Father’s Day, and I am stood in a hospital children’s ward. My autistic son lies next to me in a bed, clutching his stomach and with a temperature of 40 plus. In front of me stands a surgeon, asking for my permission to operate. My phone is dead and I cannot contact my wife, who is in transit somewhere.
I ask for another five minutes, and in that time find myself saying a little prayer that my wife gets here soon, that my son’s appendix has not burst and that he will be okay. I am not religious, but it has been that kind of week. In fact, god seems to have featured heavily throughout our week.
You see, before the need to have a part of his body removed had cropped up, my son was on a quest to find God.
I’m sure all families have to carefully handle questions about God, whatever their faith. Our eldest has asked about heaven and hell and about people he knows who have passed away. His school seem to have opened his mind to an acceptance of God and although we have never tried to contradict them, we have never openly shared the belief, because we didn’t need to. I think the most I’ve ever had to say is, “Some people believe…” He has not pushed the issue any further and religion is not a part of his home life.
Until this week. B has latched onto the idea of God in a big, literal, autistic way. It’s been a regular feature of conversation as we are asked such questions as, “Is He everywhere?”, “Can He see me now?” and “Does He have a phone?” The issue of whether ‘Jesus Christ’ was a swear word was raised (I guess this is the context in which he has most heard those words!). He appears to have realised that there is a more supreme being than Mum, Dad, his teacher, his headteacher or even Santa. I think my son sees this as an opportunity.
On Wednesday, B was not having a good day. It was our fault. We totally threw out his routine by taking him out of school early (for an OT appointment) then taking him shopping. That was all fine, except that by the time we got home, it was nearly bedtime. This meant changing out of his school uniform and into his pyjamas. Consequently, we had skipped his ‘own clothes’. This was not good. I had no idea how important the routine of putting on his jeans and a t-shirt was to my son. I do now.
There followed a meltdown of biblical proportions. I think the god my son is looking for is Old Testament God- the one that’s all about fire and brimstone, floods and wrath. That God seems to better suit the three days and three nights of rage that followed. In retrospect, B was unwell, and unable to articulate it either at home or at school. What he was able to articulate was his desire for God to fix things for him. “Phone God!” he demanded (constantly). “Make him invent a time machine!” My son decided that God’s number was 999, which led to a near emergency call, before we put all phones out of reach.
Trying to explain that God was not real, or that he was real but not here, or that he was listening but wouldn’t reply was impossible. Philosophers, theologians and thinkers have struggled with the question for thousands of years. How can I be expected to explain the unexplainable?
My answer was to embrace that most important of parenting skills: hypocrisy. Despite my own lack of faith, I sat him down on the bed and said, “I know how we can talk to God.” “How?” he asked. “By praying”, I replied, and we put our hands together, closed our eyes and said a prayer. For a time machine. When we had finished, my son said, “Can we ring him now?”
The upset carried on into Thursday, when B had a bad day at school and then brought his bad day home with him. In the midst of his psychotic rage, the phone rang. It was 8.30, which meant it would be my mother, who always rings once she knows the kids will be tucked up in bed (if only). Rather craftily, I let B answer. Perhaps Nanny’s voice would settle him or divert his attention away from The God Question”. Instead, B Launched again into his full on rant about enlisting God’s help to cross the paths of space and time.
“Phone God! Tell him to invent a time machine…” etc.
After about three minutes of polemic, it began to sound like Nanny wasn’t ‘t getting a single word in, so my wife wrestled the phone from him. To her surprise, a rather shell-shocked voice at the other end of the phone said, “Er, this is just a courtesy call about the quote for new windows we gave you.”
If nothing else, we have stumbled upon the best cold-call defence ever. Just let B answer! His theological rantings would put anyone off from calling again. I might even try it when they knock on the door. That might not work if they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, though.
Later that week I found myself saying a prayer when we thought we had lost B’s favourite teddy. My wife was upstairs when I heard her cry “Shit!” It was not so much the word she used but the tone in which she said it that had me alarmed. After seventeen years together, I am very familiar with the nuances of my wife’s tones. I can tell what sort of shit it is. This was not a forgot-to-buy-butter shit, or even a son-in-trouble-at-school shit. This shit was more serious.
B is inseparable from his favourite teddy- a cuddly Olympic mascot he calls Baby Mandeville. Baby M had been left at a Saturday morning special needs playgroup we attend (in a church hall, appropriately enough). My wife’s shit was a Baby-M-has-been left-behind shit. This would have meant the end of the world. Never mind the apocalypse or the Rapture- this was seriously bad news. We had to get Baby M back. And so I found myself praying he would be found as I raced to the church hall. Miraculously, a rather saintly lady had found him by the time I arrived.
And then our week really took a turn for the worse.
B took ill in the early hours of Sunday morning. It seemed a repeat of the same illness he had over half term, three weeks ago. That illness had been identified as the usual we-don’t- really-know virus. His tummy had hurt then too. This time we acted quickly and were with a GP before lunchtime. Then it was straight to hospital, where a series of checks, X-rays and monitoring was carried out.
B is a rather unreliable patient, due to his difficulties in communication. Across the wide range of people we saw there was some worrying ignorance of autism but mostly the medical staff were informed, understanding and good listeners. But they were very cautious about taking steps to operate, because B could not clearly identify the nature of his pain and was either contradictory or too feverish to help them. At one point, he brightened up and my wife took the opportunity to pop home and grab some things.
Which brings us to my difficult decision in the hospital ward. I am about to answer when I hear my wife’s voice. “Shit”, she says, and this time it’s in a tone I have not heard before.
If there is a more frightening experience than watching your child get wheeled off into surgery, I do not want to know it. But off he went, leaving us in what suddenly felt like a very empty hospital in the middle of the night, waiting for our boy to come back to us. This should not have been happening to a five year old.
Ninety minutes later and he was out, as was his appendix. The doctors had made a good call- his appendix was enlarged and the probable cause of his illness. By this morning he was conscious and complaining, so we knew he was okay. We had to explain what had happened and why he was so sore, and he had many questions, including the extent of God’s involvement. We will have a quite poorly boy on our hands for a while, but the ordeal is over and everyone will be alright. I’m tempted to say my prayers were answered, but I know it doesn’t work that way.
The experience has not brought me closer to God; I’m still the heathen I always was. But maybe it has brought me a little closer to my son. Tomorrow I intend to spend the day sat on the sofa with my boy, and he can ask as many questions as he wants. I must be careful not to hug him too tightly.