I don’t know how much time I have left.
Afternoon, and autumn leaves wander and twist to the earth, fluttering through the grass and along the sidewalk. The sun makes a blaze of the trees. I stop for a moment just to see, putting down my work, stunned by the fragility of life. I don’t know how much time I have left. I feel it in the goosebumps rising on my arms as I take in the turning. Fall always reminds me to feel grateful for moments. Because today is always the only day I have, and now the only moment. It shouldn’t take tragedy or loss to capture my attention.
Upstairs, I find Riley sitting on the floor in front of the washing machine, pulling dark clothes out of the basket beside her, pushing them into the washer tub with her hands. I stop still in the hallway. She turns to me, golden hair falling softly across her shoulders. A lock falls brassy over her sweet-deep ocean-eyes, still displaced from yesterday’s zig-zag part, and she carefully tucks it behind her ear. Her fingers are long and slender now. Hers is a quiet depth. She smiles—so beautiful, just a slight, smooth acknowledgement, resting a wadded, gripped pair of jeans against her knee.
“Hi Mom,” she says, and the smile comes because she observes and understands and absorbs more than most people would believe. She knows I measure her expressions, searching for hidden seizures, for side-effects from the pills, for some unexpected emergency. She’s patient, but she doesn’t like my watchfulness. She doesn’t like to draw attention.
Are those circles under her eyes?
“You okay?” I ask her, and she looks away at the jeans in her hand, the washing machine in front of her.
“Mmmhmm,” she says, pushing the jeans inside. I can see the glint of silver, the holes in the tub where the water trickles out.
“Why are you sitting on the floor?” Are you more exhausted than you should be? Seizures make her sleepy, the pills can make her sleepy, but Riley resists sleep. She never wants to miss anything. In the young woman she has become, I see the baby with round cheeks and gold curls all over her head who used to thrash in my arms and cry out in anger over feeling tired. I once held her tightly, sweaty against my chest, so she’d be still enough to rest. People with autism are supposed to be limited by anxiety—that’s the stereotype—but Riley lives full, satisfying a continual hunger for new experiences, new people, new places, despite the fact that too much sensory information at once leaves her teary and steals her breath. I have lead her out of buildings, commanding her to breathe, rubbing her back with my hand, holding her while she cries into my shoulder. I have seen what anxiety does to her. And still, she walks easy, freely, into living. She lives—awkward, silly, innocent, messy, and completely okay with every season.
“I don’t know,” she says, blinking at me.
It makes sense, really. The washer loads from the front, and it’s easier to see when the tub is full if you’re sitting right in front of it. I’ve never thought to do that. She is practical and resourceful, and completely unhindered by the usual way. Sometimes, when we ask her why, she says, “It’s just my technique.” It makes me happy to see that she’s content—even confident about—doing things differently, in the ways that make sense to her. But I am so accustomed to shattering surprises that sometimes I over anticipate them, as a protection.
I walk over to study her a little more closely, and she stands. I reach for her face, cradling her chin in my palms, sliding my thumbs along the line of her cheek bones. I smile at her and her eyes fill with tears—a sudden flood just when I feel ready to dismiss my worries.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Mmmhmm.” She nods, and I can tell she’s working to convince me, even as tears begin to slide down her cheeks. I don’t know if she’s willing nothing wrong or troubled by my scrutiny, and I am instantly frustrated because I know that I will not know. What is happening to her that I can’t see? Am I passing her worries–fear–she doesn’t want, doesn’t need? We’re well past the days when I had to remember to push down on the toe of her shoes with my thumb to check for too small or limit my words to a crucial few so that she would understand, but there are still some things she can’t explain, maybe doesn’t even understand, about her own feelings. She can’t tell me the things that would make me stop watching her so closely.
“Then why are you crying?”
“I don’t know,” she says, and her voice wavers, breaking in the middle.
I smile at her, offering her reassurance. “It’s alright if you want to sit on the floor to load the washer. I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” she says, nodding. “I know you’re checking on me, Mom. I’m not having any seizures. I’m okay.”
“Alright, then,” I say, kissing her cheek. “Get back to it.” And I walk away because she needs me to let her be okay, whether she really is okay or not. Two steps and I turn back. “Hey–“
She looks up at me, wary.
“I love you. I’m proud of you.” I want to say the things that matter, as though it’s my last opportunity to say them. I don’t know how much longer I have, and not because of seizures or fear or some forboding premonition, but because I just don’t know. And still, sometimes I take moments, opportunities, for granted.
She laughs, a giddy-free sound of joy that makes her smile wide. And just that quickly, the heaviness I glimpsed earlier disappears.
I walk to the window and watch Zoe running around the trampoline with three other kids. Her hair has browned with age, like mine, darker every year. It flies out in ribbons, and even from where I stand I can tell that the strands framing her face are damp with sweat. I smile to see her out there crazy-wild, always surrounded by a knot of friends, not yet too grown for vibrant imaginary tales. But she’s growing tall too, and I don’t know how much more time I have left touching her sun-warm skin when she comes inside, cheeks flushed happy, smelling like the wind. Kevin feels it too. Sometimes he stands at the window and says what I’m thinking, “Not much more time to see her like this.”
I tell my children not to let fear steal away living. And it’s these things I say to them that echo back to me. So I stand at the window, watching the trees catch fire in the sunlight, stretching for balance, for the way to enjoy the Fall without fretting over a Winter that might never come. Fall is a savoring season, a changing, maturing beauty. She flames and steams and sits warm in the hands. She is meant to be noticed and appreciated and touched, but she cannot be gripped and forced to stay. Fall whispers a startling, careful truth, a truth that makes me gather up gifts and hold them in open hands, open for gathering more, open for the wild freedom that makes them beautiful:
The fragility of life only makes our living more significant.