Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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» Levee 67


Finding the Heart of the Fruit

One Mother's Story of Raising a Child with Autism

Lisa Dordal

  What It Takes.
Grey Brown.
Turning Point Books.
88 pages, $18 (paperback).
ISBN: 1936370107

Grey Brown's beautifully rendered book—What It Takes—begins in a garden "flowering with quince, / [and] yellow torches heralding spring." This is not, however, the mythological garden of Edenic perfection. Rather, this is a place in which daily experiences of loss are intertwined with the redemptive forces of love and determination, as they are in the garden that for the speaker's autistic daughter exudes "all things slick and vile" or in that "damn garden" of the speaker's unfaithful father where sun and rain "conspire" to allow for the growth of new life.

Whether describing the irony of her daughter's first word—the "uh-oh" uttered by this "tiny sage, / taking it all in, / catching / and now naming / our many mistakes"—or the pain of seeing her daughter "consumed by her own / concentrated rhythm" while children around her play in more obviously imaginative ways, Brown offers a direct, deeply-felt view into the day-to-day struggles—and celebrations—of raising a child with autism. The simple, transcendent beauty of Brown's language allows readers to enter fully into the world of her poems; a world marked not only by transition and liminality (whether in the form of pregnancy, birth and death, or in the persistent "anteroom" of never knowing what will "set off" her daughter) but also grace-filled now-ness, as expressed in the description of her daughter's first hug: "—First hug—? / [My husband] sits as still as he can, / gently nodding yes, / quickly taking her in."

Although the dominant narrative of the book is a mother's experience of coming to terms with her daughter's autism, the book's opening section focuses on the loss of the speaker's parents' first child to blue baby syndrome, elegantly described as "premature, angelic sadness." The closing words of this section—"[my father] who never again / trusted what a week might hold"—not only suggest the speaker's forgiveness of her father for his marital infidelity but also forge a compassionate link between her father's loss of a child and her own loss. For, as Brown writes concerning her daughter's diagnosis of autism: "why do we say—given— / when so much is taken away?" Thus, just as the speaker's father never again trusts what life will bring after the death of his son, the speaker, too, must learn to accept the realization that, in the end, she "will never have any idea / what it takes / for her [daughter] to make it."

As the book opens with imagery of a garden, so, too, does it end, as we witness mother, father and daughter enjoying, in the depth of winter, the "sweet coolness" of a watermelon cut in such a way that it is impossible to tell the heart of the fruit from the "rind's diluted cousin," suggesting the many ways in which they—and by implication we—must eat of them both; the many ways in which daily moments of loss and redemption are inextricably linked.

. . .