He wants to go on a train. He wants ice cream. He misses trains. He misses dad. Stimming is what they call the noise the brain experiences when things are out of place for children like my son on the spectrum. It’s also a manifestation of some form of anxiety, some form of imbalance. It’s also when he needs love the most. Nothing seems to make sense when it begins. We pause, look him in the eye and acknowledge the thoughts. Acknowledge the brains multiverse ways of communicating at that moment. You want ice cream. I say. Fine, but can we get it after school. You want to go to the train station. Ok, let’s go. Any direction you take, leads back to square one. Not because we don’t understand or are not concerned that all the brain wants to do is repeat things, but because with autism, the brain literally has a mind of his own. So we slow things down. We sit still for a moment in hopes to quiet the noise even with canceling headphones. It works but for a brief moment. This cycle goes on, with bouts of tears all entwined with his thoughts down an unfinished, never ending road. Mothering my son is like a famished road.
Ben Okri in his novel, ‘The Famished Road’ started off his masterpiece with the following: ‘In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.’ The idea of a road being hungry is the central metaphor of this book, one that can only be satisfied by rediscovering the possibilities buried deep within the road. So too is motherhood. By famished, Okri meant that roads are restless and never finished. As a symbol for survival, he noted the moment they are perceived as being finished, the moment they perish. For finished roads have nothing to do, nothing to dream for, no need for future. Finished roads perish with their completeness, perish with their boredom. But roads unfinished are marvelous works of art noted Ben Okri. They are famished but beautiful beyond description. Famished but created out of the most precious and powerful substances. Famished but brilliantly lined with amethysts and chrysoberyl, and carnelian and patterned turquoise. In thinking about what can be for future generations of mothers like me, knowing that motherhood with all its struggles, all its hope, is like a famished road, ushers a rare serenity.
Like a famished road, mothers like myself begin with nothing and everything. We may know of earlier mistakes with mothering. We may not know that we even know these mistakes, but search deeply, we know. Whether with our own mothers or aunts or other mothers around us, mistakes abound. We all start this journey with some plans or dreams of what it might entail. Dreams of experiences with our children in astonishing, ravishingly colors. Some of us connect and reconnect with all the mothers we know for strength, for advice or ways to become wiser with this thing called motherhood. Sometimes they have the answers. Other times our experiences is as novel as it is perplexing. No one in my family or my husband’s family has experienced autism in the way we have. Even if it lurked in our bloodlines, it characteristics never manifested in the manner of son’s unique experiences. And so we are often on my own, left to make sense of why his brain makes the noises it does, left to help him make sense of this world whether with ice cream or trains, left to even make mistakes, bigger and better ones than other mothers around me did. This in essence is how we mother, from an infinity place of hope all laced with an eternity of struggles. The journey maybe perilous but it’s still ours to take. The journey maybe consistently misunderstood, but it’s ours. The journey may roar like a river on a rainy day, flooding everything around it, smashing hopes for the future, but still it’s ours. And so the roads we must take through this journey are never finished.
But what if we stopped and looked around us. Stopped and notice what we know or need to know and when we knew what we now know. I never thought I would learn about autism. But my son’s experiences have taken me to places I never planned for with my life’s journey. I became an unfinished, famished road. When I needed more information about what was happening to him, whether with his pleas for ice cream or trains, I looked for new directions and new destinations and the road did it’s part. I became an adventurer into the chaos and sunlight inherent in my sons brain. Anything, became possible. Even when the journey seemed perilous, I have stood by in awe and watched how my son’s beauty flowered in the air. Of course not during his meltdowns, but in moments of his serenity.
In those moments, the aroma of his beauty, the aroma of the depth of his knowledge, the aroma of his intellect, conquers the decay of his condition. In the 6 years we have been on this journey, transformation has been taking place even under the potency and strong influence of his brain’s noise. Though he may repeat things over and over again, at 6 years old his reading is at the level of a 2nd grader. Though he may ask for ice cream or train stations, he also knows more than I do, about galaxies and planets and all their inhabitants like little stars. Though he may have meltdowns that can be frustrating, even the frustration can be wonderful music. His brain has learnt how to channel its noise to music, such that my son can play a piano tune all by himself with no training.
These rare insights are why motherhood is like a famished road. We know the special joys, Ben Okri noted. We have the sorrow too. But like a famished road, our destiny, our journey is full of wonder, full of surprises with things we know and do not know. Keep motherhood like a famished road in mind.