Amber is a beautiful young girl whose life is in constant turmoil and yet, to the outside world, she maintains a healthy outlook on what she has been given. Even at the age of eight she realizes that she will never have most of the advantages bestowed on other children and this sense of loss echoes repeatedly in the emotional caverns of her mind. Over and over again she tries to express her feelings to all around her so that they can understand how deeply she feels the loss of their interaction.
Her days are spent mostly in a self-contained prison that she did not create,does not deserve and will never leave. At times, in exasperation, she randomly hurls objects at other children, will babble incoherently for minutes at a time and may even bang her head against a wall. The one thing she never does is complain. Amber is an autistic child and has never been able to verbalize what she is enduring to anyone, especially those she holds so dear.
There’s her sister Chris (Christine) who perceives herself as Ambers’ babysitter and really tries to help, but, with all the academic and hormonal pressures associated with being a teenager, it is sometimes a real chore.
Dad, when he has the time, is very gentle with Amber and shows that he cares. But it always seems to be late at night when she’s going to bed or first thing in the morning when he wakes her up for school before he’s running out the door to work.
And Mom, she always seems to be there. Always doting over Amber and overly protective as if it were possible to be overly protective of such a child.
None of them is ever sure if Amber has the intellect to understand what they are saying, or doing, or thinking when they attempt to communicate with Amber. Testing tells them that Amber is improving intellectually but how does this translate to their standards. They’ve been told that Amber has the intelligence of a five-year-old and that’s only because the testing at her school somehow is able to compute these testing skills into relative mainstream school equivalents.
Every weekday morning Mom drives the girls to school and drops them off at Ambers’ school for special need’s children. Chris walks Amber to the front steps and then heads toward the middle school which is just a block away. Mom takes off to her weekly workout at the spa and Chris, unbeknownst to Mom, sneaks around the corner to meet Tim and hold hands as they walk to class. Amber quietly locks this information into her five-year-old mind and enters through the school doors.
The school day was always lost on Amber because she looked at the other children and thought they were really odd and at other times she thought they were looking at her and thinking she was really odd. In between her frustration would rise so rapidly that she would bellow out some unrecognizable utterance and toss a plush toy across the room at a child she didn’t even know. What was she doing here? She was not like them. Her only problem was that she couldn’t talk. Didn’t anybody understand that? Somebody should understand: her teacher, her parents, or even her sister. Why couldn’t they understand? Why couldn’t they help?
Every school day, without any forewarning, Amber would sit alone and calmly survey her world. This serenity would last for 10 minutes or so and Amber would be much more contained. This quiet time was savored with her special friend. Nobody else could see this friend and nobody else loved Amber as much as He did. He was very smart and understanding, about 30 years old, and His eyes could look directly into your soul. His clothes seemed a bit out of place but that never bothered Amber because He did understand her. He spent each day listening to her, calming her emotions and teaching her how to cope with her disability. Mostly, He reinforced the idea that she was the most beautiful thing ever created.
On a dreary Tuesday morning it happened. A fear that is almost impossible to comprehend became the center of attention for everybody in the county and state. Amber somehow, between the front door and the classroom, disappeared. The school went into immediate lock-down mode and police were summoned. Within minutes the police, under the command of Sgt. York, secured the building. He contacted the Emergency Management Department, the Children’s Protective Services Division and the state police. Preparations were made to issue an Amber Alert as soon as reasonable details could be attained. And after coordinating all of the available details, it was agreed to issue an Amber Alert at 10:15 AM. This would permit enough time to advise family members of the situation, make sure that all governmental agencies were apprised and have the local police commence with the search.
10:06 AM became the crucial moment for Amber’s family since, either by coincidence or some form of Divine intervention, each one was contacted by the police.
Chris was summoned to the principals’ office and interviewed by P.O. Timothy Faith who gently broke the news to Chris who immediately took ownership for this happening because she didn’t complete her task of delivering Amber safely to school. When she stopped crying the police took her home.
Dad was between his 9:00 AM meeting and his 10:15 conference call when he was interrupted by Detective Phillip Hope. At first he reacted nastily to the intrusion and then realized that this was not a minor disruption. When informed about Amber he quickly thought of all the evenings when he stayed late at inane meetings rather than go home to hug his daughter. He would never let this happen again and cancelled his agenda while he drove away.
Mom had just finished her workout at the spa when her exiting was halted by the receptionist who asked that she go to the manager’s office. Expecting some argument about a late payment she was, instead, introduced to Sgt. Steven Love. With a consummate amount of compassion the sergeant informed her of all details and how the investigation would proceed. When finished she composed herself and drove home as quickly as possible.
At precisely the same time each of them were told Amber was missing and all arrived home at precisely the same time. Trying to console each other their arms clung tightly, their hearts pounded fiercely and their tears flowed endlessly. Oh how important became Amber to a family that was hard-pressed to grasp her needs.
Within minutes there was a mass of humanity entangled in a circle on the floor and wailing in self-pity. Their plight was such that the presence of Amber sitting on the sofa, with her special friend, was never noticed. Amber, in a clear and unwavering voice said, “Please stop crying for me. I should be crying for you.”
Panic became rampant and confused conversations became the norm. Comments and questions were overriding one another and answers were sought. How could Amber speak? Where had she been? Did the police know she was home? Just who was her friend? Had she been harmed? And the questions continued until they were all spent out and suddenly quiet and calmness reigned. It was then that Amber continued to speak.
“Christine, you have to realize how much I love you and need you in my life. You are my first date, kiss, and high school prom, and hopefully my proudest moment will be when I attend your wedding. Every morning, when you drop me off at school and rush to meet Tim, I’m in awe of your happiness and I thank you for letting me share it with you. I may never have any of these experiences myself but I revel in each and every one of your smiles. Please let me be a part of your life forever.”
“Dad, you don’t think I realize how difficult it is for you to say ‘goodnight’ to your damaged daughter. It was much easier when Chris was five years old. But me? Not so easy. One day you will awaken to see that I’m not damaged goods. Like the poster says ‘God don’t make no junk!’ My eyes are beautiful, my hair flows gently and my hugs are the best. I’m sorry that I’m not perfect but I still love you just the way you are. By the way, I really do know that you love me also.”
“Mom, somehow deep inside your heart you have accepted that any disability I may have to endure is solely your fault. Something you did, something you didn’t do, or something you should have done. Not true. I was created with tender love and to exacting specifications by a master craftsman. Certain parts don’t work so well, but overall, I’m a magnificent example of love and happy that you’re my mother.”
You can alert the police now because I’m about to leave. We have places to go, things to do and people to see. But our first priority will always be you guys. I’m going back to school now because it’s close to ‘recess time’ and I will be with my special friend. I may never have a chance to tell you again how deeply I love you, but you can tell me every day that you love me.
Within the hour the Amber Alert was cancelled and everything was back to normal, or was it?
Donald P. Sweeney is a retired insurance professional with over 50 years of interpersonal relationships. In recent years he has turned to writing as a way to express his deepest feelings about life, community and faith. This article is his first attempt to address autism.
This article was featured in Issue 33 – Let’s Get Moving and Stay Healthy