Oren pieces together the puzzle – Dora the Explorer, one panel for each season of the year, except winter, which is missing – then puts them back in the bag and starts all over again. This keeps him relatively quiet at synagogue, where there is a drawer filled with puzzles and books for children. Usually we get to services right at the tail end, so all he has to is sit tight for “Shir HaKavod” and “Adon Olam,” his favorites. But today it’s Yom Kippur, and I haven’t had coffee and have no idea when the morning service is going to be over.
“Eema, The Beatles were men,” Oren, who is 23 and has autism, says. “They sang in English.” I know I should “shush” him, and if I look around I’ll get nasty looks from the people who don’t know him and are just here for the holiday.
Taking care of Oren without coffee is as close as I’ll ever get to climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and, I think, an essentially a similar experience. The truth is, this is the first time I’ve ever tried climbing this particular mountain. Oren was never as calm as he’s been for the past year, and I never attempted to fully fast because I felt I needed energy to look after him, like a doctor working in an emergency room. I was afraid if I were caffeine-deprived, I would snap at him, which might provoke a tantrum, and then any semblance of the holiday meaning anything would be utterly lost.
He starts jumping up and down, which doesn’t make any of the regulars bat an eye. On a typical Saturday, I’d ask him to stop after maybe 10 jumps. But with no coffee it’s just too much of an effort. I sit down and he stays mostly airborne.
“George Harrison’s first wife was Pattie. John Lennon’s first wife was Cynthia. Ringo Starr’s was Maureen and Paul McCartney’s was Linda,” he says. Oren has stopped jumping – I didn’t even notice – and has started taking Dora out again. This no-coffee thing is weirdly similar to being on Valium. If it weren’t for the headache, having my consciousness altered like this might not be totally unpleasant.
“Good!” I say, forgetting to whisper. He learns so well. I’m going to start teaching him the names of The Beatles’ second wives soon. I’m supposed to be asking for forgiveness, and really I’ve committed quite a few sins this year, although to be honest, not quite as many as I wanted to. But, as always, he is all I can concentrate on.
Dora is back in the box and people are folding up their prayer shawls. I was spacing out again. I’ve explained to Oren that there is no kiddush today but he still looks in that direction and checks in the synagogue kitchen. We walk past families with little kids, and old people who are walking slowly through the sunlight, which seems that much more blinding today.
“Are you OK?” Ben, Oren’s brother, asks as we come in.
“I didn’t have coffee,” I say.
“Have some now.”
“It’s Yom Kippur. You know... ”
Ben is a passionate atheist. “Have you lost your mind?”
“It’s debatable,” I say, as I get Oren his lunch.
AFTER HE EATS, we settle down to read. There is a long list of books Oren takes out on holidays, and we always finish with One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey. Growing up, I loved the black-and-white drawings that are so vivid. Today, they are especially cool and soothing.
The book is about a family with two daughters who live on an island in Maine. The heroine is a little girl named Sal who discovers she has a loose tooth and spends the day telling the animals she sees about it as she walks around. Digging clams with her father, her tooth falls out and gets lost, but her father reassures her that she will get a visit from the tooth fairy anyway, and he takes her and her baby sister by boat to a nearby town to do errands and have ice cream.
The text is a bit too detailed for Oren to concentrate on, so I have scaled it down to the essentials, with a few sound effects. We both enjoy the moment when she leans too far out over the water to tell a seal about the tooth and falls “kasploosh” –the book’s word – on her “tussik,” mine. At the end, on the way back to the island, they’re all happy because they know they are going to have “Clam chowder for lunch!” Oren says the last line with me. I fantasize that we will go to Maine someday. He’s calmed down enough for me to attempt this day of no coffee, and maybe he will calm down enough for me to travel abroad with him again. After we finish, I pick up a memoir by one of McCloskey’s daughters and learn that in addition to living in Maine, they traveled all over the world, and at one point, in Mexico, McCloskey had a “nervous breakdown” and was hospitalized.
This surprises me because the father in the book – who looks a bit like my father when he was young – always seemed to be the polar opposite of mine. This dad was calm and comforting when Sal became stressed over her lost tooth. He gathered food for their lunch, and when the motor on their boat wouldn’t start, simply rowed them across the bay. My father was married four times and had bipolar disorder and violent, psychotic episodes. When he broke up with a wife or a girlfriend, I was the one who had to pack up his stuff.
Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but all my life, I have been drawn to the happy ones and wished I could have one like the family in this book.
“What’s your favorite page in One Morning in Maine?” I ask Oren, who has moved on to a pile of car magazines. The concept of favorite is a bit abstract to him, but he points to the last page. I like the one where Sal runs to her father to tell him about the tooth.
Reading about the McCloskey family just now has taught me a lesson I don’t want to learn, that there are no perfect families, that even they had their difficulties. I’m too tired and thirsty to think this through right now.
THE AFTERNOON goes by slowly and then it is time to go back to the synagogue. The only person I ever ask forgiveness from is Ben, for all the times I’ve ignored him, or stressed him out for no good reason. We had that talk last night. And speaking of stressing out, I wish I could still force Ben to come with us to hear the shofar being blown before they shut the Book of Life, the way I used to do when he was little.
I have three friends – three – who have buried children in recent years. Can’t Ben just show up and hear the shofar, for five damned minutes? Of course it’s superstitious nonsense. But I’ve been wrong about so many things. What if these people who believe in the Book of Life and prayers and the evil eye and salt over your shoulder are right and I’m wrong?
People are streaming toward the synagogue like ants to a picnic. Oren walks so fast on his long legs that I strain to stay in step with him as, with a huge smile, he greets everyone by name. The adults are so glassy eyed at this point that most just nod, while the children smile at him as we go in and he pulls out the Dora puzzle.
“Eema, George Harrison’s first wife was Pattie,” Oren says and I think that maybe, unlike what Tolstoy said, all happy families are happy in a different way.
Oren starts jumping and laughing as I run my fingers over the can of coffee I have in my bag, which I will drink as soon as we get the all-clear from God.