His First Burn

By Dawn Tallett #essay

I wonder what will happen today. What will happen to make me doubt my ability to raise a “special” child? How sick am I of hearing about God’s Plan for me, for my son? How sick am I of hearing that God especially chose me for this insurmountable task?

Uh, Hello God, you chose me for this? I have had people tell me, “I don’t know if I could do what you do, you’re amazing!” I didn’t want to be amazing. I just wanted to be an average soccer mom, but instead I have been chosen to do what others have told me they know they couldn’t do, which is raise a child with autism alone. I feel like it’s all just ways for others to say “better you than me, honey” without having to be that blunt.

I love my son and wouldn’t trade him for anything. My love for this little boy exists in every molecule of every cell in my body. If I lost him, my soul would die. What I do that most others don’t have to, and say they couldn’t, is live daily with the most excruciating emotions involving your child: fear and helplessness.  The word fear in the world of self-help books and inspirational speaking is an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. I could live by that motto until I had my son, and my proof that some fears are very real.   I watched my child tear at his own flesh until he was bloody. How scary is that? Because of his autism he can’t process sensory experiences “normally.” His brain doesn’t have the proper connections to process the sensations or the social know-how to let someone help. He didn’t know he was burned and that he can’t rip the pain away. I watched the look of fear in his eyes, the look of complete confusion. I watched my baby become a wild animal whose leg was just caught in a trap.

Here is the moment that will forever be burned into my mind, body, heart and soul (pun intended). I was cooking the only food he would eat, chicken nuggets. I was pan-frying them, with the pan handle turned in. As a first time parent, you read about all the right things to do. A hot pan should always be placed on the stove with the handle in, so your toddler can’t pull the hot pan down.  Those books even tell you that toddlers are fast! How many times have horror stories started with “I only took my eyes off him for a second.”  That statement echoes my entire life at this point, to the nth degree! Ask any relative, teacher, or professional caregiver my son has ever had, and you’ll hear how he’s faster than any child they’ve ever known.

The Of course, I wonder if they tell me this to make me feel adequate enough to be a good mother.

In the one hundred thousandth of a second I wasn’t looking, he touched the pan; not the nicely turned in handle, but the flat, scorching hot part of the pan with the backs of his ring and middle fingers. The ensuing chaos was the most terrifying, heart stopping, and life-altering moment I’ve ever had; because I didn’t see my son after that, I saw an animal reacting instinctively. I saw primal fear. I was no longer dealing with a human child, I was dealing with a human animal. The sounds that came from his mouth were guttural; the look in his wildly contracting eyes was primal. His eyes were that of a terrified, injured animal, and his reaction made me know true and absolute fear and helplessness.

He immediately began tearing at his burned fingers and the blisters that had immediately formed. I paused for a split second in absolute horror; it was the equivalent of watching an animal chew it’s leg off to get out of a trap. He had already torn enough of the flesh away that his fingers, where they were burned, were now bleeding, gaping wounds. At the same time he was tearing at his skin, he was running away from me and my attempts to help, to soothe, to tend to his injury in any way.  When I picked him up he fought against me with animal strength no human two year old should possess. I was trying to explain to him that I could help, that he should let me help, I could make it feel better.  Because of the disconnect in his brain, because of his autism, he didn’t understand me, and my attempts at parenting him were no more successful than if you were trying to parent a bear that you were trying to free from it’s trap. Who in their right mind is going to try and free a bear from a trap without at least a tranquilizer gun handy?

He fought against me and my attempts to help with every ounce of that primal fear coursing through his little body. I was helpless in that moment. As a parent, helplessness is your biggest fear come true. All I could do was put him on the floor and lay my body across his to stop him from scratching any further into his burned skin. I had to listen for ten minutes to the most primal screams of fear and terror ever heard. I was listening to my baby, my heart and soul, cry out in pan and confusion, and all I could do was cry with him.

When he finally stopped fighting and I felt his body go limp, I was able to pick us up off the floor and tend to his now bloody fingers. He wouldn’t wear band-aids, so all I could do was wash his little fingers and put burn cream and antibiotic ointment on them. My body was shaking, as was my soul, but for him it was already a distant memory, thanks to his “special” brain. He never even noticed the wounds on his fingers after that, for him it was over. For me, it was just the beginning of feeling fear and helplessness as his mother.

This happened several years ago and I’ve since found myself afraid and helpless again and again. I have more knowledge now, more experience but I’m still afraid; afraid for his future, afraid of finding myself helpless in attending to his special needs. But the biggest difference for me now is I no longer question what they said was God’s plan for me as a mother. I know now he did bless me with this special child and every day I thank God for my son and I pray. I pray for strength; I pray for knowledge; I pray for understanding; I pray for a cure.

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