Thursday, August 19, 2010

Early Autumn’s Melancholy

Autumn approaches along Lake Superior’s North Shore a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, as sumacs exchange green for yellow and orange and snippets of red foliage emerge.  Sunlight simmers across the great lake’s sixty-odd degree surface, whitecaps and mini-water spouts frenzied by 35 mile per hour wind gusts crossing from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Sail boats with tightly bound masts moored in the Grand Marais harbor lurch and sway, wind tosses the whitecaps’ froth haphazardly into the air.  Seagulls’ mewing complaints of the lack of food scraps left by visitors who have already begun heading south for warmer weather. In another few months the wind child temperature will drop to -70 F along the shore.  

How the Ojibwe natives and early French fur traders managed to cross the great marais to Grand Portage at the Canadian border in 25 foot long birch bark canoes, in such treacherous water is a mystery.  They survived the bitterly harsh winters by means only the legendary Ojibwe trickster, Nanabozho knows. Our family’s too short holiday in the far north concludes with our daughters', son's and cousin's, packing for their return trip to the Twin Cities and far off New York.  Goodbye embraces are followed by the inevitable melancholy of parting, as autumn reminds us of summer’s wondrous days, not to return. 

David, now 45 years old, was the first person with autism with whom I worked.  He was 5 years old at the time.  His parents, Etta and Doug, devoted much of their life to helping David have a better future. David lives in a Twin Cites group home and has a job that provides satisfaction and a little spending money.  When Etta died this past year, David didn’t understand her absence.  He insisted that she was in Duluth, which he knew she visited from time to time.  As weeks and months passed, he seemed to realize she wasn’t returning from Duluth.  David became teary-eyed and despondent.  He had rarely made telephone calls to his parents.  It was they who called him, conducting a largely one-sided conversation.  Abruptly David began calling his dad by phone from his group home.  Doug answered, realizing from the number on his phone’s display, it was David calling.  Greeting David cheerily, Doug expected minimal reply, since David seldom speaks.  Doug was taken aback, when David blurted out, “I Love You Dad,” and hung up. David had no idea how to express the rest of what he was feeling, other than the need for love.  What else was there to say, perhaps that was enough?  

For David, the ambiguity of his mother’s absence had been a little like our family’s brief early autumn visit, concluding in the melancholy of their departure… easily managed in our case, but deeply saddening to David.  Doug is spending more time with David than in the past, regularly taking him for lunch at Famous Dave’s Barbecue, which, not surprisingly is doubly satisfying and a bit amusing to David.  Fortunately, David hasn’t heard of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving and is more likely to stick to the Chinese Buffet and Famous Dave’s with his dad and sister Ann as a means of overcoming his sorrow. We each have our own way of managing the sadness of loss.


  1. Travis,
    Your writing about David is very touching, especially since your work with Etta and I accounts for much of the good life he now leads. That David is still a puzzle shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all me, but I now am seeing Dave in a more normal way. Grief, although it has taken time for Dave, seems to working out for him, and I believe his telephone calls to me are a way of holding on to his family. I never thought I would ever hear "I love you, Dad" from Dave—in fact, I didn't think he could express himself so touchingly, or even knew the words. But this only shows me how much more Dave has to teach me about himself. When we went out to dinner last Sunday at the Chinese Buffet he smiled in his shy way, never looking right at me, but his pleasure just glowed. He even played a joke on us when he sat down at the wrong table—he grinned from ear to ear and laughed a real laugh when his sister Ann called his name. He giggled all the way back to our table. The puzzle is over for Dave and me: he needs me and I need him and we both like knowing this. I see now that I don't need to "understand" him—he and I are just friends now.


  2. Wonderful comments Doug. I wish more parents could arrive at a point of just enjoying their kids with autism and be less concerned about "understanding" them. Understanding seems such hard work and enjoying comes more easily and fits in with our daily lives better. I guess that goes for all us parents and their kids.