Sunday, October 17, 2010

WITH JOAN OF ARC by Diana McCourt


I am alone without another adult living with me for the first time in my life in a tiny apartment on the corner of Riverside Drive and 93rd St. Because she was worried about me, my mother did what she does well – decorate. There is a beautiful red rug in the narrow small room that serves as bedroom, living room and dining room. There is clean white linoleum on the floor of the miniature kitchen. Nina, my 1 year old daughter, has Margaret Owen wallpaper in her little room. The furniture is bits and pieces of mistakes from decorating jobs of my mother’s; a table that was the wrong size, a bed that didn’t fit.

The piano is mine, the only major piece I salvaged from the seven year marriage I recently escaped from.

Nina and I spent many hours sitting on the red carpet. I smoke a lot and Nina likes the cellophane from the cigarette pack that crinkles when she holds it next to her ear. I throw a ball to her and she ignores it, preferring the sound of the paper.

“Ball, Nina, ball,” I explain, taking her free hand to touch it. Nina loves the red rug, in fact will not leave it. She will crawl to the edge of it where it meets the kitchen’s white floor but will not cross that line. If I carry her to it she screams.

Dr. Manuel Furer of the Masters Children’s Center finally talked to me last week. Nina and I went four times to his clinic at the urging of one of my friends. They tried playing with Nina while her father and I watched through a big glass window. The blocks and toys that any other child could have responded to meant nothing to her. Nina was looking at the play of light on the white wall from the outside window.

There was supposed to be some kind of report or help or something but my calls to the Dr. never get answered until finally I told the secretary to get him to the phone right now – that this was cruel and unprofessional treatment. He did come and muttered, “It's hopeless, she’s autistic, it's hopeless,” and he scuttled away leaving the secretary to finish the call.

I wept for a while and then called my mother.

“The doctor says Nina is autistic”

“ARTISTIC!” my mother said delighted, “well there is nothing wrong with that!”

I felt bad for my mom who was having other shocks herself including a recent heart attack. When I explained that it was AUTISM, a serious mental problem, she responded with a trembling voice, “Don’t do that to me."

“Sorry Mom,” and I ended the conversation.

So now Nina and I are trying to make a new life in what was becoming a vacuum. I have tried taking Nina to the nearby playground but it terrifies her and she screams her high pitched scream until I must leave. There is my friend Harry who visits and plays the upright piano for Nina who responds in her shivering delight and trancelike rocking. But Harry wants to be with me all the time and I am not interested – he is needy and I have little heart to spare.

Nina and I visit the nearest safest place outside our little room – the park at the end of the block. It is the Joan of Arc Park holding the first female equestrian statue in New York. Her missionary zeal – her energetic warrior spirit is a mockery of my in-service and imprisoned life. Nina and I snuggle on a bench at the base of the statue, absorbing spirit.