The three-by-five-inch portraits
of each person in the program had been spread across
the table in front of Robertito. The little boy rubbed
his nose like an infant, mashing the palm of his hand
into his fingers as he pushed haphazardly against
his face. A satisfied rumbling gurgled in his throat.
He raised his eyebrows and then sighed.
"You are ready now?" Roby
asked gently, admiring the chiseled features of his
son's face. "Good. Who is this?" he asked,
pointing at his wife's photograph. He watched his
son, trying to retain each movement, each little facial
expression. Roby had tried to wish this day away,
Robertito looked directly at his
mother's portrait and touched the surface of the print
with his finger tips. "Mama," he blurted.
"Yes. That's perfect. Perfect!"
Roby clapped and cheered. He took his child's hand.
"Soon you will have your Option degree. Okay,
ready? Who is this?"
The little boy identified Lisa quickly,
then Laura, Carol, Suzi and me. His recent progress
and participation amazed everyone. When Roby introduced
a book, his son flipped the pages like a scholar,
then tapped the cover with his finger. He cocked his
head to the side and listened to the rhythmic sound.
A simple gesture became a self-stimulating activity.
"If you want to tap, papito,
you tap," Roby said, participating and waiting
patiently until the boy exhausted his impulse and
pointed to an owl. "What's that?" When Robertito
did not answer, his father proceeded to make the sound
of the animal.
Robertito touched his nose to the
picture and said owl. Elated, Roby pointed to the
turtle, a difficult word to pronounce in Spanish.
Within seconds, Robertito identified it. In addition
to the more common farm animals, he named the seal,
a beaver, a crab, kangaroo, squirrel and cricket.
"Musica " Robertito announced
as he left his chair and picked up the tape recorder.
"Yes. Yes," Roby chanted,
delighted with his son's continuous contact. He had
worked both his and Francisca's session today, insisting
on monopolizing his son's time ... at least for this
day. Father and son danced together for a short period,
then Robertito ran over to the life-sized Popeye balloon.
He "ismed" at it, almost in the form of
a greeting, then hugged it, kissed it and finally
dragged it into the center of the room. He initiated
a "two-step" and rocked to the music with
Popeye as his partner. His father laughed. Despite
the "isms," the lack of sophisticated language
and the periods of withdrawal, Robertito appeared
worldly to him in comparison to his vegetative-like
existence only six months before.
Toward the end of the second session,
Roby Soto sat opposite his son as he fed him dinner.
Each time the child looked beyond the spoon, he tried
to engrave the glance in his memory. In a teaching
context, he spoke very simply and directly to his
son as he had been trained. But since having watched
Suzi and me, on occasion, talk to Robertito as a peer,
he freed himself to communicate his feelings and thoughts
to his child without needing to know if his son understood.
He wanted to express himself and risked using speech
as one less-than-perfect path through the silence.
He knew something of what he felt would touch his
"Papa has something to tell
you." He delivered a heaping spoonful of fish
to Robertito's opened mouth. The boy smiled. "Good,
my son. You like it. It's protein. Very good for you,
papito." While the youngster ground the food
between his teeth, Roby imitated that same chewing
motion and made the same purring sounds echoing from
his throat. Robertito giggled as he stared at his
"Tomorrow I will have to leave,"
Roby said. "This time, papito, it will be a long
time until I return. Many months will pass before
I can come back to, you and Mommy." He turned
away from his son and stared at the floor. He sighed
heavily before resuming. "I must help my business
so you can stay here to learn and grow. Do you understand?"
Robertito delighted in the meal.
He did not respond directly to his father's words
or question, but his face reflected a certain attentiveness
to the spoken sounds.
"I don't want to leave you or
Mommy, but I don't know any other way to help keep
you here. I don't want to leave, Robertito."
He had to stop talking and fortify himself. He wanted
to be clear for his son. Roby knew he would not see
Robertito for at least four or five months, maybe
half a year. He worried that somewhere in that strange
and complex brain, his child might interpret his absence
as desertion. "Papa loves you, more than anything
in the world; Papa loves you and Mommy and all the
nice people who help us." Robertito tried to
grab the cup of food. "You don't have to do that.
I will give you all you want." As soon as he
fed the child another gulp, the boy sat back into
the chair and chewed with great concentration and
"You will always be with me
in my heart. I will never forget you, not even for
a second, papito." He stroked the hair off Robertito's
forehead. He thought of his own father, who never
touched him except to hit him or hurt him. Hadn't
he understood? Couldn't he see? To Roby, nothing was
more precious than his own child. He felt himself
blessed, not burdened, in the presence of his son.
He couldn't imagine striking this little boy. As he
touched his son's cheek with the tips of his fingers,
he closed his eyes. He wanted the impression to be
so intense that he could re-experience it thousands
of miles from here and many months from now. He wanted
his finger tips to remember in the same fashion that
he commanded his mind to retain each image and each
sound his son made.
At the airport, Francisca handed
her husband a small package wrapped like a gift. He
peered at her, surprised and slightly embarrassed.
He hesitated, wishing he had something for her.
"Go ahead," Francisca said.
Roby removed the tape carefully without
destroying the paper. When he uncovered the overalls
which his son had worn on their last day together,
he pressed his teeth together, trying to be strong,
trying to smile. He held the garment in front of his
face and inhaled deeply. Then Roberto Soto began to
cry. Francisca took his hands and squeezed tightly.
They stood alone, facing each other, as people pushed
past them in the busy terminal.
"You concentrate on Robertito
and yourself," Roby counseled, forcing a tearful
half-smile. "Sometimes I am very sentimental,
but I will be fine, especially if I know you and our
son are happy here in New York." His voice began
to crack. Roby inhaled deeply, then hugged his wife.
"Mommy, I am very proud of you."
The following week, Laura gave notice
, offering her continued support and input until we
trained a replacement for her and Roby. Rather than
search for two people, we tried to find someone who
could give us enough hours to fill all the gaps. Suzi
and I began the hunt at local high schools and colleges.
Carol, who had been pressed by her fellow students,
submitted several names. We tried to pre-screen people
on the telephone, explaining our perspective and our
program. The idea of learning Spanish frightened most
people. To our amazement, despite the huge Hispanic
population in and around New York City, no bilingual
Our particular young lady made a
very special impression on the phone. She didn't say
anything particularly insightful or memorable. She
didn't attempt to dazzle us with references or any
academic accolades. A special warmth and enthusiasm
permeated her every word. She knew Carol, attended
the same college and had heard my talk as guest lecturer
the preceding year. We decided to schedule her for
the first appointment.
Jeannie didn't walk through the door,
she bounced into our living room with an amazed smile
on her face. She wore a white polo shirt with a funny
Snoopy-type character on it. "I'm here. I'm really
here," she giggled. She embraced us without hesitation.
"I feel I know you and Raun and Robertito. Thanks
for seeing me." We smiled at each other and laughed
spontaneously. Her vivacious grin displayed her immediate
comfort. Suzi and I both knew, in that very instant,
that Jeannie would be a wonderful addition to the
program. She relaxed her tall, trim form on the couch
and listened attentively before responding. "I
want to help," she said. "I do very much."
In many ways, her easy smile and
open affection reminded me of Suzi. As a special education
major, Jeannie had worked with a variety of children
with different problems. She had just begun to question
techniques and attitudes when a teacher exposed her
to Son-Rise. The method articulated in the book seemed
like a dream, a fantasy rather than fact. And yet,
at the same time, she talked about it as being direct,
simple and obvious. Her interest in education was
based on her attraction to people who were loving,
yet she reported finding many harsh professionals
working with children.
Jeannie hoped she could add something
special to a student's life ... like caring and humanity.
As we sat together and talked, it seemed as if we
had all known each other for years. Even her nervousness
in answering some questions could not sedate her vigor
"You're on," I said to
her, acknowledging what Suzi and I already knew.
Jeannie looked at us.
"I think you'd have something
special to offer Robertito and all of us," Suzi
"You're kidding." She laughed
self-consciously this time, then smiled. "You're
not kidding." Without saying another word, Jeannie
hugged Suzi, then planted an impassioned kiss on my
"When could you start?"
"Today. Now. Whenever you want,"
"C'mon with me," Suzi said.
"I'll bring you over to the Soto house and you
can begin by meeting Francisca and Robertito."
For the next two weeks, we concentrated
all our energy on Jeannie. In our dialogue sessions,
she confronted her doubts about herself willingly,
even questioned her talents as a teacher. Her fear
of being judged by an observing supervisor plagued
her most. I could have assured her she would not be
judged in our program, but I chose, instead, to help
her deal with the anxiety and underlying beliefs.
Since she would tandem teach and participate in feed-back
sessions, eventually, I wanted her to find her own
strength rather than rely on us for support.
When she arrived for the second teaching
session with Suzi, Jeannie brought a huge, stuffed
monkey slightly larger than Robertito. The big, blue
furry animal wore a Scottish plaid hat with a matching
jacket. Together with Suzi, she introduced "Chango"
to our little friend. On request, he hugged and kissed
the enormous doll. Often, while working puzzles or
lottos with Suzi, Robertito glanced at the new figure
leaning against the wall. Finally, he broke away from
the teaching session to confront Chango directly.
He tried unsuccessfully to push his little fingers
between the monkey's sealed lips, then he flapped
his hands in front of the doll. Suzi half-expected
the animal to respond in kind. Thoroughly confused
by the doll's inertia, Robertito pushed it several
times. Then, he leaned forward and hugged and kissed
"I don't believe you, Robertito
Soto," Suzi exclaimed. "You're beginning
to make friends with the whole world." She cheered
the little boy as did Jeannie, who laughed boisterously,
flattered by the effect of her gift.
After that session and the others
which followed, Jeannie bombarded Suzi with questions
in an attempt to understand every aspect of the teaching
process. Later, she observed Robertito's other mentors.
Carol and Chella spent evenings with her, helping
her learn Spanish and perfect her pronunciation. Jeannie
Kannengieser gushed with enthusiasm, turning a face
full of love toward all of us.
The transition of changing teachers,
the initial phasing-out of Laura and the constant
monitoring of Robertito consumed a massive portion
of our time and energy. Like all the others in the
program, Suzi and I sought to keep ourselves clear
and vitalized, but our efforts were diverted rudely
for several days after the arrival of our "Son-Rise"
script, which we had submitted during the summer.
Changes, which represented gross inaccuracies, had
been implanted throughout the draft. In effect, a
Hollywood writer, having no clear awareness of actual
situations, worked diligently under the producers'
direction and added formula changes which included
a bit of violence, a subdued version of a car chase
and two token bedroom scenes. Rather than risk trusting
the story, violence, action and some sex had been
added. The revisions we demanded and ultimately received,
resulted in a final script very close to our original.
But the battle to force the producers to adhere to
the original story required over four months of constant
legal skirmishes. Often, in the midst of a Wednesday
night meeting or while observing Robertito, an urgent
phone call or courier from Los Angeles interrupted.
Each time I considered walking away, I thought of
Raun's comment to Lisa: "Everything happens for
The moon illuminated the room with
a blue-gray light. I propped my head against the arm
of the couch at an angle which afforded me a panoramic
view of the sky through the windows of my one-room
Option house. I waited alone, silently - my phone
unplugged from the jack. The wind whistled through
the trees. Clouds, trimmed with white halos, whipped
across the horizon at great speed. Then the footsteps
intruded. Twigs cracked under the pressure of heavy
shoes. A caped figure suddenly appeared outside the
sliding glass doors. Bizarre limbs slowly rose from
its side, giving the form a bird-like appearance.
A groan penetrated the walls of my room. Then two
hands separated from the outer garment and hung precariously
on either side of the head of this hooded figure.
The flapping gestures were oddly familiar, but the
hissing sounds were unmistakable.
"Eee-o, eee-o, eee-o,"
Laura whined, entering the room with a flurry.
I began to applaud as she tackled
my legs, dumping me rudely off the couch onto the
floor. Carol arrived for her session seconds later.
"I don't want to take Carol's
time," Laura said. "I, sorta, you know..."
She assumed a boxer's stance and jabbed me several
times in the chest and shoulders, then hugged me.
"Jeannie took over my sessions with Robertito.
I watched her for a while. She's good ... real good."
"That's because you helped train
her," I said.
She nodded her head, forcing a bright
smile. "I won't take up your time with more Rha-Rha
crazies. I, a..." Laura touched Carol's hand,
hugged me, then scooted to the door. She turned, her
face engulfed in another smile. "I thought it
would be easy to leave."
"You're not going to get rid
of us so quickly," I said.
"I know," she whispered.
"Thanks, Papa Bear," she mumbled as she
Carol and I sat facing each other
without talking for several minutes.
"First Roby and now Laura. I
can't imagine the program without them," Carol
said. "Every time I arrive for my sessions with
Robertito, I think I'm going to get my good morning
greeting from Roby. It's hard to believe he's not
"Maybe that's because he's still
there," I offered. "For the moment, only
his body is missing."
Carol grinned. "Well, at least
Laura's body will be here." Her expression clouded.
A faint rocking motion dominated her body. "Bears,
I think I've been pushing Robertito and he knows it.
Today, he cried and avoided me for over an hour."
"Why do you think you've been
pushing him?" I asked.
"It's something we've never
really talked about." She squinted her eyes.
"You see, ever since I started, I've had this
little arrangement going ... sort of an expectation.
I thought if Robertito could make it through autism,
then, well, I could do it with epilepsy. During the
middle of the summer, when he drifted real far away
from us, my seizures actually increased. Like I was
tied to him."
"Do you believe you are?"
"That's just it. When I realized
what was happening, it didn't affect me any more.
I kind of pushed away." Her eyes fluttered nervously.
"Now that he's on the move again, I hooked myself
in all over again. I sort of need him to move."
"Why?" I asked.
"It's going to sound silly,
but I'm right back to - if he can make it, so can
"Why do you believe his movement
has anything to do with yours?"
She laughed self-consciously. "It's
ridiculous. I know that. I mean..." Carol aborted
the sentence and closed her eyes. When she spoke again,
her voice dropped an octave, reflecting the inner
strain. "It's kind of like a sign."
"What do you mean?"
"I needed something to believe
in. My doctor said both our diseases are incurable.
But if Tito could break out of it, then what he said
couldn't be true ... and if it's not true for Robertito,
then it's not true for me."
"Why do you need Robertito's
progress to decide whether it's true or not for you?"
"It sounds dumb, doesn't it?"
"In what way do you see it as
"I know better, I do,"
she answered. "That's what I've really learned
from these sessions. Nobody does it for Robertito.
We might help, but every time he learns something
or builds something, he does it... not us. It's kind
of like my wishing him to do it for both of us ...
like some sort of magic. How could I do that to him?"
Carol pressed her hands against her temples and groaned.
"What are you feeling?"
"Guilty. Like I laid my problems
on some little kid. This would be easy if I didn't
care about him, but I love him. Sometimes I feel like
I'm his mother too." She shook her head. "I've
been pressuring him for something that has nothing
to do with him." Her face flushed. "I feel
"Look what I did."
"Why do you feel terrible about
what you did?" I asked.
"Wouldn't you feel the same
"If I did, I'd have my reasons.
What are yours?"
"I don't know," she declared.
"What are you afraid would happen
if you didn't feel terrible?"
She slumped into the couch. "Then
I guess I might just be stupid enough to do it again."
"Do you believe that?"
"Do you believe that if you
didn't feel terrible about what you did, you would
do it again?"
Carol looked at me quizzically, then
exhaled noisily. "No. The more aware I am, the
easier it is for me to handle things the way I want.
I won't press him any more, I know that now."
The remainder of the session focused
on her seizures, which had decreased since she began
working with us. She attributed that, in part, to
her burgeoning happiness and comfort. The subsequent
increase and decrease of the seizures during that
short period in the summer furthered her conviction
about the impact of her attitude on her illness. It
also reinforced her awareness of the separateness
between her and Robertito. Even as he had continued
to withdraw, she noted a small improvement in her
"Do you think I could stop them?"
she asked, leaning forward.
"What do you think?" I
"C'mon, Bears, I want to know
what you think."
"Carol, it doesn't matter what
I think. I'm not a doctor giving you medicine or a
priest giving you advice. It's your body. It's your
illness. Ultimately, it's your decision. Nobody knows
more about you than you."
"Okay." She closed her
eyes again. "My neurologist said Dilantin would
control it, but the drug didn't ... not really."
She peered at me, locking her eyes into mine. "Even
after years on the medication, I have had almost as
many seizures. It's only in the past four or five
months, since I've been with Tito, that it's decreased.
I can't remember feeling generally as happy or clear
as I do now. And, you know, I haven't had one seizure
in the last two weeks." Suddenly she grimaced.
"It gets so damn confusing. What controls it?
My body chemistry? The drugs? Or my attitude? The
doctor insists it's out of my control, just like the
other experts insist brain damage and autism are out
of Robertito's control. I wish I was as courageous
as ... as Raun."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"He went the whole route."
"And why do you think he did
it?" I questioned.
"Because he wanted to,"
she acknowledged. "He did it because he wanted
Chella sat on the opposite side of
the table from Robertito. The morning had been a series
of ups and downs for her. First he worked beautifully
with the puzzle and pegboard, then he paced and "ismed"
for over half an hour. They danced together for ten
minutes, then he refused to participate for almost
twenty minutes. As part of a new thrust, she asked
him to use words as a whole, rather than break them
into syllables. He seemed to understand completely
for the first hour, but, soon afterward, he broke
every word he used into sections again. Ca-ba-llo
instead of caballo. Rober-ti-to instead of Robertito.
She didn't want to ask him for more than he could
handle. Chella remembered how her sister would often
explode into a tantrum when the world became too difficult
for her. She felt a protectiveness for Robertito.
"Okay, my silly friend, I'm
going to make it easy for you. She set out five blocks
on the table, all different sizes and colors. "Can
you give me the blue one?" He pushed the blocks
off the table. "Well, I can see you want to try
something else." She opened the animal book in
front of him. "They're a lot more fun to look
at, aren't they?" She surveyed the forms depicted
on the two opened pages, trying to decide which was
the most familiar to her student. Perhaps, she thought,
if he could succeed in such an easy exercise, he might
be willing to tackle more difficult tasks. The cow.
He had been able to identify the cow for many months.
Before she could make her request, Robertito picked
up his hand and aimed his index finger at the cow.
"How did you know?" she
murmured out loud, laughing at his move. As she searched
the page, she concluded the duck might be the second-best
choice. Easy. Make it easy for him. When Chella turned
to address Robertito, she knocked the peg set off
the table accidentally. She bent down and retrieved
it. Smiling at her own clumsiness, she climbed back
into the chair. Robertito's pose startled her. He
had his finger pressed against the picture of the
duck. Her body stiffened as if shocked electrically.
She knew she had not verbalized her request. The child's
soft, infantile smile sedated her initial panic. Her
eyes drifted across the page one more time. She purposely
looked at the ceiling and visualized the spotted dog.
Within seconds, Robertito changed his position. Chella
hesitated, biting her bottom lip. Finally she forced
her eyes to peer at the table. Impossible! Ridiculous
and impossible! Robertito touched the spotted dog
while watching her, apparently awaiting her next request.
She kept mumbling denials of what she saw. The little
boy withdrew his hand and started flapping it beside
his head. The calm evident in his face fractured as
he began to whine.
Chella pulled the book away and closed
it. It was the second time in a week that this had
happened with Robertito. Though she had begun to trust
her dreams, like the one about visiting New York two
weeks before she ever knew she would come, this event
frightened her. Could he know her thoughts? Could
she move him without speaking? Chella mumbled the
word "impossible" over and over again, hoping
to convince herself by repeatedly denying what she
"Dance, Robertito. Come, dance
with me." She stroked his face with great tenderness
as she voiced her suggestion. Chella danced with Robertito,
refusing to engage in any complex games. She wanted
to strip her mind, to start again. Her increased relaxation
in the session and her love for this child had solidified
a bond which scared her. Chella tried to lose herself
in the music in an effort to diminish her discomfort.
An hour passed. As she sat on the
floor feeding Robertito, he pointed to a spot about
a foot below the ceiling. This was the same point
he stared at often during his work sessions in this
"Mira, mi amor, comida para
un nino fantastico," she bellowed, drawing his
attention momentarily to her. While he chewed, he
looked up and pointed again.
Suzi entered the room to take the
next session. Initially, she sat against the wall
and watched, thankful for the moment's rest, having
worked a four-hour training session with Jeannie earlier
in the morning and then spending two hours with me
on the phone with our lawyer concerning the "Son-Rise"
script dispute. Robertito appeared more attentive
than earlier in the day when she, too, had experienced
his constant moving toward us and away from us. The
sessions had a seesaw quality. "What is he pointing
at?" she thought as his arm snapped up four different
times. Chella tried to ignore the diversion. When
Suzi took charge, Chella kissed her and Robertito.
Just as she turned to leave, she heard Suzi ask a
question that she herself had suppressed for the last
"What do you see, Robertito?"
The youngster stared into space.
Although he had turned away many times, his eyes returned
to the exact same spot. "Face," he answered,
matter-of-factly. Suzi's mouth dropped open. Chella
gasped and left the room immediately.
Alone with Robertito, Suzi wanted
to test his response a second time. She asked him
to touch his nose, hair and eyes, then she remained
silent. The moment he completed the short exercise,
Robertito turned and stared at the same spot again.
"What do you see, Robertito?"
"Face," he said.
Suzi took a deep breath. "What
kind of face?" The child did not respond. "What
kind?" Again he did not answer. She rephrased
the question. "Is it a happy or sad face? Happy
Without hesitation, Robertito said:
Suzi laughed, releasing the rush
of tension which had just assaulted her body. "Thank
God ... at least it's a happy face." She did
not want to draw any conclusions from what Robertito
thought he saw. Just as she would not want to deprive
him of his autistic world, she would not want to diminish
any other openings he might have discovered in the
cracks of the universe.
The scene I encountered upon my arrival
defied anything I could have fantasized. Suzi and
Robertito faced each other on the floor. They both
sat in perfect yoga positions, legs folded in half-lotus,
palms upward with the backs of their hands resting
on their knees, the index finger and thumb forming
perfect circles. They breathed and hummed in unison,
keeping their eyes closed. I couldn't decide whether
Suzi was serious or whether this was a product of
her incorrigible sense of humor. Later, she explained
that she used this device successfully to help him
relax when he became hyper or listless.
For the next two and a half hours,
they worked together on the table. Demonstrating with
her hands, eyes and a book, she tried to teach him
the concept of open and closed, which he mastered
rather rapidly. Teaching him the idea of same and
different appeared more difficult. Despite grouping
letters and blocks, he floundered with the notion,
which, in fact, articulated a very sophisticated concept.
Suzi created several intermissions, using dancing
and exercises as activities to combat any fatigue.
I engaged Robertito in a quick basketball game. He
landed three shots out of nine directly into the basket.
I wondered if he thought of his father when he aimed
the ball, for Roby had been instrumental in teaching
his son athletic skills. The session continued in
the same spirit for another twenty minutes, then our
little friend whined and "ismed . Suzi invited
him to the table, but he remained on the floor, rolling
his. head back and forth. Did he feel pressured again?
Was he psychically fatigued? Did he understand, finally
and irrevocably, that if he joined us it was his choice?
I jumped to my feet and squatted,
as best I could, into Robertito's miniature chair
by the table. Suzi looked at me dumbfounded. When
I pointed to the book, she understood.
"Okay, Bean," she said
loudly. "Where's the red car?" I searched
the page with great theatrics, moving my finger through
the air like an airplane approaching a runway, My
throat rumbled like the exhaust of a jet engine. Robertito
side-glanced at us.
"Aqui," I announced, landing
my finger on the small painted form.
"Bueno. Fantastic," she
cheered as she patted my chest and kissed my lips.
"Now, Bears, where is the yellow bus ... the
big, yellow bus?" Again I played the charade
of an intense hunt, landing on the proper form. Suzi
repeated the applause and affection. By this time,
Robertito had turned on his side and started directly
at us. We continued our little interaction for at
least fifteen minutes. Then Robertito rose to his
feet and circled the table several times. When Suzi
fed me some of his food, he came right to my side.
He fiddled with my shirt, twisting the material between
"Listo, Bears?" Suzi asked,
signaling the resumption of the lesson.
"Si, Sushi," I said, mispronouncing
her name purposely. We both laughed. Robertito stood
at my side and watched for several minutes. When I
pretended I couldn't locate the school bus, he pointed
"Yes, Robertito," Suzi
shouted in disbelief "Yes, yes, you wonderful
person. That's the bus." She kissed him and hugged
him, fighting back her own tears as she embraced our
For the next ten minutes, he actually
competed with me, trying to point out the answers
before I could. Robertito Soto had taken another giant
step. Although he vacillated back and forth and in
and out, his grasp of our actions had marked a new
level of sophistication. His interest in applause,
cheers, hugs and, ultimately, food, motivated him
more than the abstract concept of competition, but
the introduction of another student had, obviously,
re-ignited his interest. Suzi congratulated both of
us with equal intensity. Thus, the notion of a second
student as part of the program developed. Often, it
became a useful device in rekindling Robertito's interest
in learning and participating.
Before I left, Suzi illustrated how
Robertito could match numbers of dissimilar objects:
the Roman numeral three with the number three with
three blocks. Though, here again, he was inconsistent,
he did demonstrate a basis of understanding of numbers
and the function of counting. Just as I opened the
door, Robertito pointed to the top of one wall. Suzi
motioned to me to wait.
"Robertito, what do you see?"
she asked. He did not respond, but tilted his head
and smirked. "Tito, what do you see?"
"Cara," he said, again
identifying a face.
I looked from him to Suzi several
times, then focused my attention at the wall. Nothing.
I saw nothing but the flat surface of the wall painted
"Robertito, what kind of face
do you see?" she pursued. Again, he remained
silent. "Do you see a happy face or a sad face?"
"Feliz," he responded.
"Wow," I muttered, trying
to catalogue what I witnessed. Did I believe what
he said? Would anybody? In the immediacy of that moment,
I decided if something lived for Robertito, then it
lived for us in terms of working and helping him.
He knew his world and derived comfort from it no matter
how different it was from ours. To belittle or deny
that would be to move away from him. In accepting
him, we also accepted his experiences.
"Bears, I think you should talk
to Chella on your way out."
I nodded and left the room. Francisca,
Carol and Jeannie greeted me in the kitchen. They
worked together in an elementary Spanish book.
"I think we're getting better
than you, Bears," Carol boasted, rattling off
a quick idiom for my benefit.
I pointed to my ear and bowed slightly.
"Tin. It's made of tin. A genetic handicap, if
you guys believe in handicaps." We exchanged
smiles. Francisca offered food. "Are you playing
Mommy again?" She stopped in the midst of a motion.
Mommy. She had not heard that word since Roby left.
Carol looked up at Francisca, wanting to say something,
but finding no words to match her thoughts.
When Francisca offered Jeannie food,
she said: "Graciass." Even I could detect
the mispronunciation. Carol pounded the table in hysterics,
then corrected her. Jeannie still had difficulty reproducing
the word correctly.
"You know, Bears, I think it's
easier working with Robertito," Carol quipped.
"Hey," Jeannie giggled.
"Where's Chella?" I asked.
"In her room." Jeannie
"She's been kind of weird today,"
Chella sat on her bed and stared
out the window. She did not acknowledge my presence
in the doorway.
"Chella, can I come in?"
She looked at me and smiled nervously.
"I'll be okay," she declared,
a little too forcefully.
"I know that," I said,
"but if something's rattling around in your head,
maybe we could talk about it."
"My session's not until tomorrow,"
"Ah, and you only talk on schedule,"
"Yep," she smirked.
"How about twenty questions?"
"Shoot," Chella replied.
"It has something to do with
the face Robertito saw."
"Yes. But that's not it, exactly."
"Then what is it?"
She stretched her arms over her head
and pulled her knees in toward her stomach. Chella
twisted her hands through her legs and rested her
head on her knees. She always managed to wrap her
small, subtle form in compact, pretzel-like positions.
Without looking at me, she talked about her dreams,
her tendency toward so-called psychic experiences
and the apparent responses of Robertito to her thoughts.
"It scares me," she whispered.
"'Cause I'm manipulating him
with my ... my ideas, my thoughts. It's like I'm in
his head or he's in mine. That's frightening."
"What's frightening about it?"
"It's like controlling somebody.
God, I don't want that responsibility. Not now. Not
"How do you imagine your thoughts
"Well, maybe they don't always
control him. But he did exactly what I wanted him
to do in my thoughts. I thought dog and, bingo, he
pointed to the dog."
"How does that differ for you
when, for example, he does exactly what you want when
you ask him?"
She cupped her face in her hands.
"He has more of a choice."
"What do you mean?"
"He can still do anything he
pleases. It's different when I think it."
"I don't know. Maybe, then,
he just does it, like a robot."
"Do you believe that?"
"Well..." she paused. "If
that were true, I guess he'd be doing everything I
thought all day long. He only did it twice."
"So can he choose, just like
he does when you verbalize your requests?"
"Yes, I guess so. Sure."
She peered at me intensely. "All I wanted to
do before was to stop my thoughts, to cut them off."
"And now?" I asked.
"I don't know. At least I don't
feel quite as sinister."
"Chella, if you can reach Robertito
on a more direct wave length than the rest of us,
that's not sinister... that's a gift."
"How do I remember that next
time it happens?"
"If you don't judge it, you'll
be clear on the value and meaning of the experience."
"Maybe I'll join the others
in the kitchen now." A smile of relief rippled
across her face. "But I want to talk more about
this during my session ... okay?"
"It's your session."
As we walked into the hall, Chella
stopped me. "One more thing, Bears. When I heard
you in the kitchen, I thought about you coming to
talk to me. I imagined you coming into my room and
you did." We both laughed.
"I guess the question you could
ask yourself is ... do you control the universe,"
I offered, "or are your thoughts in harmony with
"What do you think?" she
"Maybe it's a little bit of
No matter how many times she oiled
the hinges, the door creaked when she opened it. Francisca
pushed very slowly, not wanting to awaken her son
with the noise or the light from the hallway. She
slipped through the narrowest opening and shut the
door behind her. Once inside, she switched on the
flashlight and aimed it at his bed, which had been
positioned beside hers. Empty. She rarely found him
in the appropriate place when she retired. Francisca
shined the beam on her own bed...also empty. Then
she scanned the room with the light beginning her
ritualistic hunt for her son. She located a head and
arm sticking out from beneath one of the beds. Robertito
never opened his eyes as she lifted him carefully
into her bed and tucked the covers around his body.
Francisca sat beside him, stroking his chest.
"We love you very much,"
she whispered in his ear. "Papito," she
said, wanting Robertito to remember always his father's
nickname for him. "Papito, we accept you as you
are. We do. We accept your world. All of us are very
happy and we're with you in every way."
Her blossoming comfort gave her a
greater ease with herself and her son, even in her
husband's absence. Could she run the program with
Roby back in Mexico? The sting of the summer was too
vivid. No. Not yet. Francisca prayed for more time
as she sat next to her son. She brushed the hair from
his face as she chanted the names of each person in
the program, part of a ritual closing for each day
that she had begun at the end of the summer. "Good
night from Mama, from Papa, from Suzi and Bears. Good
night from Carol, from Chella, Jeannie, Laura, Lisa.
And Bryn and Thea and Raunch. We're all with you."
Francisca leaned her head on the
mattress and slipped her hand into Robertito's. Her
eyelids closed slowly as she visualized Roby beside
her and heard him say: "Good night, Mommy."