands! Easy! EASY!” I exclaim, trying to employ words and phrases that he has responded to in the past. All in a voice that belies my own worrisome emotion. I’m trying to be calm too. But nothing’s working. Nothing de-escalates. He continues to wail and rage. His body writhes beneath mine. He’s in agony.

By now I’m sweating. My pulse throbs in my temples. I’m breathing fast. I hear Kat call from behind the door.

“Dave? Are you okay?” she asks. “Drew’s really upset.”

I can hear Drew whimpering outside the door. They can both tell I’m struggling.

Behind the helmet’s clear plastic faceguard, Alex’s face is red and wet with sweat and saliva. He is literally spitting mad. It’s taking all my effort just to keep him on the soft mattress. As a last resort, I lay my chest upon his, like a wrestler pinning an opponent. Alex responds to my weight in the only way he can—thrashing his helmet against my head, crushing my left ear. Additionally, he apparently has enough air in his lungs to let out a bloodcurdling scream.

AAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEE!!!

I fly for a living. I’m often gone for many days in a row. In what few brain cells I have that is not presently focused on Alex and how I can contain him, I think to myself what Kat and Drew would do if I wasn’t here to help. This could have easily happened with me half a world away.

It’s in that moment that I realize this situation is critical. An emergency. We need assistance, right now. I press my hands hard against Alex’s shoulder joints and extend my arms, locking him fast against the bed.

“Kat!” I yell to make sure she hears me. “Call 9-1-1.”

Mayday.

She doesn’t question me, doesn’t hesitate. A few seconds later I hear her voice speaking in the kitchen.

“Yes…uh, our son has autism. He cannot speak… We can’t control him any longer.”

My heart sinks as I process what I’ve just done.

“Hold it together, dude…hold it together,” is all I can say. My voice practically a whisper under my breath. I realize I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to Alex.

We live less than a mile away from the nearest fire station, so the ambulance arrives in what seems like seconds. A fire truck pulls up behind, red and white lights slicing through the night on our quiet side street. Alex’s service animal Merrows leaps off the sofa and runs to the window facing the driveway. She erupts in a fusillade of barks and woofs. She was shadowing Kat and Drew in her own attempt at soothing—if not Alex—anyone.

I hear the front door open and two EMTs enter our house. Stunned and overwhelmed by all the commotion he sees plainly with his eyes, Drew begins to cry. We’ve never had to call the paramedics before. Trying to keep the hallway clear, Kat sends Drew into his own bedroom, with Merrows to assist. I hear him sobbing hysterically. I wish I could get up and sooth him, too, but I’m busy trying to do the same for Alex. He’s the one that’s the danger to himself and others right now.

Both EMTs find their way to Alex’s bedroom. They are tall, thin and surprisingly youthful looking—no older than 25. They wear identical dark blue jumpsuits. “What’s going on?” one of them asks simply.

Still straddling Alex with my hands on his shoulders, I swallow to clear my throat, then try to explain the situation as quickly and succinctly as I can. “Alex has autism. He is also non-verbal…” I go on to add that he has been through an eventful past few weeks with issues at school and rocky reactions to prescription medicine changes.

“And until only a few minutes ago, I have never seen him try to lash out and try to hurt me with such willfulness,” I state ruefully. “So, it’s bad.”

I conclude with, “It’s all I can do just to hold him down.”

One of the EMTs squats down next to me and attempts to converse with Alex. “You not feeling so good tonight, buddy? You having a bad night?”
Alex reacts to this strange man with a voice he’s never heard before with a glare and an atonal moan.

“Aieee!” he exhorts in a voice entirely too loud for the EMT, and for everyone else in the room for that matter.

I hear the front door open again. Merrows reacts with a chorus of barks from where she stands behind Drew’s bedroom door just a couple of feet away. A few seconds later, two police officers enter Alex’s tiny room. Thick bulletproof vests and walkie-talkies strapped to their chest make them appear much more like linebackers than public servants. Nonetheless, they are polite and professional.

“How long has he been acting this way?” “Does he have any allergies?” “Is he tired?” “What would happen if he takes off the helmet?” “Is it true he cannot speak at all?” On and on the questions keep coming.

Soon enough, the first responders in the room reach a simple conclusion.

“Let’s bring him in. Can you stop holding him?” asks one of the EMTs.

I react without an educated answer. “Maybe, but I don’t think he’s gonna stand still. He’s stronger than he looks.”

By now, Kat has entered the room. “You’re gonna need to restrain him.”

It’s evident that there is no crime scene here, so the police step aside to let the EMT staff do their job. A gurney is wheeled in and moved next to Alex, still pinned to the mattress by Yours Truly.

It takes both EMTs, assisted by Kat and myself, to lift him and place him on the stretcher. Even shackling his hands into the wrist restraints takes effort.

I watch him wiggle and cry as he’s secured. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life,” I mutter ruefully to the nearest police officer. Now it’s my turn to cry.

Alex is still wearing his helmet. Sensing his fight may be over for the evening, he finally falls silent for more than a minute in a row. “It’s okay, pal. We’re just taking you to see the doctor tonight…” I try to be soothing myself. I don’t think I’m doing a good job.

As Alex is wheeled out of his room on the stretcher, Drew calls out to me from the small gap in his doorway.

“Are you okay, Daddy? I heard Alex get so upset. Why can’t he stop whining?” Drew’s concern for me and his mom are real and extremely heartening. We just don’t have many good, concrete answers for him. God, I wish I did.

“Yes, Drew…I’m fine.” I don’t know why, but I lie. Really, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I am pretty far from fine.

“Will Alex be okay? Is he gonna ever come home?” Drew is choking back tears.

Kat answers him before I can. “Absolutely. These nice people are just taking him to the hospital to get checked out and to cool off a little.” Drew whimpers again. We have not convinced him.

I grab my coat and phone, then head out the door for my first ambulance ride. Alex’s gurney is carefully lifted into place inside, then locked in place. After the double doors are closed, I climb into the cab of the ambulance. (To be continued.)