Despite the fact that all of my previous novels were originally inspired by members of my family, I’d have to say that The Rescue is my most personal novel to date. It was, at times, painful and challenging to write because of the memories it conjured up.
That is because The Rescue was inspired by my second son, Ryan.
Years ago, when he was five and a half, my oldest son Miles had to have his tonsils taken out, so we brought him to the doctor the day before surgery, so the doctor could tell him what was going to happen. He didn’t want my son to be frightened by the doctor’s mask or what was going to happen. Toward the end of the talk, the doctor bent over and said to my younger son, “Hey Ryan, how are you?”
Ryan didn’t answer, but that didn’t surprise my wife or me and we sort of laughed it off. “Oh, he won’t answer you,” my wife said, “he’s our little mute child. He doesn’t talk at all. This one over here (pointing to Miles)—he never shuts up, and Ryan can’t get a word in edgewise.” The doctor nodded with a smile, and a few minutes later, we finished up with the consultation. The doctor then asked if he could see Ryan in the office for a few minutes.
“Sure,” we said, figuring that the doctor was going to show him one of those models of a skeleton or something like that. A few minutes later, the doctor returned with Ryan, a serious expression on his face.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” he said, “but I think your son is autistic.”
Until that moment, neither my wife nor I had considered that something might be seriously wrong with Ryan. Because the words had come out of nowhere, we were staggered by what he’d said.
I don’t know how many of you are parents, but those are just about the most frightening words a parent can possibly hear. Do you want to know what my first thought was as I stared first at the doctor, then my wife, and then at my son?
The movie with Dustin Hoffman, where he plays an autistic character. The one where he lives in an institution.
Was that, I wondered, going to be the future for my son?
My wife and I left the office in a daze and spent the next few days trying to come to grips with what we’d been told. Before we’d left the office, the doctor told us to have our son evaluated and we made the appropriate calls.
It took six weeks for the evaluation to take place. Six weeks of worry, six weeks of stress, six weeks of absolute fear. Getting the results added another couple of weeks, and when they were done, we sat in the office with another doctor.
“Based on the evaluation, we’re pretty sure he is autistic,” he said.
“Is he going to be okay?” we asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know, but you should know that a few things didn’t check out, so we recommend getting another evaluation.”
Six more weeks of worry. Then two more weeks to get those results. When the doctor sat us down again, he essentially said, “Oops, sorry. We were wrong with our first evaluation. Your son isn’t autistic. We think he has what’s called Pervasive Development Disorder.”
“Oh,” I said, “Well. . . is he going to be okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know. But we do recommend getting another test, this time on his hearing, so we can be sure nothing is physically wrong with him.”
We did. And it took another six weeks before the doctor sat us down again.
“Oops, sorry,” he said, “your son doesn’t have Pervasive Development Disorder. The problem with your son is that he’s profoundly deaf.”
We looked at him. “Then why,” I asked, “does he turn his head when the air conditioner clicks on?”
“Oh, he does that? Well, let’s get another test. . .”
We did. And two months later, we sat down again.
“Well, you’re right,” the doctor said, “your son can hear. But the problem with your son is that he’s profoundly retarded with attention deficit disorder. . .”
That’s how our year was spent. On and on, evaluation after evaluation, without answers, without a plan of action, without knowing what was wrong with our son or whether it was going to be okay.
This was all happening in 1996, and 1996 was a pretty eventful year for me. 1996 was the year my father died. In 1996, I was still worried about my sister’s health, and 1996 was the year The Notebook was published. Needless to say, there was a lot going on that year.
When The Notebook was published, I went on a tour that lasted a little longer than three months and my wife was home alone with our two children, so for Christmas that year, I bought my wife a gift I thought she would love. I got her a trip to Hawaii—without me.
“Without me?” you ask. You have to understand that she’d been home alone for three months, and we didn’t have any family members nearby who could watch the kids. If she was to relax—and she deserved it—I’d have to watch the kids. It was the only way she wouldn’t worry, so she went off to Hawaii with a friend.
Though it pains me to say this now, our marriage was a little rocky that year. Looking back, it’s easy to see that we were under a great deal of stress, but at the time, it wasn’t so clear. While she was in Hawaii, we had an argument about the state of our relationship and my wife called me to the carpet.
“Look,” she said, her voice cracking, “let me tell you what I’ve been going through this year, okay? I wake up every morning and worry about Ryan. I wonder if Ryan will ever have a friend. Or go to school. Or drive a car, or have a girlfriend, or go to the prom. I wonder if Ryan will have to live with us forever. No one can tell us what’s wrong with him or whether he’ll ever be okay and all that’s happened is that Ryan has fallen another year behind other kids his age. I think about these things all day long, they’re the last things I think about before I go to sleep, and I wake up in the middle of the night crying about it. That’s what my life is like now.”
After she said that, I felt terrible. It wasn’t like that for me. I’m not a mother and though I loved Ryan, I guess I’d just assumed he’d be okay. Needless to say, I apologized to my wife and then I said:
“As your husband, I’ll make a vow to you. I promise to cure our son.”
Big words, but I meant just that. Since all of this had started—it had been a year since we’d been in the first doctor’s office—I’d read everything about child development that I could lay my hands on. During that time, I came up with a plan that I thought might just work.
The next day, I bought a small table and chair (the chair had a seatbelt) and I strapped my son into the chair. I opened a picture book, held out a small piece of candy, and pointed to the first word and image.
“Apple,” I said. “Apple. Apple. Apple. Apple. Apple. . .”
After two minutes of that Ryan was bored.
After five minutes, he’d started to cry.
And I said, “Apple. Apple. Apple. . .”
After eight minutes, he was mad.
At ten minutes, he was screaming in fury, a temper tantrum times ten.
And I said, “Apple. Apple. . . “
He screamed and screamed and screamed.
After two hours of endless screams, for a little piece of candy, my son would say “aaaa.”
After four hours of that, my son would say, “Ap.”
After six hours, my son said, “Apo.”
It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was the first time in a year that I knew my son could learn. Such a small thing, but until that point, neither my wife nor I knew whether he was capable of that. And then, for the first time in what seemed like forever, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. A tiny light, but a light nonetheless.
The next day, I strapped him in and worked with him for another six hours. That night, I called my wife in Hawaii and apologized again. I put my older son on the phone and he talked to his mom, then I got on the phone again. “Oh, by the way,” I said, “Ryan has something to say to you.”
Remember, Ryan didn’t talk.
I put the phone up to Ryan’s ear, held out a tiny piece of candy, mouthed what I wanted him to say, and he said to his mom:
“I wuff you. . . ” (I love you)
It’s been a long and challenging road, but Ryan is fine now. My wife and I had to work with Ryan extensively (hours daily) to teach him to talk. He has what’s called Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), which is something akin to “dyslexia of sound.” He didn’t talk because language is jumbled for some reason, though no one knows the reason. He’s learned to adapt, however, and now he speaks well, has friends and attends school, just like every other kid his age. He also gets straight As.