The first alarm went off at midnight, a shrill continuous thrusting of sharp metal through our eardrums. Then we heard what I knew was coming, my autistic son’s screams.
He wasn’t hurt, just filled with terror, the kind that erases all rational thought. His mind was on fire, not our house. He screamed my name when he saw his father’s image in his bedroom, “No!! I need Mom!!”
He calls my name when he’s afraid, as though I am omnipotent, the panacea for any ailment, any assault. He has not yet learned that my skill set is limited.
A few months ago my nine year old son began having nightmares and developed a fear of fire alarms and thunder, of the electricity being cut off during a bad storm. He hates shrill sounds and the absence of light. These feelings are mostly universal, but the intensity of his emotional reaction is not. His autism exacerbates these reactions, blows them far out of proportion. He becomes paranoid, so much so that no matter where we go, he’s watching the skies and assessing the risks, scoping out the ceilings and tops of walls, looking for the nearest fire alarms, looking for fire pulls. If he can’t find them he asks me to help. I assure him that no storms are coming, that any rain will be gentle, that the fire alarms won’t go off. Unless, of course, there’s a fire. But there will be no fire, until there is one, but… Don’t worry, my love, Mommy’s here.
When these fears began I decided to purchase a small crucifix for him, a crude rendering made of natural stone. I placed it in a wooden treasure chest along with a small keychain flashlight. I told him the stone cross would keep the nightmares away, and that if the electricity were to go out, there was a source of physical light in the treasure box.
I gave these crucifixes and treasure boxes to several boys who have autism. They all attend a sacrament preparation class I co-teach at our Catholic church (a position taken to protect and keep an eye on my son). All of the boys had tearfully described bloodcurdling nightmares and it broke my heart. They think literally, so I knew a physical talisman would help, despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, no matter what form it takes.
It was no surprise when the boys’ mothers reported later that the nightmares had stopped.
I’d known the crucifixes would be effective, not because of their shape or intended meaning, but because of the power ascribed to them. My daughter had a similar protection item to sleep with when she was younger, a purple “dragon tooth.” We’d purchased the three-pronged “tooth” from the Texas Renaissance Festival in 2008, an item we had to take with us on every trip away from home lest she refuse to close her eyes at bedtime.
I glued the Dragon Tooth back together many times once her little brother was old enough to discover and break it. At some point a tip of one of the prongs on the tooth was forever lost, which didn’t render it any less potent. The magic remained intact, and even now that my daughter is nearing her eleventh birthday and no longer needs the magic (or has assigned it elsewhere), she still keeps the Dragon Tooth for sentimental reasons. It sits on her dresser beside a stack of dragon fantasy books, near her favorite jewelry, a few inches from a mirror she pays much more attention to these days.
Last night the alarm went off multiple times as my husband struggled to identify which battery was defunct. There were several, it turns out, so I let my nine year old sleep in our bed, his cheeks still wet with tears. He remained close to me all night, a part of him always touching a part of me — a foot on a foot, his hand resting on my arm or gently holding my hand. He needed to feel safe and secure, to attach to a more powerful source that would drive down the volume of his terror.
This morning we’re all tired from last night’s drama, from being awakened at midnight and again at 3 am. My neck is stiff from remaining in the same position all night, stuck at the edge of the bed, stationary so as not to disturb the fragile tranquility of the sleeping child beside me.
The 9V batteries in every fire alarm will be replaced today. They won’t last forever, of course. One day this or next year, per much experience, one or more batteries will fail. At that time my son’s terror will likely return. There will be storms in the interim, our home rattled with intense thunder, the inevitable wrath inherent in nature squashing our minuscule ration of power.
There will be darkness, which I cannot control.
All I can promise is my best effort, that I will be here to protect him as much as I can for as long as possible. But my son knows deep in his bones that one day my energy will fail. I will lose power and my physical light will burn out. Until then I must teach him that his treasure is an abiding trust, an unyielding faith in something greater, an ideal held in our figurative hearts, or perhaps genuinely ascribe to something physical we can touch and hold, no matter its shape.
The goal is to feel safe, to be seen and loved by a warmth we can we can touch in our most vulnerable moments. It is a universal prayer that crosses all divides, this reach for tranquility, for enduring light, no matter how ephemeral the source.