The Valley of Elah

A mother's struggles as her autistic son is placed under lockdown.

LUPINES BLOOM in the Elah Valley in February (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
LUPINES BLOOM in the Elah Valley in February
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Two hawks circle in opposite directions over the Valley of Elah, the spot where David is said to have fought Goliath. It was the end of the rainiest winter on record, and the field in the center of the valley and the hills that ring it are the most intense green I’ve ever seen, dotted by the whites of almond blossoms and trees with pink and purple flowers.
Guides take groups of tourists through this valley, holding flags: Romania, China, Italy. They stop in the middle and take pictures, looking around as if they’re trying to decide: Is this where David stood – or Goliath?
But there are no tourists today. It’s the second month of the coronavirus outbreak.
Usually I make this trip to take my son Oren home for the weekend. He’s 24 and lives in a small community near me for people with autism. As we drive through the valley he looks up and says, “The clouds are so beautiful,” whether there are any clouds in the sky or not. It’s his way of saying he’s enjoying the ride, I think. Today the sky is full of white clouds, whipped across a horizon that is almost midnight blue, by winds that brought rainstorms again this morning. But he won’t see it. It’s a pandemic and there are many rules, and the most important one for us is that he cannot leave his group home.
Another is that I’m not supposed to be more than 100 meters from where I live. But I have medicine on the passenger seat, medicine he doesn’t actually need, to show the police and soldiers monitoring the roads. I’m really out here to bring him a care package, but I don’t think that is allowed.
Next to the package and the medicine, I’ve got four documents: my identity card, his identity card, his disability card and a piece of brown paper that stipulates that I am his legal guardian. I’ve been stopped twice this morning, once a minute from my building in Jerusalem, and once outside the Tzur Hadassah suburb about five kilometers from this valley. One cop wanted to see all the documents, but for the second, just the medicine was enough to convince him this wasn’t some crazy joyride.
I’ve got the radio blasting, trying to silence the voice in my head that says I should just bring Oren home. I’m allowed to, of course, but I would have to keep him home for two weeks with no place to go and nothing to do, and I’d have to find a way to work at the same time.
EVEN SO, I might have done it, but then, when he returned, he would have to be in isolation for another two weeks, and the thought of him being kept alone in a room is simply unacceptable – it would be torture. At least there, he has his regular routine: carpentry, art classes, exercise, a garden to walk around in. But I’m afraid my sudden, forced disappearance from his life is a torture of a different kind.
People say I should contact him on Zoom, Skype or FaceTime, but he hates all of those. He likes to be with people, not see a grainy version of them in a small square. And I fear that a grainy, fake version of me would just remind him of how much he misses home, and spark a tantrum, one that would be tough to handle, one that could result in his being sent home for good. He hasn’t been there that long and it’s such a wonderful place. I don’t want anything to mess it up.
Just as I get to the end of this mental chatter loop, as if on cue – radio voodoo – “Fix You” by Coldplay comes on. It’s oldies weekend, but when did that become an oldie? It used to play all the time when Oren was little and I was shuttling him back and forth between speech therapy and occupational therapy after school, always on the road, the two of us, listening to the radio.
He picked up all kinds of snippets of songs. Sometimes he would sing, “It’s getting to the point / Where I’m no fun anymore,” from the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, or “Hold me / Love me,” from “Eight Days a Week” by The Beatles. The radio has been not only our soundtrack but our guide and a connection to the outside world all these years.
The first question he ever formulated, unprompted, that wasn’t about food or his routine was, “Is that The Beatles?” which he asked while we were listening to “Alive” by Pearl Jam on our way home from occupational therapy one night about 18 years ago. I would talk to him about the songs, the singers. He knows the names of The Beatles, which instruments each of them played, even the names of their first wives: Pattie, Cynthia, Maureen and Linda. What an old-fashioned bunch of names. And he knows about Coldplay.
“The lead singer is Chris Martin, he was married to Gwyneth Paltrow and he has a girl named Apple and a boy named Moses,” he would say if he were here now.
And he would sing along, “When you try your best but you don’t succeed... ” and would get excited when the tempo switches and becomes crazy fast and he would drum his hands on dashboard.
OUTSIDE THE gate at his place, I wait to hand over the bag, which contains cookies, green apples, a puzzle and some books. I agonized over the books, because they can’t be “home” books, the books that are part of his weekend routine that I read to him before bed or after we go to synagogue.
I could have written a card for him and put it in one of the books I finally chose, but a card is not what he wants from me. He wants to see me. He wants me to hug him. And I’m afraid that a card might bring me to the forefront of his mind and destroy his equilibrium. So the books are enough. They’re a coded message between us. He knows only I could have picked out these books.
I see someone coming down the stairs and I adjust my mask so it covers my nose and mouth. This whole COVID-19 crisis has seemed like a shadow stalking us, drawing closer and closer. I know that in Italy, they don’t have enough ventilators, and that in New York, the streets are empty, and I don’t know when I will see my friends from there again.
But all I have ever really cared about, worried about, is that this disease would come between Oren and me, and now it has. Nothing ever has before, not even the wars.
The woman who takes the package tells me that Oren is fine. They have explained about the virus as best they can. She will give him a hug from me. I can bring him another package next week. She walks back into the building and I get into the car. I take off my mask. There’s another song on the radio but I don’t hear it.
 “Fix You” is still playing in my mind: “Lights will guide you home... And I will try to fix you.” As I drive back through the valley, it begins to rain, and it is so dark that the lights along the road switch on.
I think about how maybe autism is like Goliath, a big bully who can be fought best with small weapons. Most of the therapy never helped Oren much, and it seems to me now that we learned more from the radio and from talking to each other on our rides. Back then, I think I was trying to fix him, but if anyone got fixed, it was me. I want to help him now as much as I can, as he has helped me.
The iron-gray clouds hang low. If he were here, he would say, “The clouds are so beautiful.”
The writer is compiling a book of short stories called A Hard Day’s Life: 20 Years with Autism.

Tags family autism