I’ll never forget the magical night my son was born. Even before his tiny body had completely emerged from the birth canal, he seemed to look all around the delivery room. Without thinking, I jumped up to stand right beside the doctor – my knees wobbling, my heart pounding.
Right away I could tell that Tariq’s head was the same shape as mine. I counted his fingers and toes and watched eagerly as the nurse cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket. He looked so cute – a perfect newborn. The nurse placed him in my arms, and I felt the electricity of the instant when Tariq’s big, round eyes met mine for the first time. He was soft and delicate to my fingertips, and I cradled him next to my heart. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
Through my son’s development, the wonder of life was revealed to me in a way I could never have imagined. I marveled as he progressed from lifting his head, to rolling over, to crawling and to cruising around holding on to furniture. I can still recall his look of apprehension, replaced by a smile of achievement, as he took his first awkward, wobbly steps on his first birthday. What an amazing accomplishment! That is still one of my most vivid memories – of a time when he was “normal.”
As Tariq continued to meet developmental milestones – including the development of a small but useful vocabulary – I began to dream of our future together. I imagined him playing Little League baseball. In my mind’s eye, I beamed with pride as he fielded the ball and swiftly ran the bases. I would be the perfect father – there for him when he needed to talk, but able to give him space when he wanted it. I imagined the two of us having philosophical discussions. Our relationship would be close and warm.
In June of 1981, when he was 18 months old, Tariq got sick with a virus. His illness was treated and went away, but my son never got better; he never spoke another word. I was sick with worry as Tariq’s engaging personality became a mere memory. He seemed to have no interest in people, but would play with the same rattle for hours on end. When he was diagnosed with autism, I was flooded with the deepest grief of my life.
Dreaming . . . and waking up
Struggling to accept my son’s condition, I began to work with Tariq, using methods suggested by his speech therapist and other techniques I had read about. For example, I would imitate Tariq’s repetitive movements – like flapping my arms when he flapped his. When I did this, Tariq would usually notice, give me a little smile, then just go back to what he was doing.
But in a recurring dream, my efforts did not go so unrewarded. In my dream, Tariq would watch intently as I mirrored his behavior. Then as my heart beat faster with excitement, he would slowly form a word or two. I would hug him, overcome with emotion.
In the first mornings that followed this dream, I awakened full of hope. I saw this dream as a sign that Tariq would speak to me again, if only I would work with him to make it happen. Desperate to document evidence of Tariq’s progress, I taped his grunts, groans and babbling. I listened to these tapes for hours on end, straining to hear the emergence of meaningful communication.
Eventually, I began to wake up from this dream feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Whenever I’d worked hard at something in my life, I had gotten results. But now my hopes for Tariq’s recovery were fading. It was hard to fathom that I might have no control over my child’s condition, still more difficult to admit that love was not enough to help my son.
Around Tariq’s eighth birthday, I had a different dream. In this dream, my son spoke to me in sentences, and I reacted with amazement, relief and joy. But as the dream continued, although still asleep, I became conscious that I was dreaming and Tariq had not really spoken. The next morning, I awoke with a deep sense of relief. I had a sense that I could live with things the way they were, that I could be a whole person despite Tariq’s silence.
That dream recurred over three or four years, and then it was replaced by a new one. In this dream, Tariq talked to me again. Looking at me intently with his big brown eyes, he told me that he loved me, felt my love for him and knew I had done everything possible for him. He told me that he was happy and that he wanted me to be happy, too. Then he returned to playing with his tongue and making unintelligible noises, seemingly unaware of my presence. In the dream, I felt sorrow and longing for what could have been, if only Tariq could have continued talking. But I woke up with a definite sense that I had moved a little further on my journey.
A deeper life
In truth, some of my greatest joys have been in moments Tariq and I have shared. His disability is severe, but it does not affect his soul, his inner essence. Despite being unable to read, write, talk or relate normally to others, Tariq has been and continues to be a catalyst for a fuller, deeper and more loving life than I ever imagined possible.
Because of Tariq, I have learned to tune into the signals I used to miss. When happy, he shows interest and excitement. When startled, he raises his eyebrows and opens his mouth and eyes wide. I can only use empathy to understand him – but what power lies there! In a world that values reason and intellect above emotion, children like Tariq teach us to look inside ourselves.
Nature gave me a fair amount of intelligence and ability, but before Tariq, I held my frustration and anger inside and could not articulate my emotions to others. Tariq taught the little boy in me to speak. Now I know well the shades and colors of all the emotions in my inner life – both positive and negative.
The other side of sorrow
While writing this account, I retrieved one of those tapes from a dusty box in our basement. Listening to this 12-year-old tape brought back a flood of emotions. I heard myself patiently trying to coax meaningful sounds out of my young son. Then I realized I couldn’t listen any longer, because it hurt too much to realize that Tariq still makes the same vocalizations – only now, with a deeper, post-pubescent voice.
There are millions of children like Tariq – some with more ability, some with less. These “imperfect” children are born to loving parents who struggle to rise from disappointment to find a stronger love, a more perfect love that lies on the other side of sorrow. Life can be so full and rich amidst all the difficulties. I feel good about how far I have come, but the cost has been great – my only wish is that I could have done it another way.