November 24, 2014

A Miracle To Believe In – Chapter 2

The infantile, siren-like whine of the little boy penetrated every room in the house. The rapid tap of feet prancing through the hall, then into the living room, then back again, provided a base accompaniment to the bizarre two-note symphony.

Alicia listened intently as she had always listened, except, this time, without any panic visible on her face. She munched on retried beans and tacos while on her lunch break from the store, Roby’s store. Her eyes scanned her sister’s home. She admired the dark wood table, the bureau chiseled with markings of ancient Spain, the old iron pitcher placed neatly on a doily, viewing them almost as if for the first time, freer now in Francisca’s home to smile and to enjoy.

“Eee-o, eee-o, eee-o,” Robertito droned. His verbal persistence filled the dining room, distracting Alicia despite the walls between them. Then she heard Francisca: “Eee-o, eeeo, eee-o.” Clear sounds. Happy sounds. She started to laugh, sitting there, alone, feeling released, if only momentarily, from the weight of Robertito’s illness. Maybe this is the way … maybe.

Suddenly, Robertito wandered into the room flapping a piece of tissue paper rapidly at the side of his head. Francisca accompanied him, holding her strip of tissue paper in front of her eyes, pulsating it in the same rhythm as her son. When she saw Alicia, she automatically straightened her blouse with her free hand and smiled awkwardly.

“Hola!, Robertito,” Alicia said boisterously as she fumbled with her napkin, raising it to the side of her head and flapping it. But the little boy looked at her for only a couple of seconds, then his glazed and vacant eyes indiscriminately floated from side to side in their sockets. Nevertheless, she persisted. “It’s my turn, Francisca,” she chimed, mimicking the child.

Francisca watched her son and sister. So much had changed since her visit to New York. She couldn’t believe the difference she felt inside. The weird, unearthly noises that had kept her in a state of controlled panic for years now became signals for imitation games. The strange, frantic body motions, the rocking and flapping that had confused and frightened her, now became opportunities to make contact. Strange ideas for her; difficult to digest. And yet, this new vision enabled her to recapture the old strength. Before Robertito, Francisca had been the rock. Before Robertito, the world made sense. As she watched her sister, especially her sister, the embarrassment of the past five years suddenly disturbed her. She had been groomed to respond and succeed.

Tall. Statuesque. Athletic. Talented. Attractive. Competitive. But all the standards had collapsed around her in dealing with her son. She felt like a rabbit born in the land of wolves. What ingredient was missing? She had tried so hard, so desperately hard to please, to be useful, to be effective. The role of mother meant more to her than all the childhood triumphs, but the specifics of motherhood eluded her, at least, until now.

She straightened her hair, not as an act of vanity, but in an effort to assert control. Be strong! She had played that same scenario all her life. For Francisca Soto, some things had not changed, especially the demands she made of herself. Alicia’s laughter diverted her. Robertito and her sister sat on the floor, rocking together.

“Okay, don’t do too much, Alicia… I’ll take over now,” Francisca declared like an overprotective mother. But her sister shook her head and continued flapping the paper. “A few minutes more, Alicia, and that’s it,” Francisca could not explain the incredible tenaciousness of her sister, but she admired it. Be strong or, at least, act strong. The fact that Alicia, once crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, could bend and move with Robertito reaffirmed that credo. How else could her sister have survived an adolescence marred by pain and self-consciousness? How else could she have endured operation after operation? Was the illusion of strength the same as strength? All of her life, Francisca had suppressed the tears with a forced smile as if the flaunting of such a mask, itself, had special healing powers. Alicia had kept her head high in the face of a crippling disease, but Francisca, when put to the test with Robertito, had broken like a weak and sad old woman.

Francisca vowed not to cry. Other people cried. She vowed not to lose her way. Other people lost their way. A pulse pounded at her temples. These were the same promises she had made before her marriage … and she did cry and did lose her way. She wanted desperately to accept her vulnerability. Her experiences with Suzi and me in New York opened that door. But Francisca refused to forgive herself totally. If she said okay to her weakness, would she get weaker?

She focused her attention back to Alicia and her son. Their happiness in performing an absurd, incomprehensible ritual astounded her. Everyone had caught the fever. Nothing had changed, not really … except, of course their attitude. Again, Francisca pounded herself lightly. She viewed the venting of emotions as an almost unpardonable diversion from helping her son. What had she been doing for over four years if her son could change in five days in New York? Rather than answer the question, she smothered it. Be strong! You can do it now! A scared little girl suddenly whimpered deep inside. She knew she had to let go, even more, but she couldn’t. Francisca knelt down and hugged her sister tightly. Hold on! Please hold on to me! But the words which surfaced in her mind never found their way into her throat.

Francisca’s eyes riveted on the child who stood at the center of her world. “I accept you. I do!” she insisted. An attitude which had evolved naturally suddenly had the unmistakable characteristic of a commandment. A rule supplanted her inclination. Her head jerked back slightly, throwing the hair off her forehead. She managed a full smile, then resumed her role as mentor to her son and followed him down the hallway toward the bedrooms.

Alone, again, with her food, Alicia let her hand fall slowly as she continued to jerk the paper spastically. Was that the right movement? she wondered. She wished she had been in New York with them, to see and understand what apparently revolutionized Francisca and Roby’s perspective about their son. When she had been sick, the problems were concrete, capable of being itemized and described. The remedies were within familiar boundaries: operations, medication, physical therapy. For Robertito, the concept of illness barely applied; his dilemma, though couched in concrete symptoms, had an unknowable, frightening quality about it. The solution often appeared more bizarre than the problem.

And now this – watching her sister do all those things which the doctors had tried to stop; in fact, moving in a direction contradictory to their advice. Alicia wanted to stay open, but she couldn’t deny the strange sensation quivering across her skin as she watched Francisca and Robertito on the floor in the hallway; four hands twisting in funny, repetitive gestures and the endless drone of eee-o, eee-o, eee-o.

She never hesitated when Francisca asked for her assistance, though both of them knew what it meant for her to leave Las Mochis, the small, quaint city hugging the Pacific Ocean on Baja California. Francisca had left when she was only nineteen, marrying Roby after a carefully supervised courtship during which time they were never allowed to be alone.

Being in her sister’s house required Alicia to adjust her vision. Francisca had become very cosmopolitan. Though her skin stretched tight across her strong and attractive face, her eyes had grown old. It scared Alicia to imagine what her sister had seen.

As she opened the refrigerator to prepare lunch for Robertito and his mother, she was confronted with a new challenge. Obviously, someone had cleared the shelves of all recognizable foods and filled the bins with unfamiliar items from a San Diego health food store. Now she remembered; her sister said they had learned to consider everything which influenced Robertito, including food, all part of a more holistic view of their son’s world.

“I’ll leave two sandwiches for you,” she called to her sister.

“Oh, Alicia, thank you,” Francisca yelled back, her voice strained and surprisingly wispy.

Alicia stepped into the street, locking the door behind her. Somehow, she and Alicia stepped into the street, locking the door behind her. Somehow, she and

Roby couldn’t move fast enough. Distrusting the leather soles of his shoes, he continually denied his impulse to run. Every minute, every second counted. With Alicia tending the store, he could use this extra hour before his session with Robertito to try to finish constructing what would soon become his son’s workroom. He kept remembering Robertito in our bathroom in New York; the limited non-distracting environment in which he had watched his son make his first gestures in contacting the world outside of himself. He could still hear his son’s guttural, barely distinguishable cry for juice.

He catapulted himself up the front steps, then fumbled with his keys. He rocked his head slightly in anticipation of the most exciting event in his day – seeing his wife and son. Once inside, he tiptoed through the house, finally locating his family in Robertito’s room. He pushed the door slightly ajar until he could see them clearly as they flapped the curtains together. Robertito jumped off the bed and paced the floor rapidly. His mother followed; smiling, laughing and talking constantly throughout the entire period.

For a minute, she stopped speaking. Her voice, which had created a gentle melody continually expressing her acceptance of his world, was replaced by the echo of their pounding feet on the linoleum floor. She tried to ignore her memory of New York, when Robertito had been more responsive. He would come around again, she reassured herself. She had to be patient, had to wait. Realizing she had drifted, walking beside her son momentarily like a zombie, she refocused on his angelic face, found the softest part in herself as Suzi and I had suggested and felt the surge of words flow from her lips once again.

Roby stared at his wife, never noticing the two minutes of tension apparent in her face. He nodded his head and confirmed to himself that in spite of his son’s moment-to-moment responses, this was the way … it must be the way; everything else seemed so barbaric and so cold.

Roby stared at his wife, never noticing the two minutes of tension apparent in her face. He nodded his head and confirmed to himself that in spite of his son’s moment-to-moment responses, this was the way … it must be the way; everything else seemed so barbaric and so cold. retain all they learned in New York. It did work, he assured himself, when he explored and let go of the fear, the anxiousness, the judgments, he felt more relaxed, more accepting, more loving. It had been so easy, almost too easy – like his feeling about Francisca; sometimes scared to lose what he believed he hardly deserved.

Suddenly, Francisca noticed him. She beamed with a new energy. They waved to each other, neither wanting to disrupt the session, to diminish, even for a second, their pilgrimage to meet their son. They exchanged hugs and embraces through the tips of their fingers. Roby watched for several more minutes, then turned away. He felt filled, like a mountain river surging with the tides of melting snow; not depleted or exhausted by his son; not devastated by the life of this, perhaps, imperfect creature. He recognized that throughout their searching, lie had never felt so confident, though, admittedly, some fears and doubts still lingered. He believed if they had had more time, more Option sessions, they would have cleared the path completely. At least for now, they had turned the comer, seen another way.

After changing into old clothes, Roby entered the bathroom, equipped with tools and lumber. Both he and Francisca had assessed the room as being too large; so, on the first night of their return home, be started to build a new wall and door, significantly diminishing the square footage of open area. But his lack of experience in construction slowed the process. Today, he moved with a new sense of urgency. He, too, had noticed that Robertito bad been more responsive at our house in New York, deducing that their lack of a confined, non-distracting work area was the problem. Roby used the hammer more precisely. He drove each nail with two strikes, rather than the customary six necessary two days before. “This is for you, Robertito,” he chanted silently in his head every time he swung his hammer.

Roby backed away from the doorway and celebrated that moment of completion as the muscles in his shoulders eased from their state of readiness. In the afternoon, they would begin to use this area as their workroom. Perhaps his son, like Raun Kaufman, would be reborn in the confinement of the bathroom. He drew support and encouragement from such parallels. Perhaps, he teased himself, he had avoided sectioning one of the bedrooms for that very reason. No shame. No embarrassment. He used every piece of ammunition at his disposal to bolster his and his wills confidence.

Twenty minutes later, Roby and Robertito sat together beside the bathtub, rocking side to side with their legs stretched across the floor. Roby had carefully set out several toys; an insertion box filled with different shapes, a five-piece wooden puzzle board with knobs; plastic boxer, which fit one within the other. During those moments when his son stopped his repetitious behaviors, his isms, Roby would try to introduce a game. Each time he gave him a puzzle piece or geometric shape, his son would flap it by the side of his head.

As they continued to rock, Roby moved his hand very slowly until it came within inches of his son’s thigh, then he set his fingers down on the boy’s leg. Robertito looked at his father’s hand and became very still. For four incredible seconds neither of them moved; then Robertito jumped to his feet and began twirling his fingers in front of his eyes.

“Four seconds, Robertito, that’s very good,” he said softly to his son as he rose to his knees and began twirling his own fingers, duplicating the activity with great precision. “Four seconds, my son … that’s a beginning.” The bathroom would make the difference. It would. He wanted to tell everybody; it would happen here.

At eight o’clock, Francisca slipped into the room, armed with her son’s pajamas and a diaper. She had combed her hair and put on fresh lipstick. A light line of eyeliner had been expertly applied to her eyelids. Francisca not only trusted such formalities, but counted on them. She relied on the dignity she could see and assumed other people did the same. Her eyes scanned the bathroom. She smiled self-consciously, kissed her husband, then dove for her son.

Roby sat on the edge of the bathtub, watching his wife gently wrestle Robertito in an effort to remove his pants. Both he and Francisca laughed at their son’s antics; twisting, turning, curling and rolling in a casual, rhythmic manner; no sense of urgency or malice in his soft, elastic form. Although he never once looked at her, Robertito’s face suggested a tacit approval of her efforts; almost as if he wanted what his mother wanted without really understanding how to cooperate; her signal misrouted chaotically through his neurological system, never creating a picture before his mind’s eye which he could decipher; responding bodily, like an infant, to her hands. A big sigh filled the room as she threw her arms in the air, then let them fall heavily to her side. She picked at her tooth unconsciously, squinted her eyes and drifted to a place deep inside herself. Suddenly, her expression changed, a smirk exploding onto her face. She whipped a piece of toilet paper off the roll and handed it ceremoniously to her son…

“Voila,” she said proudly, using one of the few French words she knew; unaware that, at best, she had grossly mispronounced the word, muddling it with her very heavy Spanish accent.

Robertito grabbed the paper hungrily, ripped it quickly into long, thin strips and, using both hands, flapped them in front of his huge staring eyes. Having successfully diverted his attention, she undressed him; his body limp and pliable to her touch. A clever ruse, she thought, having beaten him at his own game.

“Go with him, not against him.” My words had stayed with her. Two weeks ago, before their visit to our home, she would have fought with Robertito, depriving him of the paper while forcing his arms and legs into the garments. He would have whined and cried, kicked and pushed until the task had been completed. Then he would have huddled himself into a fetal position. Francisca would try to touch him; then hesitate, an apology pasted on her lips; not knowing another way to talk or touch, feeling impotent and abusive in her attempts to love her son.

“He’s so peaceful now,” she said aloud, “so gentle and so peaceful.”

“He’s so peaceful now,” she said aloud, “so gentle and so peaceful.”

As she led Robertito out of the bathroom, she knocked against a shelf which Roby had not yet secured. A vitamin bottle tumbled to the floor. The plastic container splintered into several pieces, scattering hundreds of little pills all over the room.

“You go, I’ll take care of it,” Roby assured her as he bent down. The scene seemed so familiar, too familiar, as he remembered another incident, one of many, when he was exactly his son’s age.

His father, a stern and autocratic man, had five illegitimate children with his mother; this being one of several different families he sired. He viewed his children as a source of labor; denying them education and friends so that one day they would work hard for him in his store or grainery. One morning, Roby played with several dishes in the kitchen while his mother prepared lunch. When his father appeared, he scolded both his common-law wife and the child, quickly returning with a ten-pound sack of rice which he spilled on the floor. He then commanded Roby to pick up the pieces. The little boy filled his hands with the rice in order to return it to the burlap bag. The old man kicked little Roby’s arms, throwing him off his feet. Terrified, Roby tried to camouflage his trembling hands as his father’s face flushed and his mouth stretched wide while he screamed, instructing the boy to pick up, under the threat of severe punishment, each grain of rice individually … one by one. Roby worked diligently throughout the entire day until he completed the job, his four-year-old mind unable to digest the brutality and unwilling to accept it. His mother’s pained, blood-shot eyes watching from the side of the room frightened him almost as much as his father’s aggression.

As he gathered his son’s vitamins, he looked around the bathroom, thankful for his home. He could still see the old man; thick white hair, strong, tall, light-complexioned and dressed in one of his many white suits and matching white leather shoes; a polished, studied and misleading exterior. When he died, over forty children descended on the little village where he lived, seeking to grab their portion of his money and his businesses. But Roby made no claims. He had run away just after his eleventh birthday to live with his brother. He never returned to the house or the village. At seventeen, he went off by himself and lived on his own, trying to maintain some contact with his brothers, each of whom had also run away and were now scattered throughout Mexico.

What seemed so natural for his own father, the cruelty and the abuse, seemed so foreign to him. The pain and loneliness of his youth had softened with the years, but two other specific incidents remained vividly imprinted in his mind.

Just before his eighth birthday, when a rain and wind storm hit the village, his father forced him to join him on the roof of the house to fix several loose tiles. As he shivered in the cold, frightened by the wind which threatened to upset his balance, he watched and listened to the old man instruct him in the art of tile repair. Roby tried to remember all the instructions, but details were muddled. After resetting one piece, the old man left the roof, tossing the tools and materials in front of his son. The young boy dragged the metal cases across the slippery tiles until he settled directly beside another loose piece. He tried to cement it back into place several times, but it would not hold, constantly sliding out of its position. His father peeked his head above the roof line, immediately becoming furious with his son’s apparent incompetence. He climbed up the ladder with a raised fist, telegraphing his intention. Rather than walk carefully along the supported ledges, he plunged across the tiles, breaking the surface with his forceful step and falling halfway through the roof. Dangling precariously between floors, he screamed obscenities at Roby, who quickly scooted off the roof and disappeared for two days. When he returned, tired and hungry, his father beat him with a belt.

A year later, when the old man escalated his expectations for more services from his young son, he sent the boy into the fields to bring back a bull. “Don’t come back unless you come back with the bull, you hear!” Those instructions lived in Roby’s memory. He hiked several miles, crossing roads and wading through muddy creeks. Finally, he located the bull grazing on a sun-baked knoll; Roby was fully aware it would be impossible to approach the animal without being seen. His fingers rubbed the outer skin of the lasso draped across his chest. Impossible, he reasoned, he could never hold the bull; his slight figure was dwarfed by the heavy, muscular, black-skinned hulk. Tie him to a tree. That’s it, he would tie him to a tree, Gingerly placing one foot in front of another, he circled the animal. The cluster of trees behind them would serve as a perfect corral. He filled his lungs, closed his eyes and charged the bull, yelling and waving the rope. The animal barely lifted his head. Roby kept coming, his high-pitched screams ricocheting off the rocks in the field. The bull eventually turned his full concentration on the young boy just at the moment Roby opened his eyes and faced his prey directly. Eyes met eyes. Breathless and frightened, Roby stopped short, his legs frozen, his pulse racing, his chest rising and falling uncontrollably. The boy turned away and started to count. As soon as he recited the number ten, he bit hard on his lip, shifted his body and pushed himself, approaching the animal slowly this time. Surmising the child was not a threat, the bull returned to his casual meal.

Once Roby had come within four feet of his prey, he slowed his pace and inched his way closer and closer. The thick neck and soil-stained horns took his breath away. He began to feel dizzy, but clenched his teeth, fighting the lighthearted feeling. With great precision, he slipped the noose of the rope over the animal’s head and then ran in the opposite direction at full speed. Having first wrapped the rope twice around his waist, the impact of his body hitting the end of the cord snapped the noose tightly in place as he had planned. But the same impact also threw him head over heels, unraveling the rope from his waist.

The bull darted across the field, dragging Roby’s lasso. Realizing the animal could choke himself with the rope, Roby pursued on foot. He had never intended to harm the creature. After crossing several acres, the bull lumbered into a clumsy walk, finally returning his attention to the grass.

More desperate than before, the boy approached again, grabbing the rope. The bull, responding to the tug at his neck, began to trot once again across the open field. This time, Roby hung on, running until he could run no more. Even as his legs began to sag and buckle beneath him, he refused to give up. His fingers locked around the cord. The animal dragged him almost a quarter of a mile, burning his hands and scraping the skin off the exposed parts of his body. Finally, his strength gone, he let go.

Eventually, Roby and the bull were rescued by a group of farmers and returned home. In the midst of his mother’s cleaning the cuts and burns on her son’s body, the old man arrived, interrupting the emergency treatment for only several minutes – time enough to drag the boy into the yard and give him a beating.

Eventually, Roby and the bull were rescued by a group of farmers and returned home. In the midst of his mother’s cleaning the cuts and burns on her son’s body, the old man arrived, interrupting the emergency treatment for only several minutes – time enough to drag the boy into the yard and give him a beating.

He flipped the light switch in the bathroom and stood alone in the darkness. Twenty-nine years had not dimmed those memories. The questions still haunted him, even now… questions which he thought had been laid to rest.

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