Saturday, September 03, 2005

Finding Cooper

Here's a short story I wrote that appeared in Nassau Review last year. Since it's not available anywhere online--and it's one of my faves--I figured I'd post it here.

Finding Cooper
By Ellen Meister

Cooper was three when I lost him. And I don’t mean lost him in the euphemistic, I-just-don’t-want-to-say-dead sense. I mean lost him, as in, God oh God, where’s my kid? Has anybody seen my kid?

The day started out typically enough. I went to pick Cooper up at the special preschool he attended for autistic kids, and saw him sitting at a table with the aptly named Merry, a new classroom aide who wore an idiotic smile almost continuously.

“Look who’s here!” Merry said to him when she saw me standing at the door of the room. She pointed with her finger, but Cooper just looked at her hand. He didn’t get the whole concept of pointing. Somehow, normal kids understand automatically that it’s a directional cue. But to Cooper it was meaningless.

“Look who’s here,” she repeated, turning his face with her hands.

I stood and waited for recognition, knowing that if she just said the word “Mommy” he would think to look toward the door for me. Merry still had a few things to learn.

His teacher, Miss Nicki, looked up from the colored paper heart she was cutting. “Mommy’s here, Cooper,” she said.

That did it. My sweet-faced boy glanced quickly out the corner of his eye and came running to me. I kneeled to greet him.

“How was your day, Cooper?” I asked after hugging him. “Did you have fun in school?”

“Bub-bub,” he said.

“Bubbles? You played with bubbles?” I looked at the aide who nodded in confirmation. “Yes, Mommy,” I modeled, “I played with bubbles today.” I stood and addressed Merry. “How was he?”

“Wonderful!” she gushed. “He wrote the whole alphabet.”

I nearly rolled my eyes at this. Cooper had been writing the alphabet since he was eighteen months old.

“He said ‘Zach’ today,” Miss Nicki added, walking toward us.

This was big news. Cooper’s vocabulary consisted almost entirely of the names of inanimate objects. The fact that he’d said another child’s name nearly constituted a breakthrough.

I bent over to face Cooper. “Did you say ‘Zach’ today? I’m so proud of you! Should I arrange a play date with Zach? Look at me, Coop. Do you want to play with Zach?”

He didn’t respond, but I didn’t expect him to. I rose and said good-bye to his teachers.

Merry laid a hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing God’s work,” she whispered.

Tell God to do his own damn work, I wanted to say. I’m just trying to have a life here. Then I understood the beatific smile. She thought this was all part of God’s design. I squeezed Cooper’s hand and fought back my fury. How dare she. How dare she think the misconnected synapses that ruined this child’s life are part of God’s grand design!

I gritted my teeth. “C’mon Cooper,” I said, as I pulled him down the hallway. I took a deep breath and tried to center myself. “We’re going to the library.”

It was Friday, the day we always went to the public library after school. Our routine was to go the Children’s Room first, where I would read to Cooper. If I let him pick out the book, he would choose Trollo Takes a Train. Every time. The story was starting to get on my nerves, and I even considered asking Mrs. Stiles, the persnickety children’s librarian, if she would hide it on Friday afternoons. But I was pretty sure she’d have about ten strokes and drop dead at my feet if I asked her to do anything that wasn’t etched in some ancient book of rules they kept hidden behind a ceiling tile somewhere.

When we got there, Cooper headed straight for the shelf where Trollo lived, while I tried to find something else he would like. I spotted an oversized alphabet book with big, lush illustrations, and thought it might do the trick.

How about this one, Cooper? Wanna read this one instead of Trollo today? Look. Look at the pictures.”

Cooper shoved the Trollo book at me insistently.

“Okay,” I relented. “We’ll read Trollo first, and then we’ll read the alphabet book. Does that sound like a plan?”

Cooper hit the front of his book with his palm, a signal to get started. He was getting anxious, so I opened it and read, silently editing as I went along.

“Trollo took a train. A train, a train, a train.”

Mommy took some poison. Poison, poison, poison.

After we finished, I read him the alphabet book, not even realizing there was a picture of a train on the “T” page. Cooper went nuts.

“EEE-eee-ee!” he squealed, flapping his arms, which is what Cooper does when he’s excited.

I grabbed his hand and gently stroked it. “Okay, Coop,” I said. “Quiet down now.”

I was, of course, a beat too late. The ever-vigilant Mrs. Stiles rushed over.

“Is there a problem?”

Yes, I wanted to say. My son is autistic. Apparently, according to some people, God thought it was a great idea to short circuit his brain so that this beautiful, creamy-skinned boy would find it excruciatingly difficult to learn simple things, like what it means when someone points a finger. And nearly impossible to make the natural human connections that you and I do a hundred times a day and take completely for granted. Things like looking another person in the eye or understanding that your mother isn’t just an object that offers comfort and food and brings you to school, but a living, breathing feeling person who loves you so fiercely she would do anything for you. Anything. So yes, Mrs. Stiles, I guess you could say there is a problem.

“He’s excited,” I simply said. “He loves trains.”

Mrs. Stiles brought her lips together, as if to say she’s seen this type of indulgent parenting before and simply won’t tolerate it. She turned her attention to Cooper.

“I bet you’d like to take this book home, wouldn’t you?”

Her way of saying, don’t let the door slam you in the ass on the way out.

“He likes to read them here,” I explained.

“That’s fine,” she said, laying her hand on Cooper’s arm, which he pulled away. “But you have to be quiet in a library.”

Cooper patted the book again, indicating that he’s done with her. He wants me to read. Mrs. Stiles straightened up and walked off.

After the Children’s Room, we headed upstairs to where they kept the videotapes. Miles, my husband, and I liked to watch a movie on Friday nights after Cooper went to bed. It was our version of a date, since Cooper didn’t do too well with babysitters, making it hard for us to get out.

This is where it happened. I held Cooper’s hand as I scanned the cardboard videotape boxes for an interesting title. But he tugged in the opposite direction. Something had caught his eye and he wanted a closer look.

“Just a minute, Coop,” I said. “Let me find a tape.”

He was insistent, pulling and whining, and I feared he’d throw a fit.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Show me, Cooper. Show me what you saw.”

I let him drag me toward the front of the aisle where he grabbed a box off the shelf and patted the title, indicating that he wanted me to read it out loud.

“Strangers on a Train,” I said. “That’s very good. You read the word ‘train,’ didn’t you?”

He pulled from the shelf the plastic case that was behind the box, the one they keep the actual tape inside. The title was printed on it, and I think Cooper recognized that it said the same thing as the cardboard box. He held the two side-by-side, looking from one to the other. He sat down on the floor and laid them in front of him, transfixed.

“I’m just going to the end of the aisle, Cooper. Can you sit here quietly for a minute?”

He didn’t respond, of course. So I just left him there while I walked about twenty feet away. I went back to scanning the titles, glancing back over at Cooper every few seconds. A certain tape caught my eye, and I picked it up to read the copy on the box. I guess I got engrossed for a moment longer than I should have, because when I looked up, Cooper was gone.

“Coop?” I ran to the end of the aisle and looked in both directions. “Cooper?” My heart started pounding, but I was sure I’d find him any second just around a corner. “Cooper!” I was getting louder, and people were starting to look at me. All at once I didn’t give a shit. “COOPER!” I yelled. Nothing.

“My kid’s missing!” I shouted to the air. “Did anybody see a little boy?”

“What does he look like?” someone asked.

Like a lost kid!, I wanted to scream. Somebody find him!

People started rising from chairs and looking around. I ran down the center of the room looking frantically into each aisle.

“Cooper!” I shouted. “Where are you?”

“Cooper!” I heard from people who had joined in the search. I did a quick lap around the perimeter of the room before dashing down the stairs. “Keep looking!” I shouted over my shoulder.

I almost ran smack into Mrs. Stiles. “Cooper’s missing,” I said.


“My son, he’s missing.” I swallowed hard. “He’s autistic.”

Mrs. Stiles’ face went white. “Lock the back door!” she shouted to a small woman behind the desk. “I’ll get the front.”

Now it felt real. I imagined headlines. Posters. Did I have a current picture of Cooper. Oh God, what am I thinking?

I ran to the Children’s Room, where Trollo Takes a Train was still on the table where we left it. But the alphabet book was gone. Did that mean anything?

I imagined, for a second, my life without Cooper. But the picture was blank, like a sheet of photographic paper with no image developing. I’d wake up, have coffee, do stuff. Then I’d go to sleep and do the same thing all over again. What was the point? Without Cooper, my life had no shape, no color. Without Cooper, my life was a meaningless blank. I knew, then, that I needed him as much as he needed me.

I sat down on the floor and started to cry. The dam burst, and I covered my face as heaving sobs took over. And then.

Then I felt a tiny hand on my knee. I opened my eyes and saw Cooper sitting under the table with the alphabet book on his lap. Thank you, I thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

“Mommy sad,” Cooper said.

Maybe it wasn’t the hand of God that dropped a gift into my lap at that moment. But it was gift just the same. I laughed and crawled under the table to hug him. It was his first sentence. But it was so much more. Cooper had recognized emotion. He had acknowledged me as a person. And, perhaps most important of all, he had felt the very human need to say it out loud. To me. To make a connection.

“Yes, Cooper,” I said. “But I’m happy now.”

Just then, Mrs. Stiles rushed into the room and saw us. “We found him!” she shouted to the crowd by the door. She kneeled down.

“What are you two doing under there?” she asked.

“God’s work,” I said. “We’re doing God’s work.”


katrina said...

I love that story, Ellen! I remember it well.


Ellen said...

Thanks, Kat! And wow ... you have a great memory. :)

Myfanwy Collins said...

I love this story, Ellen. I'm so glad it found a good home!

Ellen said...

Thank you, Myf! A lesson in perseverance, for sure. :)

Jenn said...

That brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you--I just finished reading and my eyes are blurred with tears. I'm the grandmother of a boy just like the one you describe. What beautiful children they are.

Sherrie said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I do not know you but I feel like I do. You have just told my story....I am overcome with emotion that someone else out there actually feels like I do and understands what it is like. I know God has a plan for my son just as he has for your son. They are doing God's work. Don't think for a minute that they are not. Thank you so much for that reminder I needed. Thank you for sharing your story. Sherrie

Annie Lux said...