The same, yet different
“Your memoir stories all seem to focus on Kristy,” a reader commented recently. She then asked, “Did Johnny have the same disorder as your daughter?”
There is no straightforward answer to that question. It’s not like answering, “Did both children have the chickenpox?” There were many ways that assault on Kristy’s brain presented itself that resembled symptoms that Johnny had as well. Frequent grand mal seizures was one and developmental delay was another. Yet, there the similarities stop. They had such different personalities that at times it almost seemed like they had two completely different syndromes.
Recently, I shared a Johnny story with a group of fellow memoir writers. It will illustrate those differences. Maybe it will help other readers understand why I struggle so much to give an honest account of our life together.
no time between crises
Kristy and I had. just returned from an appointment with her physical therapist. I pulled our minivan into the parking space behind our Chicago rowhouse and before I’d even turned off the engine, my thirteen-year-old daughter Betsy, her red braids flying behind her, came running down the back-porch steps, “We can’t find Johnny,” she shouted.
My heart sank into my gut.
Well, crisis or not, I couldn’t just let Kristy sit in the car. “Help me get your sister into the house. Have you searched the whole house?”
“Yes. Twice.” She screeched. “We looked everywhere, even in the clothes chute.”
“What about the piano top?” It wouldn’t be unlike him. “Where’s Carrie?”
“She’s calling neighbors,” Betsy said as she helped me ease her older sister into her wheelchair. At the back door, I forced myself to focus on getting Kristy and her chair down the five steps to our basement rec room.
first things first
As I wheeled her up to the Formica table at a diner-style booth in the basement, Kristy, oblivious to the panic around her, pronounced, “I’m hungry.” I glanced at the TV. Its digital clock read 1:29. Kristy had to eat. I couldn’t risk her having a seizure right now. We had to find Johnny.
“When did you miss Johnny?”
“About twenty minutes ago.”
“He can’t have gotten far. Go down the alley and check people’s yards? I’ll get Kristy something to eat.”
“Should we call the police?”
“Oh, my God, I hope not. Let’s wait a bit.”
I fixed Kristy a quick peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk and made sure her chair was securely braked.
I found fifteen-year-old Carrie sitting on the rug in the living room, her long wavy hair draped over her knees. The telephone cord straggled from the far wall and into her lap. “Thank you,” she muttered, “that’s so good of you. Yes, please call right away if you see him.” She looked up eyes wide and chewing her lips. “That was Louisa McPharlin.”
I nodded. It made sense to check with Louisa. Hers was the last house before the “L” tracks.
a false sense of security
Our home was part of a community enclosed by wrought-iron fencing with several heavy iron gates at various entrances. If Johnny’s wandering kept him within the borders of those fences, someone who knew him would spot him. The gates, however, were never locked or even closed.
Although ten years old, Johnny processed the world like a two-year-old. Outside the gates he would encounter busy city streets, dozens of strangers, coming and going from the elevated train station and from buys commercial Lincoln Avenue. Crowds of DePaul University students also hustled along those sidewalks on their way to class. In the midst of so many people, Johnny could disappear, or even more horrifying a predator might spot him. Like every mom, I read the stories of children disappearing and then put them quickly out of my mind. Now they all came rushing back at me.
holding on to hope
Carrie didn’t find a single person who had seen him. Betsy hadn’t returned yet. I let myself hope that she’d found him. Johnny’s gait was at best a slow shamble. Bringing him home could take her a while. As frightened as I was, I knew that wherever Johnny was he wouldn’t be afraid. Nothing had ever scared him. He often laughed loudly and long while sleeping. I claimed that he was dreaming of monsters and found them hysterically funny. But laughter couldn’t protect him now.
Bringgg! The front doorbell! Carrie and I tripped over each other as we ran for the front door. Quicker than me, she flung open the heavy wooden door. There stood a huge, uniformed policeman with a grin on his face and his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. When I lurched forward, he held up a restraining brown hand. He looked down at Johnny and gestured toward me, “Who is this?”
“Mommy,” Johnny grinned. Then added, “Bathroom.” That galvanized me into action when I might have otherwise been too stunned to even speak.
“Carrie, take your brother to the powder room,” I directed her and then stammered, “Where did you find him? How did you know where to bring him?”
saints and good samaritans
“A kind woman noticed him lingering outside the De Paul Bookstore. She signaled me in my car. Then she pointed him out and said, “He looks big enough to be on his own, but something’s not quite right.”
“But the bookstore is across Fullerton Boulevard,” I exclaimed. “How could he cross that busy street on his own?”
“Well, we don’t know, but he did. The lady spotted him trying to get into the bookstore, but he couldn’t figure out where the door was.”
I breathed a quick thank you prayer to St. George, the patron saint of books. Johnny, like the saint, was crazy for books. George, it seemed had spread his wings over my son. “Johnny can’t pass up a book. Otherwise, he might have wandered on,” I told the officer.
His big head nodded. “So, my partner and me tried to talk to him. He just smiled a sloppy grin. Saw the lady was right. So, we were going to take him the station when he pops up, ‘832 Belden.’”
I says, “That where you live? He says ‘My house.’ So, here we are.”
“We worked hard to teach him that but weren’t sure he’d really understood. He lives in his own world most of the time.”
“Yeah, I see that. He’s been talking about Grover Monster most of the time.”
My fear had left me weak. Now relief drained what was left of my energy. “Thank you so much. I wish I could thank the woman who found him.”
“She didn’t want to give us her name, just seemed relieved to hand over the problem.”
and the day goes on
Made sense to me. Sometimes, I wished I could just “hand over the problem.”
“Sorry to say this, ma’m,” the officer said, “But you need to keep a closer eye on your son. Maybe you should think about installing alarms on the doors.”
He had a point, but I didn’t want to turn my home into a prison. I looked straight into his deep brown eyes, “I’ll talk that over with my husband. Right now, I’d better get Johnny some lunch.”
He nodded and headed down the steps.