Madelyn shifted in her seat, left hand rubbing gritty eyes. The luminescent glare of the computer screen cast distorted shadows over her strewn paperwork. Not that anything could have made it look any worse. Phrases stood out from the standard font of the top-most page as though highlighted in bold – “meets the criteria”… “significant impairment” … “confirmation” – poking at the open wound inside her chest.
An intrusive clank and swish heralded Theo’s emergence from his bedroom across the hall, prompting a sudden shuffling of paper and a switching of tabs. Madelyn plastered a smile across her face as she turned it expectantly towards the doorway. Footsteps stomped along the hallway and into the bathroom, punctuated by a slamming door. Madelyn sighed. Her shoulders sagged and the smile faded. A wave of guilt slammed into her gut: how could she be relieved that he hadn’t come to see her?
Madelyn flicked back to the website she had been obsessively poring over for hours: detailed descriptions of symptoms and strategies; testimonials; explanations of cause. All of it designed to support and reassure. It had been a month ago that she had sat in the cramped, sterile office of the head of the diagnostic team. The doctor didn’t prevaricated, she simply explained that the evidence was enough to conclude that Theo was autistic. Madelyn had sat there, handbag clutched in her lap like a shield, trying to decide how she felt: surprised and vindicated; relieved and sad; but most of all guilty. The doctor stared at her, sympathetic in a detached kind of way, waiting for a reaction. Any reaction.
It had taken three weeks for the official paperwork to arrive, detailing in black and white the results of each stage of the assessment. In some ways it still didn’t seem real. What difference did it make, this knowing? Theo hadn’t changed. Maybe it would have been better if they’d noticed it sooner. Many of the testimonials were by parents of children as young as three. What if they’d known then instead of now, when he was nearly fifteen? What was she supposed to do now?
The door thumped open and Theo shuffled in. His beautiful brown eyes gleamed behind the smudged lenses of crooked glasses. I wish he would clean them. “Hey, you.” Madelyn smiled, grateful for once that he wouldn’t recognise it as false.
“Cuddle?” He reached her desk and leaned in for an awkward hug. He never did wait for a response.
“How you doing, bub?” she asked, wrapping her arms around his broadening shoulders.
“I’m O.K.” The angle of the embrace was uncomfortable but his weight was reassuring.
“What you after?”
“You just wanted a cuddle?” She laughed.
“Yes.” Theo squeezed her tightly, tickling her cheek with his riotous curls.
“O.K.” Madelyn held him close, trying not to breathe in the unwashed scent of his teenage body. “You want to have a shower today?” Please say yes.
“O.K.” She sighed. He would likely find some excuse not to, but she knew there was no point pushing him. Going head to head with Theo only ever resulted in a headache. He squeezed her one last time and straightened up, shuffling away on heavy feet, back to his room. His safe space.
The glaring screen flickered in her peripheral vision, reminding her that there was still more to learn. She had this feeling that if she could just read enough, know enough, understand enough, that everything would be alright. She spotted a link labelled ’causes and cures’ and clicked on it hopefully. Cures. Maybe there was something she hadn’t tried. As she scrolled slowly down the page, frustrated by the inconclusive nature of the article, her gaze caught on the bold title: “Is there a ‘cure’?” Directly beneath it, she read:
There is no known ‘cure’ for autism.
No cure. No hope. A pit opened within her chest, a gaping chasm of despair that slowly filled with ice. No cure. Madelyn blinked rapidly. Her head drooped and her lip trembled as tears boiled out of her eyes. No hope. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t known. If there had been a cure, surely the doctor would have mentioned it. Seeing it there in such bald terms, with no room for interpretation, it seemed like a prediction. Things would never get better for Theo. No future. Madelyn gave in to the feelings inside her, resting her head in her hands and allowing the tears to fall unimpeded. She sniffled and sobbed. The only effort she made to stifle the expression of her grief was to cover her mouth. She didn’t want Theo to hear.