We moved through the next three weeks in high gear. The producers, in conjunction with the sponsor and the network, decided to move forward with the “Son-Rise” television special. Each night, after observation and dialogue sessions, I withdrew to my one-room retreat and wrote sections of the treatment, which, ultimately, would become the blueprint of a screenplay. Suzi and I had to compress our schedules since a scant three weeks had been allotted for the development of this detailed outline.
Each morning, at about six o’clock, before the children awakened for school, we discussed scenes and dialogue . We ran through the corridors of old memories, discovering turns and twists which I had not included in the book. The startling parallels and obvious differences between Raun and Robertito became even more apparent. Each child required a very different journey, hand-tailored to his individual needs. But the foundation of an accepting and non-judgmental attitude toward ourselves and the child we attempted to reach remained identical.
Concurrent with our other responsibilities, we instituted the first stage of our quest for a new house for the Sotos, having rented the one they lived in for only three and a half months. This time we omitted all references to Mexico, the Spanish language and autistic children. Francisca and Roberto became Fran and Bob, Robertito became Bob, Jr. The place of their residence became the “West Coast.” Their reason for a limited relocation to New York, we explained, centered on their desire to secure help for their child, who had certain developmental and language delays. In effect, all the facts were true, but composed in a way so as not to incite the fears and prejudices of the people we contacted. Nevertheless, Suzi’s daily visits to available apartments and houses did not meet with success. The combination of privacy, lack of noise and a layout conducive to working with Robertito could not be easily located.
The frenzy to handle all those responsibilities intensified when Roby announced, with significant satisfaction, the impending arrival of a replacement for Charlotte. During his recent stay in Mexico, he had interviewed many young women, hoping to find someone who would help them. Both he and Francisca wanted a person to translate on a daily basis so the flow of communication would continue uninterrupted, especially on matters requiring needle-point discussions on Robertito’s behavior. Amalia’s availability was limited essentially to Wednesday nights.
Less than three days after his announcement, a young Mexican woman, armed with copies of Son-Rise and To Love Is to Be Happy With, burst into our midst. “I’m ready. Definitely. I am here to serve you all.” She wanted an Option session the day of her arrival. Unlike her predecessor, Patti’s total focus and energy fixed on the unknown child she had traveled three thousand miles to help. We did not have to stir her enthusiasm; we had to channel it.
Resourceful and independent, Patti Vega had once considered becoming a nun and founding an orphanage for homeless children. When she quit her clerical job to come to New York, which she envisioned as a preparation for more spiritual calling, her mother branded her idealistic. But Patti persisted, wanting to confront her dreams rather than hold them at arm’s distance.
I observed her in that first encounter with Robertito. Though willing and able, she could not hide her shocked expression. The words never quite matched the description. The hand-flapping and head-shaking seemed more bizarre and unfamiliar than the image of her fantasy. Within seconds, her expectation crumbled. I watched her muscles tense in her arms and face. Yet, despite the jolt, she lusted to learn to be useful, helpful and more humane. Though stiff and confused in her meeting with Robertito, Patti lived in a perpetual euphoria which surrounded her like a force field. She felt at home immediately. Finally, she had found a place where people did not judge her, where sharing and loving were not irrelevant themes, a dramatic contrast to her previous employment situations. “I don’t have to say my wants and ideals here, because you are already the way I want,” she shared before her first dialogue session. “Can it be, Bears, that I am changed already… on the first day?”
Patti studied and observed from early morning until Robertito’s bedtime. The milestones of Tito’s movement astounded her as well as all of us in the program. His growth was rivaled only by Carol’s progress during her first weeks as teacher and mentor. In one session, I watched Carol exercise a special inner authority with our little friend. He watched her continually for twenty to forty seconds at a time with no visible stimulus to do so. Her eyes compelled him, drawing him close. He touched various parts of her body spontaneously and on request. Although Robertito flapped his hands and paced the room in wide circles, he spent a significant amount of time with her engaged in playing such games as ring-around-a-rosy and London Bridge.
Carol’s face moved like Silly-Putty: expressive and lavish in its display of joy. Her voice no longer sank into the monotonous drone of a monotone, though outside of the workroom the remnants of her past still infiltrated her speech.
With exaggerated animation, Carol pronounced each vowel. Robertito watched her mouth attentively and repeated each sound. When she attempted a sequence of sounds, he slurred the letters together. Carol laughed. “Oh, so you want to get through it quickly, do you? Slowly, Robertito, slowly!” She began the exercise over again. This time the little boy said each letter perfectly. Though wonderfully accepting and responsive to his “isms,” she drew a special hope for herself in his accomplishments. “You and me, Tito, we’ll make a pact. We’ll both get better together.” But often, her joy and growing love for this child obliterated thoughts of her private goal.
She ran through the alphabet. Robertito’s verbal ability to mimic sounds had increased significantly, but he had difficulty pronouncing consonants like t, n, s, l and f. On request, he repeated such words or sounds as pan (bread), i-ya (for cereal), ooon (for atun or tuna), agua (water), ca-ca (for bowel movement), ojo (eye), boca (mouth) and Tito (for himself).
Carol’s accomplishments with his toilet training impressed all of us in the group to such an extent that one Wednesday night meeting we nicknamed her ca-ca. Unable to escape the comical and endearing reference, she aggressively individualized the name, spelling it “Kha-Kha” or “Kha” on all her sheets and forms.
Robertito’s obvious sensitivity toward music and rhythms led to Suzi’s suggestion not only to teach him more songs, but to sing our requests instead of merely saying them. Noting that he hummed tunes spontaneously, she taught him to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” by letting him do the “e-i-e-i-o” refrains and all the animal sounds. Often, she set her directions to old thirties’ tunes. Suzi taught Robertito how to say everyone’s name perfectly, but ironically, his best articulation of her name sounded like the Japanese dish sushi.
His increased skill with more sophisticated puzzles intrigued her. Somehow, she always asked him for the impossible, which, he, at times, delivered. He learned to retrieve many objects from a box on request, but his ability to distinguish colors seemed amiss.
One morning as I observed, Suzi stared at Robertito with intense determination. “This time, here and now, you are going to identify each color. Not just one. Not just red or blue or green, but all of them. You’re going to do it because you want to and because we love you. Now, my sweet fellow, can you find the blue block? Blue. Robertito, blue!”
He rummaged through the mixed pile of blocks, animal forms and letter shapes. He lifted the cow and peered over it diligently before returning it to the mound. His eyes gawked at the letter “s.” Then, to her amazement and mine, Robertito grabbed the blue block and delivered it into her hands.
“Wow,” she exclaimed, applauding and kissing her student. When he crawled over and sat in my lap, Suzi pushed all her tools next to me.
“Ah, so you want something soft to sit on. Can’t blame you.” She kissed him on the forehead. “You’re such an intelligent boy. Sushi’s proud of you,” she said, spoofing his pronunciation of her name. “Now. Robertito, fantastic boy, find the green blocks. C’mon, Green! Green!”
Again, he sifted through the pile of toys with no apparent aim. But then, he lifted the green form and deposited it in my crotch.
“Perfect aim,” Suzi laughed, rewarding Robertito this time with food and affection. We did our hysterical clapping and cheers. Though he seemed pleased, his casual attitude had comic overtones; bright eyes in the limp body of a contented cow. Later, Suzi had him identify a red block, a red car and a red shirt. His towering concentration and Suzi’s conviction moved him to another plateau. He had learned to generalize.
Attentive to the toll of psychic fatigue, Suzi nestled him into a corner and produced her bag of hand puppets. With her fingers secure in the mouth and eye mechanism of one cloth mannequin, she brought Foggie Froggie to life. “Glup. Glup,” she giggled, simultaneously the performer and audience. “Hello, Francisca. Nope. Are you Rha-Rha? Pretty fat face for Rha-Rha. No, of course not. Glup! Glup! I know, you’re the one and only Robertito Soto.” The little boy watched the puppet, then grabbed its nose. “Jumpin’ Jennifer, ah, I mean Holy Frog, you got my schnoz. And where’s your schnoz … point to your nose.” In an aside to me, she feigned a stuffy British accent. “A very civilized request, you know.” Robertito touched his own nose while still in physical possession of the puppet’s foam nostril.
“Ra, ra, sis, boom, ba; Tito, Tito, the Option bandito,” she cheered, rolling her eyes.
Skillfully, in a display of increasing enthusiasm, Suzi whizzed through mindless skits with each puppet. She changed her voice, vocabulary and personality for each character. If Robertito “ismed,” the puppet “ismed” with him. Sometimes, he ignored Suzi’s hand people, but, often, he smiled in their presence.
Laura worked him intensely during her evening shift. He disassembled and reassembled a five-piece puzzle quickly. The knobs helped him manipulate the forms since his hands still lacked a more sophisticated dexterity. She set out a row of colored cups and asked him for the black one. He handed her the white one. She requested the green cup and he gave her the orange one.
“Have you forgotten, or do you want to do something else?” she asked. He stared at her blankly. “Oh, I see, your gig is reading.” As she pulled the dictionary picture book from the shelf, Robertito spilled over the case of pegs and counting blocks.
“The book … no. Pegs and blocks … yes. Of course.” Laura stroked his arms and I laughed. She displayed a long row of pegs. “Here we go. Now get your act together. Can you give me two pegs? Two pegs?”
Robertito looked up at her, touched her cheek and said: “Co.”
“You want ‘co.’ Rha-Rha will give you ‘co’ right after this little game of ours.” She jabbed him gently in the side.
“‘Be,”‘ he blurted, our monosyllabic designation for vitamin.
“Holy sh*t!” she muttered in awe of the little boy’s accomplishment. “It’s coming, Robertito. Right here.”
Over the next two hours, he demonstrated his awareness of number concepts by putting groups of two, three and four pegs in the board as requested. The accuracy of his responses punctuated the growth of his developing intellect.
Francisca arrived in the room, carrying her son’s dinner. She offered to replace Laura while she answered an urgent telephone call. Five minutes later, the young woman returned with a downcast expression. Laura took charge of the session again, continuing the number games, but her enthusiasm waned. Francisca watched. Her hawk eyes catalogued every gesture, every disguised grimace. She knew Laura’s attention had drifted to other places as a result of that phone conversation. Her son’s interest diminished as well. She could finish the remainder of Laura’s session, she postulated, but let her thought go immediately, not wanting to insult the other woman in any way. Laura’s skills amazed her. Music. Art. Athletics. Teaching. A Renaissance person. When she compared her abilities to the younger woman’s talents, Francisca could not balance the scale. Her two notable skills of mother and wife dominated an otherwise empty list. She had never questioned the meaning or value of her life and actions until Robertito arrived. But what about teacher? She considered that a skill in the process of being acquired. In detecting Laura’s mood change and hypothesizing about its genesis, she reaffirmed her own growing awareness. “Maybe, I could direct the program this summer.” She smiled, more confident of subduing her demons. Even as she watched Laura stumble and show fleeting signs of impatience, she loved her without judging her actions and without fear for her son. She knew they would both survive and, perhaps, flourish.
Robertito peered at his mother often, rather than maintaining his traditional focus on food. As she exited, he rose to his feet. His face contorted peculiarly, his lips slopping together. Francisca gazed at her son and waved, not wanting to divert his attention from the session. He struggled to control his mouth. She waved a last time and started to close the door.
“Mama,” a throaty voice bellowed.
Francisca threw the door open and gaped at her child. “Yes. Yes. Oh, God, yes,” she said. She knelt down and hugged her son tenderly. Her hands trembled. Robertito’s little fingers made a gentle scratching motion along her back. For almost six years , Francisca had tried to identify herself to her son. For almost six years, he chose people indiscriminately, never showing a discernible preference or attachment to anyone. She had waited alone, as only a mother could wait, often filled with anger and fear. But for Francisca, today was her first Mother’s Day.
I arrived at the Sotos’ during Carol’s session and found Robertito sitting on the toilet. He leaned against Carol and played with her hair. He stared at me often while I watched from the doorway.
“Hola!, mi amor,” I said, responding to the unspoken language of his eyes.
“Who’s that?” Carol asked, pointing to me. Robertito stared at the tips of her fingers. “Not my finger. Look, that big hairy bear.” The child eyed my form curiously, then grunted a muddled sound. “Say it again. Louder.”
He shouted in a throaty voice, “Bears.”
Francisca arrived noisily to take the next session. During the changing of the guard, I hugged each of them, including my little friend, and then left.
At the bottom of the staircase, I paused, searching for my pen. My notorious habit for losing pens, keys, wallets and phone numbers plagued me once again. Suzi said my mind rejected the existence of what it deemed as minor details. And yet, throughout my adult life, my body spent countless hours trying to relocate what my mind refused to register. Rather than go back for the pen and intrude on the next session with Robertito, I accepted my loss and continued my exit. At that moment, in a voice neither loud nor soft, Carol called my name. The undercurrent of intensity and desperation in her voice rammed my system. I twirled around and catapulted myself up half the staircase. At the first landing, I caught a glimpse of her backed against the wall at the far end of the hall, As I jumped up the remaining steps, she began to slide downward, her feet crumbling under her. The white pallor of her skin highlighted her blue eyes. She stared at an indeterminate point on the opposite wall. Her eyelids froze open. When I reached her, I helped guide her body to the floor.
“Are you having a seizure?” No response. Her face appeared paralyzed. The muscles in her cheeks fluttered.
“Carol, can you hear me?”
She dipped her head fractionally.
“Okay. I’m going to take your hands. I’ll stay with you.” Her fingers laid limp in mine. The sweat oozed from her forehead and around her mouth.
“Are you scared?”
She moaned in a weird, barely audible voice.
I felt a tremor through her body. “Kha, try to follow my voice. As long as you do, you will keep your options open. Can you hold on to me with your hands?” Her fingers wrapped around mine. “You did it. Wonderful. Tell me what you feel. Try to talk.” She shook her head. “I know it feels like you can’t, but try. Describe what you feel.”
Her words were garbled, as if compressed and submerged under water.
“Burning. Tingling. Stomach. Hot.”
“What else?” I asked. “What else, Kha? Tell me what else you feel.”
“Not here.” Her voice had dropped an octave. It resonated around her as if coming through a speaker rather than originating in her throat.
“I don’t understand! What do you mean by ‘not here’?”
“Not in body,” she answered. “Hot.”
“Does it feel good?”
“Are you making it feel good? Is that it?” No response. “Kha, are you making the hot feel good?”
She nodded slightly.
“Can you hold me tighter?” Her hands squeezed me again, then she went limp. The last ounce of color drained from her skin. I pressed my fingers into her palms. “I’m still here with you,” I said. “I’m still here.” The tension returned to her hands. “Great. I feel you. Are you frightened?”
“No,” she grunted.
I waved my hand in front of her eyes. No response. No reflexive defense. During the seizure, she had turned inward. “Do you see my hand?” I asked, still waving it.
I pulled it around to the side of her head. She dipped her chin. Carol could not see frontally; she only had visual intake through her peripheral vision. I thought of Robertito.
“Do you want to stop those feelings and come back? You don’t have to, but do you want to?”
“Yes,” she muttered as if her tongue had been paralyzed.
“Then c’mon back. Let the heat go. Let the tingling sensations go. Squeeze me tighter if you can.” I felt no response in her hands. “Kha, you can do it. Try. Like you try every day for Robertito, try this time for Carol.” Her thumb pressed the back of my hand. Her eyelids closed. Suddenly, she inhaled deeply. At that moment, I realized I had had no sense of her breathing during the seizure.
She opened her eyes, which were bloodshot and glazed. “Hi,” she said weakly. “They’re getting lighter … ever since our talks. Usually I pass out. This time, I made the heat go away. I can’t believe it.” She giggled abruptly. “Me. Laughing about my own seizure. What would my mother say? What would my doctor say?” Carol laughed again. She tried to get up, but fell against the wall. I steadied her, helping her to her feet.
Carol lay on the couch, pale, exhausted, but strangely cheerful. “You know, there’s such a thing as a reformed alcoholic, but I’ll bet you’ve never heard of a reformed epileptic?” She giggled again in a high, thin voice as if slightly drunk. “If I have to live with this the rest of my life, at least it won’t scare the sh*t out of me any more.”
“Do you have to live with it the rest of your life?” I asked.
She wanted to say “no,” but short-circuited her thoughts. Every time Robertito learned something new, she felt a touch more liberated from her illness. “What are you saying, Bears?”
“I didn’t make a statement, Kha. I asked a question … whether, in fact, you had to live with it the rest of your life?”
“I don’t have an answer,” she mumbled.
“That’s okay. All questions don’t have to be answered.”