Kwan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of love and mercy and---as my father told me so long ago I can't remember when---the favorite goddess of my grandmother Ngin-Ngin. And, as long as I can remember, there has been a white ceramic statue of Kwan Yin in her house, each finger and rustle of her robes and lotus petal carefully sculpted and needing a good wipe of the dust cloth (as I also remember from the times when my sister and I helped to clean Ngin-Ngin's house).
Charlie, my dad's arm around him, bowed before Kwan Yin today, in the temple of the Ching Chung Taoist Association of America on the edge of San Francisco's Chinatown, across the street from Old Saint Mary's Cathedral at the intersection of Grant and California streets and right amid San Francisco's famous straight-up-and-down hills. Charlie ran out of the car and up the steep slope, full of happy energy.
After attending Witness and Hope, the October 27th NYC autism advocacy conference, one of aunts had asked about taking Charlie to a Buddhist temple to bow before his ancestors and, specifically, my grandfather Yeh Yeh, who died in 1975. We met her and another one of my aunts and a cousin who is just around Charlie's age and took the elevator up to the temple, which occupies a few rooms on the fourth floor above various Chinatown businesses. Red was the predominant color, with gold filigree gleaming throughout, small pyramid piles of pears and apples for the gods, and statues of the gods. The sweet stuffy smell of incense filled the air.
We went into a room whose walls were lined in white rectangular tiles and up near the ceiling was one with Yeh Yeh's photos as I always remember him, and of a much younger Ngin Ngin---the matriarch who chopped squid or chicken backs or bundles of choy with fearless whacks of her cleaver on a round cutting board and who regularly cooked endless amounts of dishes for family dinners that my cousins and I ate on TV trays while watching Hogan's Heroes or Love American Style. "You light the heng here," my dad said as he took three sticks of incense and, standing behind Charlie, lit them, and they bowed three times together.
"Happy Birday two-you, hah-pee bir-day two-you," sang Charlie.
"The heng are like candles, they are," I said, and Charlie sang again when we burned more to Kwan Yin's statue with its gentle smile.
Charlie was smiling too, digging into rice and sweet and sour pork as his cousin sipped her bubble tea, and then as we walked the streets of Chinatown. My aunt had bought a Chinese New Year's decoration with a gaudily colored lion's head for Charlie's cousin to bring to school and I wanted to get one for Charlie's class, too. As I located one in a store selling stationery and red envelopes--hong bao---Charlie ran into the middle of the store, bent over double at the waist, and made what I'll call a lion cub-esque noise that had the effect of bringing startled (maybe shocked) looks onto the faces of employees and shoppers.
It was a "he has autism" moment that I let pass. I think the room went silent but I could not hear it----those mini-roars (usually part of some script in Charlie's mind) have become so much a part of the course of a day's conversation with Charlie. I walked over to him and showed him the lion's head decoration: "We can give it to your teacher!" I said, as business sort of resumed among the disoriented onlookers.
In Autismland, strange and unstrange are relative---or, as I like to think of it, when you are raising an autistic child, the strange becomes unstrange---no longer "abnormal" or "bizarre" or "odd" or "mysterious"---and, very often, sometimes a thing of awe. And time and again what I learn from being Charlie's mother is that what seems quite unsurprising to me, is strange and beyond to him.
We drove to Golden Gate Park and rented bikes and helmets for my dad, Jim, and Charlie, who immediately looked worried when a helmet (not his) and a bike (not his) were presented to him (only now does it occur to me, when we told Charlie we were going to "ride bikes," he may well have expected that his bike and bike helmet were going to appear here in northern California, magically transported from Grandpa's New Jersey garage). Jim and Charlie rode off with my dad behind. An hour plus later, I heard a stream of vowel sounds coming from a familiar voice, saw my dad and then Charlie riding strong, Jim beside him.
"We rode to the ocean," Jim proclaimed, "and he did--not--like--it." Because, Jim noted quietly, the ocean holds a whole set of associations for Charlie and they do not involve biking in December with Gong Gong, waves so huge that signs on the beach warn "people have died here," and Charlie in his winter coat and socks:
Nothing looked so strange to Charlie this afternoon as that Pacific Ocean and several beachcomber walkers, clad in polarfleece and sweaters.
In the car crossing the Bay Bridge, Jim compared the scene of Charlie encountering an ocean he was not expecting to "Lewis and Clark and Charlie." (After all, Christopher Columbus was not expecting to find "America" when he landed in 1492.........) "Hey Cholly, what was that ocean you saw?" Jim said.
"Pahzihixx oshun," said Charlie. And then "wah-ermelon, wahtermeh'on, I want eat wahtermeh'on!"
My parents made sure to stop at the grocery store for some, and my mom quickly cut up the big chunks into smaller pieces: "Not so fast, sweetie!" she said as Charlie all but gulped the pink mush down. He washed his hands, endured her washing his face, and stomped happily off to practice at his new keyboard and then to dine on Chinese food with his great-great-uncle.
Burning heng for Yeh Ye and Kwan Yin, riding bikes in San Francisco, sighting the Pacific in December---the unexpected becoming the I've-done-that: One day's mission (of mercy, of love) accomplished in Autismland.