Patrick Dalton lost himself in the life of his special needs son.
“At the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one’s lost self.” – Brendan Behan
It’s the unspoken sacrifice made by some of us that it is by far the most dangerous and difficult to recover from. The absolute loss of all familiarity and identity as I’ve disappeared behind my son’s shadow for six years has inflicted a seemingly irreversible trauma, a shadow I’ve only recently crawled out from under into an alien landscape with no compass of my own or any sense of direction whatsoever.
Long after my “friends “ had evaporated into sporadic anecdotes and random memories, aside from Cian (my son) and my wife, I’d only communicated with therapists, case managers, specialists, doctors, PAs, bus drivers, matrons, teachers, the occasional cashier, and my cat, MacGowan. All things orbited around Cian and were consumed by him accordingly, by attention, schedule or by conversation.
I’m sure it’s frowned upon by some to refer to your child as a black hole, but there are worse anomalies synonymous with children that avert astrophysics altogether. As the years passed, this language I’d learned chock full of acronyms and keywords was the only articulate form of verbal communication I possessed any longer only to escape my reality nightly by becoming an obsessive bibliophile.
The walls couldn’t have possibly moved in any closer but they did.
In the span of eight months I underwent two back surgeries, laid up for the better part of eighteen months. With the exception of driving Cian to and from his day program and related services, I was confined to my bed. I managed to maintain my role as master-controller, tending to his IEP meetings, appointments, evaluations, Pre-K open houses, etc., but I was now merely a spectator in my son’s life.
Prior to my first procedure, I witnessed his summer via texted pictures and exhausted verbal summaries. His resentment was palpable and I couldn’t do a goddamn thing about it. I was fragmented emotionally fearing the bond we’d developed was splintering and worst of all that I was becoming obsolete to him.
All within this timespan, aside from the brief and obligatory conversations with his teachers or therapists, I’d go the entire day without uttering a syllable to anyone. Upon returning from dropping Cian off, I’d crawl into my mind and remain there until his dismissal. My cell phone had become a paperweight. Occasionally the UPS guy rang the doorbell, and I’d drown the bird chatter outside of my window with one of the thousands of albums in my library. My home had become a waiting room, a short and meaningless respite before carting Cian from his program to speech, PT, or OT. How much gas was in the tank? Was the iPod synced? Diapers, sippy cup, snack; check. I was hollowed out and entirely indifferent to my own situation. Cian had a tomorrow, I just had to make sure I was awake to drive him there and sign a fucking notebook.
Raising a child who did not reciprocate verbally was cold, especially when he was the only other human in the house /car during the daylight hours. Although he babbled away in his stereotopy and rattled off in echolalia, he wouldn’t /couldn’t answer “yes “ or “no “without prompting (which seemed so forced and contrite in a one on one setting). Throwing all therapists’ suggested techniques in the gutter, I spoke to him about random things. I expected no reply. Although it wasn’t much different than talking to myself in the rear view mirror, it was still better than not communicating with my son at all. Many parents struggle with nonverbal or speech delayed children. The connection I’ve always had with Cian was touch and sensory. Often during these one way rants in the car, I’d reach my hand back towards him and he’d grab both my index and middle fingers and squeeze them not letting go even for a second.
Some days, that’s the only way I knew I was awake. Isolation used to be one of my worst fears until it became my only known reality. What is fear when it is your own inescapable nightmare? As that specter of solitude crept nearer, I did nothing to elude it, rather I drifted towards what I felt was the inevitable and embraced what would become my unraveling. The months dripped into years all smeared together in blurred static, forgotten names, and bloodshot pages all seen through the empty eyes silently screaming on autopilot.
This wasn’t anything unlike drowning or a controlled burn. Once I was physically healed and mentally able to completely come to realize that it was up to me and me alone to overcome this desolation, I reacted rather than plotted. It was only a drastic 180 without guided caution that could save both myself and my bond with my son all the while putting this chapter, this brand of “stay-at-home dad,” safely in the rear-view mirror.
Life is forward motion with the option of glimpsing back, occasionally without the necessity of going in reverse. Every now and again that motion slows or perhaps the directions don’t make all that much sense. Well, they don’t have to. When you arrive at certain destinations, it’s not the difficulties of the journey that you give a shit about, it’s the relief of having arrived and the excitement of what comes next.