Nantucket Essays

Why I Walk

by Robert P. Barsanti

I attended the funeral in Hillsboro, New Hampshire recently. My uncle, Nandy, had died relatively unexpectedly at age 88, at the end of a long laughing life.  Those who had survived gathered up in a small church in the hills of central New Hampshire to try to fill in the gap that he had so recently left.

His church, St. Mary’s, had settled back three houses up on Church Street and behind a towering oak tree.  St. Mary’s remained after most of its parishioners had moved on.  Two of the doors didn’t work, the organ wasn’t doing to the work it was supposed to do and the watermarks had spread in a non-pious way over the ceiling.

Fifty friends and family attended, but my uncle’s casket wasn’t among them.  He had died so recently that neither he, nor his children, had devised plans for his send-off.  He had gone skidding into the next world in between fishing trips and home repair.  While alive, my uncle broke hands with his handshake, skied deep into the spring, and wrestled life as if it was a puppy. He had as little time for funeral plans as he did for the two settling Saabs in his driveway.  There would be a time for that, and there wasn’t.

After the ceremony and the eulogy, friends and family stood downstairs in the church basement and stared at each other over carrot cake and vegetable dip.  His death cut his children at the ankle; they staggered around as best they could.  Without anything else to do, my cousins created a slide show.  A projector was set up, a portable radio was plugged in, and the pictures rolled across the wall: Graduations, weddings, paddling trips, tents. Nandy’s bursting tomato of a face filled the gloom, then began to sing.  My uncle was no trained tenor; instead he was an enthusiastic interpreter of camp songs.  One of his children, with an eye perhaps on this very afternoon, had recorded their father singing “She’ll be coming round the Mountain” “Daisy” and “East Side/West Side.”  In that room, in that silence, his overstuffed life called out to his children and they sat once more at his feet.

The previous generation washes away before me.  My grandparents are gone, my parents are gone, and now the rest of their friends slip into the tide. The death of an 88-year-old man should surprise nobody, but it still takes us unawares.  We expect the monuments in our lives to stand forever.  Then, one morning, we come to the shore and they aren’t there.

Since I was young, the world has spun many times, and I have become a monument as well.  When the previous generation slips away, you find yourself stepping up.  My own children are back on the beach, and I see the ocean approaching.  It will be a long time before the surf curls around me one last time, but I can’t pretend that it will never happen.  The surf calls to all of us.

My son is on the spectrum, somewhere in the light blue section.  The years have spun him around as well.  He stands taller than his mother and I, can grow a thick red beard if his father doesn’t get to it with some clippers, and knows far too much trivia about Marvel superheroes and their films.  When I dropped him off at school recently, he left me at the door while he ran off with one of his friends and regaled him with the movies he had seen.

He goes to the cinema now.  In the past, no amount of bribes or candy could keep him in his seat past fifteen minutes into the film.  “The March of the Penguins” sent him into a rage.  Now, he sits in the far back row with a feedbag of popcorn and immerses himself into the latest science fiction brain buster.  He knows all of the connections, all of the memes, all of the lines he has found on the internet.  He is moving forward.

The nameless fears that snagged his arms and legs have retreated back into childhood.  He has stood on the sandbar off of Fisherman’s Beach amid the random pinch of a crab and the swirl of eelgrass.  Where he would have run off into the high grass a year ago, today he remains under the pleasant pounding of a southwest swell.  I can sit on the beach and watch him over the top margin of a paperback.  He is safe, he is happy, and he is getting crushed by each rolling wave.  He even picked a crab off his foot and flung it over the water.

If you squint a little, you could see him years from now on a college campus where they speak the language of computer games and quote “Doctor Who” to one another.   I think I have seen people like him, and, with just a little bit more work and a little bit more hope…

Hope is the curse of Autism.  With hope, you see him only two or three steps from the path that everyone else walks.  With hope, you can tune the radio in his brain and eliminate the static.  However, when you wipe the hope away, you still see a boy who leaps, flaps, and runs about.  At a family dinner, you see a boy who can quote movies and memes, but cannot listen to or even look into the face of his cousins.  He can no more read an expression or a mood than he can read Sanskrit.  We, his parents, must portion and parcel out the world to him.  Hope obscures the truth.  Without us, he would be frustrated and adrift, in search of the right pizza.

He will be without us.  In the clear light of August, I no longer hope for my son to be the next Bill Gates or Temple Grandin.  The numbers will not sing a celestial harmony to him, nor will the animals of the field whisper in his ears.  Instead, I hope for a sheltered lee in the dunes where he can eat his pizza, watch his movies, and, perhaps, do the some good for the world that doesn’t know where to put him.

That’s why I walk.

Articles by Date from 2012