Sunday, October 10, 2010

What matters

Among the many amazing & fascinating phenomena in my life is somebody I count myself fortunate to live with – my older son, Rithvik. As he completed his 11th trip around the sun last week, I found myself viewing him, as I do often, through the lens of beliefs and perspectives, instead of the label of autism. To be sure, the two are connected, but as he grows and matures, it’s easier for me to see him as a human being who chooses differently rather than a boy whose motivations and actions are explained by his autism.

A trusted advisor of President Abraham Lincoln once recommended a candidate for Lincoln's cabinet. Lincoln declined and when asked why, he said, "I don't like the man's face." "But the poor man is not responsible for his face," his advisor insisted. "Every man over forty is responsible for his face," Lincoln replied, and the prospect was considered no more.

The first thing that comes to mind is the sense of deep peace inside him, and the way it makes itself evident through his face. I have frequently caught myself marveling at the clarity and utter transparence in his eyes and facial expression, and I am convinced it’s because of how he processes his beliefs and acts on them. He’s definitely WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get. Even though his thinking and language have grown sophisticated over the years, there’s hardly any artifice and definitely not a single mean bone in his body. Compared to him, 8-year-old Roshan is an old man; he has already acquired emotional baggage and erected defenses against the more threatening aspects of the outer (and inner) world. Rithvik remains largely clear and straightforward in his approach to life. If he wants something, he’ll ask for it; if he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you plainly; and if he loves something, you’ll definitely know it. Not too much guesswork needed.

Another delightful aspect of Rithvik is that he welcomes each new day with a bright smile and eager anticipation. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time he woke up grumpy, even though there have been plenty of days when he hasn’t gotten enough sleep. Lately, having been trained at school, he has taken to giving me a cheery “Good morning” when I walk into his bedroom. Speaking of school, Sowmya and I are thrilled to see how well he’s taking school, which he only started two months ago. I’m barely into the school parking lot and he’s already bursting with anticipation and yelling “Good morning, Ms. Sullivan!” in the car. When I open the car door, he fairly shoots out towards the teachers standing to receive him. His teacher reported at our meeting yesterday that he never resists any work they give him, and that he is “a good example for other students in the class”. As I mentioned in a comment the other day, considering that school is an environment primarily focused on teaching Acceptable Behavior and imparting the Required Curriculum, I’m actually surprised that his excitement remains undimmed after two whole months in that environment.

I have often wondered if it’s his autism that makes him that way. Of course I now know that happiness is a choice, but otherwise that would be the logical explanation: Hey, the kid isn’t smart enough to know that life is tough and that you can’t possibly be happy all the time. Or, he lives a sheltered life and hasn’t experienced the yucky parts of life yet. The second one is easier to refute. Yes, he lives a sheltered life in one sense, but all the medical issues he’s been through, the digestive roller coaster he seems to be on, the fistful of nasty supplements he gulps down twice a day would most definitely qualify as Yucky. Not smart enough? Well, I’d put it this way – he certainly doesn’t indiscriminately buy all the beliefs that the human race has tried selling to him in his 11 years. It certainly helped that for many years, when his in-home program was running in a structured way, all the belief salespeople that knocked on his playroom door were of the happiness-fostering kind. But I just can’t help feeling that there is a purity of nature and ‘soul’, as it were, that enables him to retain his monk-like core steadiness amidst all the craziness in the world. Even a feeble attempt to see the world thru his eyes will show that a large part of what we humans do is completely crazy and insane, and all the violence and conflict we see on the world stage is merely individual behavior playing itself out on a collective scale.

Oh, and if you want to see dictionary definitions of almost any character attribute, come spend some time with Rithvik. The background happiness and peace in his eyes, as I have mentioned before, come from a very deep and solid place within and seem to imbue all of him. When he is looking forward to something, say his grandparents returning after a long time away, he is truly beside himself – you can see him practically bursting out of his body with eager anticipation. When he is mad (which isn’t often), every cell in his body is mad – for that brief period, after which it blows away completely and is quickly replaced by his default peace and happiness. And once recently, during an especially stormy Roshan tantrum, he showed me the dictionary page for Sad – big teardrops running down his face and soaking his shirt amid deep, heaving, soul-shaking, inconsolable sobs fit to melt the hardest of hearts. On this particular occasion, in a sign of how far his language and self-awareness have come, he still managed to squeeze out these words between those breathtaking sobs: “Rithvik… is … SAD!” It was one of those “you had to be there” moments; I felt simultaneously on top of Mount Everest and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific ocean.

One last attribute I want to mention here (since I could go on forever) that highlights this kid’s otherworldly qualities is music. Most of our extended family members are musically expert or at least trained, and consequently Rithvik has been exposed to music from birth. We relied heavily on it to soothe him and occupy him during his baby years, but a few years ago, after his language became capable enough, he entertained us immensely with his renditions of the many Raffi songs that used to resound through our home. That’s when we awoke to his talent, and with our delighted encouragement, he was soon singing the more complex Indian classical and light songs. Gosh, not only does this boy have perfect pitch, he can impeccably reproduce the spirit and feeling behind the words too, and it’s an uplifting experience like no other to listen to him hitting all the right notes and perfectly gliding through the melody. Just the other day, he parked himself on the rocking chair after dinner and treated us to a sublime performance of a CD of devotional songs he had recently heard, and I’m telling you, right then and there, helping Sowmya do the dishes, I felt the presence of God. It was one of those peak experiences where everything else falls away and you are completely, blissfully present. This amazing little guy regularly provides plenty of such moments, and all of us who are touched by him are richly blessed.


  1. Sree, just beautiful! Thank you.

    I'm not sure that you had to be there. Your description of words squeezed out through inconsolable sobs took me there. I've read them several times now and I get chills.

    Over the past couple of weeks, I've been reading and re-reading the section of Siddhartha where he returns to the river to learn from it. I've been contemplating the concept of the river being at all places at once, its beginning, its middle and its end (in essence, free of time) and the associated concept that "time" is the root of all pain and suffering. Without time there is no fear, there is no regret, there is just now.

    It's strikes me that Rithvik has a tremendous capacity for being present. I'm inspired.

  2. Happy tears are in my eyes. What a beautiful essay about your son Sree. What a wonderful boy, and what an amazing dad.

    About the question: does it have to do with his autism? Last week I was at an Autism Conference in St. Louis. And I had the pleasure to speak a couple of times with a couple of 14 and 15 year old kids with autism. And I must say, that they were all so absolutely delightful. They were charming, humorous, funny, smart, thoughtful, kind and excited about what the day will bring. In some way I almost hope that it is part of the autism. Can you imagine what that would do to the world over the next decades? It would mean we can not stop the world from becoming more peaceful, warm, loving, present, caring.... I like that idea!

  3. Thank you for this gorgeous essay about the wondrous Rithvik. It seems you are both blessed to have each other -- and we are blessed by your writing!


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