A Miracle To Believe In

Chapter 25

The snow had been falling since late morning. By dusk, the white powder blanketed the trees, the grass and the pavement. The rush of rubber wheels against macadam was muted. While people huddled in the warmth of their homes, I leaned against the Jeep, lingering in the special silence created by a snowfall. A group of geese, flying in a "V" formation, began their untimely trek south. The months had passed like momentary daydreams. I gathered a bundle of new toys in my arms for my second son. I had come to know Robertito with the same intimacy I knew my own children; perhaps, even more so, since I continually catalogued his every move, his every glance, his every smile. And yet, some inner essence remained illusive. Not I, nor Francisca, nor any of us could ever know the internal universe he visited from time to time. But what he did share with us, the calm, the softness, the lucidity of a developing mind devoid of fear, bonded us together.

After I climbed the steps onto the porch of the Soto house, I stacked the boxes beside the front door and searched for my key. A taxi cab pulled into the driveway behind the Jeep. The glazed windows and approaching darkness hid the occupants from my view. Had Jeannie's car broken down again? Had Chella returned from an afternoon excursion? A man, in a long dark coat, exited the back door. He paid the driver, who pulled a suitcase from the trunk, and turned toward the house. Our eyes met at the same moment, bridging a gap that spanned five months. Roby Soto stood there, a sad-happy smile on his face. He kept nodding at me, at the house, at the snow. For a moment, the twenty feet between us did not exist. He looked beautiful ... my friend, the father of my second son. I stepped off the porch and embraced him. We hugged each other like overgrown bears, patting backs and lifting each other off the ground . And then in a gesture I usually reserve for my father, I kissed him on both cheeks. When we separated, we grinned at each other through wet eyes.

Chella saw him come through the door first. She whizzed across the living room and jumped into his arms. Carol embraced him, then began to cry. Jeannie, whose car had, indeed, not started today, watched from a distance. When I introduce them, Roby hugged her.

"Thank you for helping my son," he said to her, then he turned to me. He tried to say something, to squeeze the words from his throat, but he couldn't. He turned away and held his hands over his eyes. I put my arm around him. We all stood, together, in that room, touching each other through the silence.

His expected arrival had been four days off, but his passion to return drove him to the airport earlier. Carol and Jeannie pointed upstairs simultaneously. Roby nodded again. As he reached the second floor landing, he paused, fortifying himself. The door to the bathroom opened. Francisca, kneeling on the floor, had just completed helping Robertito buckle his pants. When the little boy spotted Roby in the hallway, he cocked his head and peered at the man curiously. Then his eyes glistened. He pulled away from his mother, ran down the hall and jumped into his father's arms. "Papa, Papa," he said. Francisca screamed, then put the brakes on her emotions. She didn't want to interrupt this moment between Roby and his son. As he stroked his little boy, holding back the flood of tears, this soft and gentle man stared at his wife kneeling on the bathroom floor. He kissed her with his eyes.

As I might have anticipated, Roby insisted on taking the very next session with his son. Suzi joined me at the side of the room. Though I wanted to record Robertito's initial responses to his father, I knew, like Suzi, I was there for another reason. This little boy had already defied his past. Today, he demolished old horizons by recognizing his father after five months, by running to him and displaying, in a very ordinary way, the natural warmth and affection of a child. Suzi and I were not only there as therapists, therapists and family members, we were there for the joy in Roby's eyes, in Francisca's expression, in Robertito's quizzical smile.

Robertito kept jumping on his father. They wrestled together on the floor, laughing and giggling. Roby tickled his son's feet and thighs.

"I want the ball," Robertito said in Spanish, pointing to the basketball net on the wall. He had remembered their favorite game together, one which Roby taught to him, a discipline which had required weeks of practice and concentration.

Roby gaped at his son, then looked at us and his wife, who sat beside the wall on the other side of the room. "Si, Si," she whispered enthusiastically. Indeed, he had remembered! As Roby reached for the ball, he had difficulty absorbing what he heard. When he left, his son could say only single words, often poorly pronounced. Now, he not only knew what he wanted, thought about it in his mind, but could express that desire in a sentence. A sentence! How could he be so fortunate, he thought, to have such an amazing son? The fact that Robertito had now passed his seventh birthday was of little consequence to his father. The fact that Robertito could look at him and say anything was the gift.

He threw the ball to the little player, who caught it expertly. When Francisca clapped, he threw it to her. She, in turn, threw it to Suzi. Not once did Robertito lose track of the ball. After Suzi dumped it into my lap, I threw it back to him. Robertito ran toward the basket, stopped at a distance of five feet from it and then, in a calculated, one-handed throw, he tossed the ball through the loop. The cheering and applause stimulated Robertito to grab the ball again and sink yet another basket.

Unable to contain herself any longer, Francisca crawled into the center of the room. Her eyes bulged as she nodded at Roby, then turned to her son.

"Robertito, mira," she said, pointing at his father. "What is Papa? What kind of person?" she asked, enunciating each word clearly in her native tongue.

He stared at his father without answering.

"Wait," Francisca shouted, holding her hand in the air for everyone's benefit. Thirty thoughts bombarded her. She pointed at me and asked the same question. "What is Bears?"

"Bears is a man," he answered without hesitation, having composed a perfect sentence in Spanish.

Roby gasped, dumbfounded by the sophistication of Robertito's awareness. Francisca screeched like a little girl as she watched her husband. She shifted her focus again and pointed at Suzi. "What is Suzi? What kind of person?"

Robertito touched his mother's sleeve, glanced at his father, then said: "Sushi is a woman." Everyone celebrated his response, especially Suzi, who had refused adamantly to correct his pronunciation of her name.

"And Mama? What is Mama?"

"A woman," he answered.

She now directed her son's attention back to his father. "What is Papa? What kind of person is your papa?"

The child stared at his father. His forehead furrowed and his eyes danced in their sockets, external hints of his thought process. "Papa... Papa is a man."

Roby grabbed his son and threw him in the air. He twirled him around until they were both dizzy, then he collapsed on the floor breathless.

"There's so much to show you," Francisca bellowed, "so much." She sat beside her son and husband on the floor. Roby rubbed his wife's back as she directed herself toward Robertito. For the first time in five long months, he felt complete.

"What is this?" Francisca asked, accenting each syllable of every Spanish word she spoke, while pulling on Roby's pants.

Her son watched her hand touch the material, then answered. "It is pants." Francisca looked again to her husband for his response. His amazement glittered in his eyes.

She put her hand up in the air and spread her fingers. "Now, Robertito, think carefully. How many fingers do I have?"

When he put his index finger up to count, she withdrew her hand. "Without counting my fingers ... how many do I have?"

He stared at her hand for several seconds. "Cinco," he replied. For the next two minutes following his response, Robertito flapped his hands. His parents imitated him. Not once did the child lose eye contact with their faces or limbs. They became a trio of dancers and mimes sharing their expression through movement.

As the session continued, we noted a slight increase in "isms." Robertito had been engaged for twelve hours already and, perhaps that, in addition to his father's arrival, had drained him. Yet, despite any fatigue, he remained lively and attentive. For Roby Soto, this was not the same child he had left. The depth of Robertito's contact had intensified. His verbal ability had blossomed into completed thoughts and sentences. He demonstrated a capacity to think beyond anything he had ever dreamed possible for his son. Even the boy's general demeanor reflected his burgeoning maturity. For the first six years of life, Robertito's face never reflected expressions beyond the primitive ones usually displayed by infants. Now, the energy of his developing intelligence creased it with distinctive character. In effect, his face had come to life.

During the next hour, Roby played a whole series of games with his son based on those either Suzi, Francisca or I demonstrated. The man sat there, awed, as he helped his child do three puzzles simultaneously, identify a whole series of diverse items, build small bridges and answer a battery of rather sophisticated questions. He laughed each time Robertito pulled a toy from the shelf and initiated the interaction.

Although Roby knew he could not stay more than one month, he wanted to be reintegrated into the program immediately.

"And my sessions, Bears. Will we have them too?" he asked as we gathered in the living room that evening.

"You will have it all, my friend," I answered.

He bowed his head slightly and put out his hand to us. When Roby lifted his head and turned his blood-shot eyes toward us, he moved his lips without uttering a sound. Francisca nestled close to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "You have given us our son," he said.

"Not us alone," Suzi countered, grabbing my hand. "We've all done that together."

Roby looked at his wife. "In six days, Mommy, it will be Christmas. Always, I have said, since Robertito couldn't appreciate it, we would not celebrate a Christmas. I think, now, it's time."

Six days later, Francisca, Roby, Robertito, Suzi, Bryn, Thea, Raun, Carol, Jeannie, Chella, Laura and I gathered together around a very large, very well-decorated tree. Carol, with the help of some friends, had gone to the mountains and cut the tree down herself. Bryn, Thea, and Raun made decorations for it as did Robertito, who used his scissors and thick crayons. With Francisca's and Suzi's guidance, he made circles, lines and crosses all over the paper he cut.

That evening, during dinner, Bryn, who had recently joined the program as a full teacher, tapped her glass with a fork theatrically. "Listen, listen, everyone," she shouted. "Robertito is going to sing for you ... in English." Everyone cheered. Under Bryn's guidance, he stood at the front of the table. He watched her hand, which she raised like a conductor.

"I wait by the window," he sang, "with my only dream." He stopped, looking at Bryn, who had memorized the "Son-Rise" television special theme song and, in turn, taught it to our special friend. Tears came to her eyes as she looked at her little student proudly and remembered the time she had once worked with her own brother. Bryn moved her arms again, signaling him to continue. "And long for the day there will be," Robertito intoned, "the sound of your laughter, the gift of your touch, oh I love you so much ... is there room in your world for me?"

*****

The time with Roby and his son passed. In his subsequent absence. Bryn, now thirteen, assumed an even greater role working with Tito three days a week. Like Lisa, her smaller size accentuated the childlike energy she share with her young friend. When Raun realized that his sister also had separate Option sessions on the hill as part of the program, he demanded equal treatment. Doing dialogue sessions with them reminded me of the sessions Suzi and I had with Bryn and Thea when they worked with Raun. The evolution astounded me. Raun himself had now become the teacher.

Chella, whose support of Francisca and work with Robertito enriched our extended family, left several months later, confident and hopeful of her ability to help her sister and others. The reappearance of Patti in New York, after her abrupt exit almost a year before, caused a celebration. Her exuberance and love injected the program with new sparks. Concurrent with her arrival, we began to train Ginny Lea, who, initially, had been Thea's flute teacher. She was not a stranger to different people and different children. Her own brother had become a paraplegic as the result of an accident as a teenager. As he had turned his energy toward helping others, she, too, wanted to find a way to share and participate. Music became her metaphor. In the context of the program, Ginny infused the sessions with waves of rhythms and melodies. She taught Robertito many chants and songs. To everyone's amazement, she showed Robertito how to play the xylophone with startling expertise. In his first tiny recital, which she engineered, he played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" expertly on the instrument.

Our group underwent continual changes, yet we were tied together, not only by a very special child, but by an attitude and approach to living that we had come to share. Lisa visited on her vacations from school. Laura came often to express her affection. And Robertito kept us alert with his ability to grasp new things. Sometimes, when we became beguiled by his development and skill, I had to reaffirm that all his accomplishments were secondary to his general contact. Inconsistencies remained. I reminded myself that we had only worked with him for fifteen months since his return to New York. Suzi and I, with another extended family, had worked with Raun for over three years. Our son was then one and a half. Robertito was now past his seventh birthday. We couldn't measure the time ... we had only to value the moment.

When spring arrived, we used the park and other outdoor facilities more often, although most of our teaching took place in the yellow room. I continued the weekly sessions and feedback conferences. Suzi, in addition to observing, maintained her role, innovating new steps through experiments in her own sessions with Robertito. But both of us began to recede in terms of directing the program. Francisca assumed more responsibility over the Wednesday night meets. She highlighted areas of concentration and decided on the basic teaching focus each week . Carol also became more instrumental in guiding the program as I began to teach her how to do dialogues with others. A very special incident reinforced her confidence.

As part of a maintenance and check-up program for her epilepsy, Carol went for a biannual check-up which included an EEG. The neurologist was amazed that the readouts approached an almost normal configuration. Carol had not had a single seizure in almost six months, a record which defied dramatically her previous history. In celebration, she increased her time commitment to the program. Carol wanted to share everything for she believed, in some profound way, she had received much more than she had given.

By late spring, our special little friend began to absorb the initial concepts of mathematics. His ability to conceptualize and generalize stimulated an even further sophistication of interaction and verbal exchanges. After they taught him how to pronounce the alphabet in Spanish, Francisca suggested they teach him how to spell the most simple words. We all concurred.

Jeannie had the first session the next morning. After Robertito worked with more advanced lotto cards, she presented him with a pad and crayon. He scribbled over the surface of the paper, humming while he worked.

"A masterpiece. Picasso Soto," she giggled, "How about some spelling?" She wrote the letter "R" on the page. Robertito pronounced it. "Good boy. That's the first letter of your name. 'R' in Robertito." She drew a large "O." He pronounced it. "A boy genius. Those are the first two letters of your name. Now say them with me."

Following her cue, Robertito pronounced each of the two letters written on the drawing paper. Just as Jeannie was about to write a "B," the child continued on his own. "B-E-R-T-I-T-O." Jeannie gaped at him, impossible? How could he know? Before she had a chance to applaud or acknowledge his feat, he spelled: "S-O-T-O." He looked into her face. The soft, calm expression melted her panic.

That afternoon, Jeannie queried every member of the program. No one had taught him to spell his name. Other than having learned the alphabet as letters written in a certain order, he had no instruction in spelling, even for the most simple words. He also had very little opportunity to see his name written out. Had Tito, in the quiet of his pauses, passed us in some way? Had he synthesized combinations of what he had already learned? No easy answers presented themselves. For the next several weeks, he did not demonstrate other unexplained knowledge. Even his ability to spell his own name faded until he relearned it as part of a general spelling curriculum. Nevertheless, everything about Robertito's regeneration, even the pauses, was awesome.

For two weeks in May, Suzi and I had to withdraw from active participation in the program. The private screenings of the upcoming network production of "Son-Rise" had generated such enthusiasm that we were invited to speak before the Congress. Acutely aware of the thoughts and feelings of other parents and professionals who might see the film, I wrote the following disclaimer, which appeared on screen as the film began. "The story you are about to see is true ... it concerns an alternative created and chosen by one family which in no way is meant to be a commentary on others who may have found themselves in similar circumstances. We each do the best we can and with that awareness, this experience is an expression of hope and possibility." The National Education Association endorsed the film as "highly recommended" as did reviewers around the country. But one organization, the National Society for Autistic Children, publicly attacked the film and suggested in an information packet sent to major newspapers and networks that viewers send protests to Suzi and to me. Without having ever witnessed our work with either adults or children and without having ever made any request to do so, they condemned and belittled the notion of acceptance, dismissing the basis of our work with Raun and, by inference, our work with other children. Noting the first air date for the story, one official of that organization wrote: "It was originally scheduled to be shown on Mother's Day - God Help Us." Francisca cried when she read the newspaper quote. She wanted to know how an act of love could generate so much fear and anger.

During our short absence, Francisca directed the program, observed and gave the others feedback. No panics materialized. No need to see her son surge ahead or even remain in the same position possessed her. Francisca embraced her child in the way she had come to embrace herself ... without judgments, without conditions. In love, she found joy. In acceptance, she found clarity. She even began to understand how Robertito himself could be her teacher. One afternoon, while working with him, she asked: "How can I help you more?"

Robertito cocked his head in that silly, beguiling, innocent way. "I want a lot of love," he answered.

"Yes, I know, papito," she said, hugging her child. "We all do."

Francisca, with Roby, who had returned for a two-month stay, assumed greater responsibility for the program during that summer. Unlike the previous one, the attitude not only survived, but flourished ... as did our special little friend. There were many signs of Robertito's growing awareness and verbal initiations. One morning, as his father entered the room, he said spontaneously in Spanish: "Hello, Papa, how are you?" As he ran through the park with Jeannie, he said: "I am running. I am smiling. I am happy." When Carol extended her arms, holding him at a distance in a swimming pool, Robertito exclaimed: "Carol, help me." Suzi challenged him to a very abstract game, asking him to name words that began with a certain letter. Often, he could list three to five words. Patti increased his skill with simple addition. During a session, when I asked him if he wanted help pulling up his pants, Robertito replied: "You do it, Bears."

In early fall, Francisca took on sole responsibility for the program for a short period while Suzi and I went to South America to adopt an abandoned child. We worked with the staff at the orphanage, made a presentation at a major psychiatric clinic and trained members of individual families who wanted to work with their special children. We returned with Tayo Lukanus, a smiling survivor, a gift for everyone in our family. This tiny ten-month-old orphan had suffered from the severest form of malnutrition as a result of poverty and neglect and had to be fed intravenously in the neck in order to be kept alive. He could barely hold his head up and he could not crawl. We instituted a stimulation and exercise program immediately for our new son, a program not dissimilar in attitude from the one we had created for Robertito and other children. Within weeks, little Tayo began to sit, stand and crawl thirty paces at a time. Francisca cuddled him possessively, chattering away in Spanish. Since we had worked with her son, she wanted to work with ours. She even argued, in a comic dissertation, that she knew Tayo's language better than any of us. We declined her offer, counseling her to focus on her expanding responsibilities in her own child's program.

One unforgettable morning in early fall, Francisca and Robertito marched into the living room. As she prepared food he sat himself in a chair. Patti, Suzi and I tried to engage him, but he appeared distant, preoccupied. Then, quite suddenly, while staring at the wall, he said a Spanish sentence which required a vocabulary and knowledge of grammar far exceeding his.

"I don 't know," he said, "but somebody else will know soon."

Patti gawked at him. Francisca peeked through the doorway and eyed her son. She did not believe her ears.

"What did you say, Robertito? Repeat it."

He looked at her with an incredibly vulnerable and soulful expression. "I don't know," he repeated, "but somebody else will know soon."

Two weeks later, at the end of a joint session with Francisca and Roby, I asked Francisca a question which I had posed many times. "If you went back to Mexico, do you think you and Roby could handle the program with Robertito?"

She glanced at her husband seated beside her. "Yes, Bears," she said. Francisca did not stick her chin out. She did not throw the hair off her forehead or adjust her blouse. Her answer originated in a very deep and quiet spot within her. "Yes, Bears," she said again. "I can do it." She kissed her husband and corrected her statement. "No ... not I ... we can do it." Roby nodded his agreement.

With that clear response, Francisca Soto signaled the conclusion of our journey together. Suzi and I had waited patiently until they had come to know, in a deep and quiet place, that they no longer needed us to continue.

The only difference between a teacher and a student, both of whom draw from the same well, is that the teacher knows he knows, while the student has that to discover.

*****

My feet did not seem to touch the ground, but I knew I was there, alternately holding and embracing Suzi, kissing and hugging Francisca, smiling to Jeannie, then Carol, tapping Patti on her shoulder, touching Thea and Raun, watching Bryn with her new brother sheltered in her arms, then finally fixing my attention on Roby Soto, who walked hand in hand with his son.

Although we had been in the airport for almost an hour, Robertito never once displayed a self-stimulating ritual, as if he wanted to leave all of us with a special gift, as if he knew this was the last good-by. He pointed to items he had never seen before and said something about each: "It's a triangle," "The light is red," "Big airplane." At the ticket counter, he stood quietly, like a little gentleman, beside his father. Those huge, dark eyes followed the dancing fingers of the airline attendant punching the keys of her computer. He laughed as the lights flashed on and off. The memory of his arrival haunted me. He had crossed the threshold into this very terminal building in little more than a vegetative state; mute, blank-faced, staring, self-stimulating and "hopelessly" withdrawn. And now, though not abreast with other seven-year-olds, he could talk, love his parents, share his affection, even play basketball ... a responsive, participating and loving human being.

Raun kept looking at his special friend. He knew we had come to say good-by, but didn't quite know how to express it. In a playful gesture, he grabbed Robertito's hand and guided him to a quiet corner by the window. Silhouetted against a bright sky, the two boys stared at each other.

"We will always be friends," Raun said in English, trusting something other than his words. When Robertito smiled, Raun giggled. "When you do that, your cheeks look like suitcases." He proceeded to touch his friend's face. Robertito, in turn, lifted his hands and placed them on Raun's cheeks. As I watched the two boys staring at each other, I wondered what their eyes were communicating. Though they originated from different families, in some way, I knew they were brothers.

The hugging, which followed, seemed to continue forever. Arms, lips, bodies all touching. How do say good-by to your family? How do you end a journey which we all lived, every hour of every day, for a year and seven months? In the end, we formed a giant huddle, holding each other arm in arm. All the tears came with smiles.

"I can't believe it," Francisca said, stroking Suzi's arms as she cried.

Roby watched Jeannie and Carol say good-by to his son. He rubbed his wet eyes with his hands, still holding on. And yet he knew they had all worked for this day. He and Francisca had come to New York in the hope of finding their son ... and they had. Now they were taking him home.

I knelt down beside Robertito and whispered into his ear. "Your mama and papa love you just as we all do. If you can, help them help you. There's more, Robertito, if you want it." I pulled him close to me. He put his arm over my shoulder and stroked my back gently. "Oh, Tito, how do I tell you so you know? We won't be with you tomorrow. But we still care, we'll always care." I put his hand in mine and shook it. "By-by Robertito Soto … my friend," I said.

"By-by, Bears Kaufman," he replied.

When Bryn burst into tears, Suzi took Tayo, then hugged her.

"I'm sorry, Mommy," Bryn said.

"There's nothing to be sorry about," Suzi reassured her.

"I'm happy they're going home, I really am," she said. "It's... it's just ... just that, well, we won't see each other any more."

"Letting go is part of loving somebody," Suzi said. "And you can see them anytime you want to ... you have all the pictures you need in your head."

Bryn nodded and grinned.

Roby gathered his family around him as they prepared to enter the boarding area. I put my hand out to him. He grabbed it and held tightly. We shared a smile and looked at his son.

Suzi bent down to say one last good-by. The tears cascaded down her face. Robertito cocked his head to the side, put his finger into the stream below her eye and said in a soft and soothing voice: "Don't cry, Sushi ... don't cry."

*****

"Even if this little boy never learns another thing," the developmental psychologist had said, "what you have done here is a miracle."

If the rebirth of a child and the rebirth of those who loved, accepted and worked with him is called a miracle ... then miracles will happen only to those who believe in them.

A Miracle To Believe In