My 100-year-old grandmother, Ngin-Ngin, speaks no English and my Cantonese consists of the numbers 1-99, "he/she is," "he/she is not," "beef and rice," "more," "thank you," "you're welcome," "good-bye," and "cookie." Our communication has always been based on her smiling, me nodding and smiling, and me eating her herbal soup, dumplings, seven-layer pudding, jai for Chinese New Year. While I have often wished that I might sit and ask her about her girlhood in her village, Hong Mi, or what it was like to be detained on Angel Island, or to sew parachutes in a factory during World War II, I am wondering if her gift to me is something more than the rich history of her life as an Asian-American woman in Oakland, California.
I have to wonder, did all those years of hearing the slurry, throaty tones of Ngin-Ngin's peasant Cantonese and knowing there was meaning in those sounds I had to ask my father to translate, prepare me for reading Charlie? When my dad told my sister and me, "Eat your soup. Ngin-Ngin wants you to be strong and healthy. She loves you," perhaps I was learning the non-verbal communication that enables me to know that, for Charlie, sometimes the best way to talk is through the concrete; to say it with brown noodles.
Charlie was edgy and wearing his lost boy expression for most of the morning. A passing mention that we were going to visit Jim's parents this evening on the eve of their both having knee-replacement surgery led to silence, then an alarmed look from Charlie:
"Gramma Grappa white rice Portia doggy!"
We do not have any therapy sessions scheduled on Sunday and, while we do think the variety in Charlie's schedule is good, not having the structured time working on his programs can dysregulate him. Combined with the strange news about his grandparents, Charlie was the other side of peaceful. I read to him, took out the computer; Charlie ran about the room and, when Jim was out and I took some rice out of the cabinet instead of the blue bin, he burst into tears that became yowls that became running up the stairs to fling himself on the big blue pillow in his therapy room.
I sat with him and got Charlie to go downstairs for a riceless brunch after which Charlie put on his coat, vest, and hat. "B'ack car. Gramma Grappa."
"Later on for dinner," I said. That led to Charlie's consternated look; Jim proposed a walk round the neighborhood during which he revealed his parents' thorough anxiety at their imminent surgery and the arrangements for getting them to and around various hospitals. At home, Charlie lay on the couch beneath Daddy blue blanket and shivered with delight when Jim turned on the Chuck Berry CD: "Maybelline, why can't you be true?". After a bike ride and several rounds of catch, we drove up to my in-laws. "Grandma and Grandpa have to go to the hospital," I said. "Gramma Grappa," said Charlie. "They have something wrong with their knees," I said as I pointed at my knee. Charlie looked: "Kneeeez."
My in-laws wanted sweet and sour chicken from their favorite Chinese restaurant; I ordered Charlie chicken chow fun--thick rice noodles--to give him a break from the "white rice chicken" he has come to associate with dinner at his grandparents. Charlie unloaded the bag of containers and set each as I directed on the table; he ate busily and did not grab and poke at anyone else's food.
Charlie ran to lie in Grandpa's bed after he had eaten, placed his hat and coat and toys on it and jumped under the sheets. Jim had put a suitcase and his briefcase into the trunk, as he is driving his parents to the hospital early in the morning. Did Charlie think we were going to stay overnight?---my in-laws' housekeeper stopped by to say hello; Charlie looked at her and called her "Arielah," the name of one of his original ABA therapists. Did Charlie think we were staying here and there'd be people coming over to do sessions with him?
Charlie and I drove home to the strains of Dell'Amore Non Si Sa, which must be on his list of all-time favorite songs. He put on his pajamas and asked for "Charlie computer." As I wrote a note in his communication book, I said "I'm writing to Miss Karissa." Charlie kept regarding the computer screen.
A minute plus later, he said "Kahwissah." Softly and with a peaceful appeal in his big brown eyes. Then he said, "Daddy home."
"He has to stay at Grandma and Grandpa's house tonight. He has to help take care of them," I said. Charlie sat under his blanket for a few more minutes then got up with it draped over his shoulders. "Mommy stairs." I carried him up and he was soon asleep.
Therapeuo is the ancient Greek word for "to serve; to cure, to heal, restore to health; take care of"; it is the etymological root of our word "therapist." Training myself as an ABA therapist has for me become synonymous with being an autism parent. So Ngin-Ngin sought to take care of us with her herbal soup brews and worried looks, hands folder under her apron. So Jim's parents, though never able to carry Charlie after he was a baby (my father-in-law has MS; he once said so sadly to me, "I just wish I could get up and carry him"), have taken care of Charlie and us more than generously.
ABA therapy is the cornerstone of Charlie's education and learning not only because it is the "science of applied behavior analysis" but because it is the teaching methodology that has best taught Charlie to learn, to take care of himself, to have real relationships with people, and to be of service to others, whether taking out the garbage or bringing some liveliness and hope to his Grandma and Grandpa and to all of us.