July 6, 2019 by whirlyjoy
The firefighters drove up in their big red truck. No flashing lights or sirens blaring, but still an impressive entrance. I imagine that fire engine and the three strapping men who emerged from it were the shiniest things this strip mall parking lot, anchored by a Dollar Tree at one end and the Poodle Dog Restaurant at the other, had seen in a long time. Aida looked wary, as if she knew they were there for her. I didn’t quite feel relief – I wasn’t sure what I could expect from this encounter – but I knew I’d taken the only possible next step when I had called 911.
Six hours earlier I had picked Aida up at her house for her annual trip to Camp Stand By Me. She had been signing and typing about her beloved summer camp ever since the page on her wall calendar turned to June. Camp yes car mom. She was impatient to get going this morning. The second I signed to her, time to go! she grabbed her heavy duffle bag in her usual manner, by a single strap, to drag it out to the car. We stopped at the mall for her Panda Express lunch of orange chicken on fried rice, picked up her Starbucks chocolate chip cookie for the road (as always that heightened tension in her face and body as we get in line at the counter; she has experienced Starbucks running out of her cookies before we get there, and knows how unpredictable even the most important things in life can be). Then we hit the freeway, southbound to Key Peninsula.
Aida tapped my shoulder and I peeked into the rearview mirror to see her signing: toilet. I felt a slight wariness – Aida has used toilet as a diversion to achieve many different things over the years, it having been one of her three very first and most effective signs (along with no and help). But of course sometimes it means what it’s supposed to, and in fact by the time she tells me toilet without being asked about it first, things might be feeling pretty urgent for her. I took the next exit from I-5.
She did indeed need to go. And then she picked out a snack-sized bag of Doritos at the Dollar Tree. We brought these to the car, but she wouldn’t get in. Toilet, she told me again. And so we did. Afterward, she still would not move away from the building into the parking lot. No, she signed, and when I asked for more information she typed yes bye on her iPad. “Yes bye where?” I asked. Yes bye where, she repeated with a grin.
By this time I was texting Dragon Lover. 55 minutes and counting, I said of our standoff outside the Poodle Dog. Heart in my throat – what if she made a break for the street? – I went over to the car to drive it up next to where she stood on the sidewalk. For awhile we hung out like this, with the rear door opened for her. Child safety locks on and ready. I sat in the driver’s seat, and she grinned at me through the passenger window and signed no at my every request that she sit.
Occasionally she took a break to step back against the wall, whip her head back and forth, flap her hands and shriek. Most people walking past ignored us. They were intent on their purchases of a huge package of coffee filters, a mop, dog food… and other sudden Sunday-afternoon necessities. The Dollar Tree parking lot is not the sort of place to make eye contact as a general rule.
How’s it going? texted Dragon Lover. Should you try eating her snack in front of her? I was by then ostentatiously crunching down on my second Dorito. Aida just grinned at me. Yes bye, she signed.
Sweetheart, I need the strategy for the worst-case scenario, I texted back.
I was standing on the sidewalk with Aida when the firefighters arrived. They approached carefully, and we chatted at a little distance. Tears streamed down my face, but I was otherwise in that state of calm that life with autism teaches you, if you’re going to survive. I’m stuck, I told them; she has words to tell me some things she might want – home, restaurant, snack, bed? But she’s not saying anything I understand. Yes bye, Aida typed on her iPad when one of them approached her. Yes bye where.
They listened, and asked gentle questions. I kept having to wipe sticky tears off my glasses. Aida by now had sat down cross-legged on the pavement, so we had all relaxed a little from the fear of her bolting. “I don’t know how this is going to end,” I said.
One of the firefighters stepped forward: “Ma’am, I’m a wrestler. I promise you I can put her in a hold that won’t hurt her, and we can get her back in your car. We just need to know you think that’s the right thing to do for her.”
I wanted to kiss him. I felt dizzy with relief, or possibly dehydration – we’d been out in the hot sun for almost three hours by then. Yes!!! I shouted. Thank you!!! (Probably I didn’t shout – I hope not? But there were big feelings behind the words.)
After that they were all business. Called a police car for a second agency to witness and keep her safe. Checked the length of her nails. “Will she bite?” They signed friend with her, which she dubiously signed back. These men are our friends, I told her. If you can’t walk to the car by yourself, they’re going to help you get into the car. Then she was up in their arms, and struggling. They found their grips with purpose. I signed to her, you’re fine. They are helping us. It all took less than 20 seconds.
Deposited in the back seat, she scooched across to her preferred side, buckled her seatbelt, and signed camp. “We hit a little trouble on the road,” I told them later of our long delay, while Aida happily strolled off to the lakeside with her counselor.