He sits in an arm chair with his small, tender hands pressed hard over his bottomless brown eyes, flaxen curls spiraling soft over his head.
Three-years-old and his tone earnest, he counts, leading.
Adam kneels in front of him, bending his long, eleven-year-old legs, pressing his lengthening fingers against his own eyes. Adam’s voice trails softly, following.
Something about their posture together makes us stop talking and watch, pressing fingers into the corners of our eyes to collect our tears. Really, it’s this we all long for: the simple acceptance of our awkward difficulty.
The cousins’ hide and seek game had been Zoe’s idea, and it swept me up in old times, the big, breezy beach house; the kids sneaking away, wandering into quiet alcoves. My cousins and I spent hours this way when we were small, and now history repeats. I remember the photographs of us in those days, tanned and salt-glazed. I remember the way our hair looked touched with brassy gold from the hours in the sun, the way it fell in sandy waves all over our heads, the way we all smelled of the ocean. We used to sit on the porch in damp swimsuits eating boiled shrimp, soft and veiny in our hands, while the sea breezes tickled our shoulders. I still love the warmth of that summer skin, the way it carries the sun swallowed and glowing long after salty showers and clean clothes.
I sit in that big old house, dim with its driftwood walls, glowing bright at the windows, and I notice the grapevine wreaths, thinking of the hands that must’ve twisted them. We talk, my cousin, my mom, my aunt, and I, while the kids scamper in and out of the room, counting, choosing to be blind to others hiding. I can see the ocean from every window, and I watch the towels move on the deck, draped over the porch railings to dry. I think I remember a picture of us cousins arranged against that very railing and it’s rough, weathered wood, and it makes me think about how awkward I felt in my own body then.
It occurs to me that our children–second cousins, easy friends—look so much like we did with their bright eyes and summer skin, their bare feet thudding against the hard wood floor as they play. The sounds echo from our past, still binding us, tender voices calling to each other from places unseen.
And Adam wanders, unhinged, unable to make a connection.
In certain moments, autism feels like something worn tight about the shoulders, tied and buckled across the chest, wrapped over the throat, confining the soul.
My son looks caged. For a moment he sits, then he walks through the room and out to a sunroom on the side, turning his hands stiffly in the air in front of him, his brow wrinkled. He sits in another chair, lost to us, uncomfortable for the first time in weeks. He looks like the awkward I felt the year they snapped our picture on the deck, only he doesn’t know to pretend. He doesn’t understand hiding.
“Is he looking for something?” My aunt wonders, loving my son, wanting him to be at ease. She has always accepted Adam as he is, has never treated him as less. Today, she tuned into his discomfort even before I did. “Is there something he’d like to do?”
And that’s when Nathan wanders in and finds Adam perched restlessly in a chair. ”Have you seen anyone?” He asks Adam, tilting his head, waiting for a response.
Adam looks at Nathan briefly and then looks away. I can tell Adam doesn’t quite understand the game or the question.
“Who have you seen?” Nathan asks again, changing the words, unphased by Adam’s silence. I see no hint of frustration or impatience, no doubt in the way he asks.
My son twists his hand in front of his face again, stiffly, bobbing his head to some rhythm none of the rest of us have noticed, still not understanding, still lost to the game.
“Have you seen Zoe, Miriam, Max,” this little one tries once more, naming each of his cousins, offering Adam multiple choice. Not once does he ask us why Adam won’t talk to him. He doesn’t even seem to register any difference between them at all. And suddenly I’m thankful for young eyes, for simple acceptance, for the way Nathan tries and doesn’t give up.
“I think they’re sneak running,” my three-year-old cousin says, shifting his attention to his mom, walking to her, leaning on her knees.
“What is sneak running?”
“It’s when you’re looking for them, and you get close, and when you aren’t looking, they run,” Nathan says, demonstrating, turning his little body in one direction and then another, pumping his arms. He runs through the house, calling names. And Adam wanders. And eventually, I realize mid-sentence that the kids have all collected again in the room with us, drifting out of their hiding places. And there he is again, three addressing eleven, three seeing nothing awkward, nothing lost.
“Hey Adam, do you want to be it?” Nathan persists with my silent son, wanting to include.
“Yes,” Adam says, because that’s what Adam says when he’s asked a question he doesn’t quite understand. He errs on the side of agreeable.
“Okay, you find us,” Nathan says, but before he can move away, I call to him, explaining that Adam doesn’t know how to be it.
“He needs your help,” I say. ”Will you help him?” This new information my cousin also accepts without question, without hint of surprise that his tall, older cousin doesn’t understand the game. What’s the trouble with needing help anyway? Nathan turns to Adam, settling those dark brown eyes on Adam’s face. His three-year-old instructions have something do with “plugging your ears when people are near you so you don’t know where people are.” He teaches expressively, his voice still new, lilting, bright.
“Nathan, can you show him?” I ask gently. ”He needs you to show him.”
“Why don’t you play teams?” my cousin suggests to her son.
And that’s when little beckons big to the chair, when they press their hands over their eyes, when they count together. And something about the tenderness of it brings tears, the younger showing the older, without arrogance or selfishness or criticism.
“Come on, Adam,” Nathan says, hopping out of the chair when the counting is finished. “Let’s find them.”
We watch Adam follow, bending down to look when Nathan searches a cabinet that has been a favorite hiding place, walking down the hallway behind the curly, flaxen head.
For a few moments, this careful showing, this earnest including, this simple, determined acceptance allows Adam to be just one of the kids.
And as they walk away, I think I see the shadow of something left behind, something thrown off, some alienating thing now disarmed and discarded. Because three-year-old eyes just don’t see such shakles. I can’t help wondering what would become of us all if we could be just a little more like my young cousin—a little less aware of the awkward, alienating thing; a little more forgiving of difficulty; a little less suprised by and afraid of difference. What if we just couldn’t see that stuff anymore? What if we truly knew what to leave hidden, and just how to seek out the lost, the disconnected, the wandering? And what if we did it like a three-year-old boy, determined, accepting, willing to try a new way, ready to show, without doubt or impatience or judgment?
And he said, ‘Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3)’.