“My Friends on TV”
The thing I find endlessly fascinating about “Grey’s Anatomy” is not so much how implausible it is that surgeons would work the ER; all the ways in which people are maimed, carved up, and killed off; or why a doctor on the show can never seem to sustain an uneventful pregnancy.
No, what sucks my attention is how the village rallies around whoever is maimed, and/or left behind after someone else has been killed off. The doctors all take in one another’s children, and care for them with the same tenderness they would their own. No one ever seems to need to find the money to pay for emergency childcare, or require child services to step in while the parent recovers from the stab wound/brain bleed/C-section that turned into a thoracotomy. It’s kind of revolting and sweet that despite the level of violence all the characters’ bodies can take, the one non dramatic constant is that they never have to worry about what’s going to become of their children. There is an embarrassment of riches where help is concerned.
My mind inevitably ends up thinking “What if one of those kids had complicated special needs?”
Because there are a lot of us who have lost our village as time has gone on. A crisis of short duration, people can gather around that. But the caregiving that will last a lifetime.. not everyone is able or willing to stick around for that.
Some of that is because parents like us don’t have the ability to socialize enough to sustain deep friendships. The few years I spent doing non profit stuff ended up costing us in fancy clothing for fancy events, and steep babysitting costs. Many people brought their kids to meetings and events, but A does not thrive in unpredictable environments, so I couldn’t even think of being focused on tasks at hand while also keeping him calm and in the room. Few people I know would have the confidence or stamina to take on what we do without preparation, so it’s not like we can text a friend and go “Hey, you up for a day of romps with the A-toad?” A isn’t really the type of kid you can pop in the van while you drive your own kids to violin and martial arts. I remember a group of wonderful mom friends who came over once to watch him so we could attend R’s piano recital. They were all terrified, and their kids were bored by our sensory friendly house, which is why I appreciated their presence even more. But A needs sustained exposure to people, and if they cannot show up frequently, which I can understand, we are not going to think “That person is my village.”
If you don’t have that issue, if your circle is wide and accepting, or you have pots of money for sitters, or your mom came from India to help, or your kid is more mildly affected by changes in routine, I think that’s great. I am not looking for advice here, so please don’t send me any? We do everything possible to widen A’s world and push him gently but firmly out of ruts, you will have to trust me on that.
So that’s the other thing, as you can see. We don’t want to have to fritter away our energies on the emotional labor of keeping critiques and comparisons at bay. Part of the fantasy of Grey’s is that no one does that. I read enough posts on online support groups to know that even when special needs families have extended family support, it often comes with a high price tag of judgment, and active interference in parenting decisions. Or the total withdrawal of engagement when one doesn’t embrace the advice. Imagine having a teenager and still having to deal with that stuff from your relatives. It’s unimaginable, yet it happens because our kids need ongoing, one on one watching. R can come and go, with his busy life and his ability to be independent, so it’s not at all the same thing. Anyone looking out for him would really just have to stick food in front of him at regular intervals, and even then, he is reasonably capable of cooking for himself. A is a different can of popping beans. He loves chores, but there is not a lot of self regulation as yet.
I left my favorite point for last. The thing about Grey’s is that all of them are singularly focused on their careers, so they really don’t have outside lives that don’t involve beds and showers and kitchens. For them, the details and niceties of parenting are blurry in the face of the ritualistic, barbaric beauty of surgery. THAT is the closest thing to autism life I can think of.
Way back when, I was taking dance lessons in the Chicago suburbs, and a girl in my class confessed laughingly that the characters in 90210 were her friends. They were living the same stage of life she was, and she felt connected to their stories.
All these years later, I feel her point. Life with an autistic person can be very intense, and it can be hard to feel connected to neurotypical people around us. So when we spot a similar intensity in someone else’s life, even if it is fictional, we notice.
In one memorable Grey’s episode, the main character, Meredith Grey, is severely beaten by a patient while he is in an altered state, and one of her many injuries is a broken jaw. It has to be wired shut to heal, and when her kids come to see her, they are frightened by her appearance, and don’t want to stay in the room. She is devastated, and has a huge panic attack. But the takeaway is that she has to learn to wait. Her kids just cannot mentally absorb the extent of her injuries, and she has to be patient.
I’ve thought at times over the years of how the one thing we cannot teach A is an awareness of our own frailties. How we have to conceal and suppress our discomforts when we are unwell. How one of us might someday be alone with him and need medical help which he cannot give or call for. I say this not to be self pitying, but to stare the facts in the face. Therapy has been teaching me to do that with a little more unflinching courage than I used to.
When Meredith recovers enough to return home, she tells her friend Alex to go back to his own home, to his girlfriend. It’s time, she says. I’m better now. Or some such thing. But she also expresses her gratitude for how she learned the solidity of support that exists for her. I thought that was beautiful. Everyone should know what that’s like.
“The Sound of Silence.” Grey’s Anatomy, season 12, episode 9, ABC, 11 Feb. 2016. Netflix.