At the Slim Chickens’ Drive-thru that First Summer after My Son’s Diagnosis

Wearing his two-year-old sister’s Paw Patrol snow hat in impending-thunderstorm Southern summer heat, my six-year-old son screeches for me to reach back and pick up the plastic Iron Man he’s chucked to the floor for the countless time. My face shifts into someone I’ve stopped recognizing since his diagnosis. I don’t raise my voice anymore or use the firm grip that would leave a guilt deeper than the fading red outline of clasped fingers around his small upper arm. My palm can still close around him like a mouth, fingers on the cusp of turning teeth.


His doctor tells me schizophrenia and autism used to be one spectrum—many similarities, he clarifies, no delusions or hallucinations, just as many misunderstandings.


The wait is long and the rain is quiet. My son has transformed the hat and his shoe into a bed for the action figure. I want to make him a home, he says, a soft and warm one.


His kindergarten teacher’s daily emails use words like “disturbed” and “violent,” say things like “no remorse in his eyes” and “when I showed him a picture of ducklings he told the whole class how he’s seen a dead duck before” and “when will the meds kick in?” and “he needs a higher dosage” and “will the doctors get him to stop talking about death?” and “Dead dead dead, he repeats it and makes other children cry” and “kids are afraid of him” and “uncomfortable” and “uncomfortable” and I want to ask who? Who is uncomfortable, them or you? But she goes on with “lack of empathy” and “lack of control” and lack lack lack, so much missing from the way he relates to others or a lack of lack, too much of him in every reaching.

If I kiss them, he asks of any friend I bring into our house, will they be a part of our family? throwing himself on adults he’s just met. Any excuse to touch another body. His skin turns velcro, I need to, I need to, he repeats, unable to stop putting body into mouth or mouth onto body, biting the cuticles around his fingernails until they bleed and grinding his nails down to pruned, fleshy pads. He runs into pillows or the wall, and if he does it hard enough, closes his eyes, maybe this surface too becomes a kind of body.


He doesn’t seem autistic, the refrain from other moms and even the school guidance counselor. So verbal. So much eye contact. So much touch.


Last night, I stood just outside his doorway as he intermittently slammed it in my face and chucked wedge pillows and stuffed-animal superheroes at my chest and head, from Batman to Superman to Spiderman, screaming, I will never go to bed, and I hate you, Mama. After, crying and yawning in his sheets, he held onto me as though one of us were about to fall, mumbling, I didn’t want to hurt you. The lightning doesn’t want to turn sand to glass or split an oak’s trunk or leave something dead, I think. Storms never want the damage they cause.


Punch!! he screams from the backseat; they’re out of lemonade so he wants Punch!! and before thrusting a straw through red plastic, Punch, Mama!! he pushes the cup into my shoulder, You try it! It’ll be yummy. I want you to. He won’t drink again until my mouth has gripped the straw, taken a full sip, and agreed,


Yes, it’s yummy. The sticky-sweet summer taste coats my tongue in all its red, childhood sugar as the smell of fried chicken fills the car. We drive home in near silence, him slurping while Iron Man rests in his lap, me gripping the steering wheel’s leather tight enough for it to feel closer to bone.


I love you on my whole heart! he told me once.


With your whole heart, I corrected, though his preposition is probably more apt for the way he loves.


Do you know how many hearts I have? he asked.


One, I said and waited for him to tell me some animal fact about squids or octopi, cephalopods without bones but three hearts, or hagfish cyclostomes without jaws but four hearts, or earthworms, who can survive being severed because they have five hearts distributed throughout their body and he had made this happen with his own hands and felt their split bodies continue pulsing. And yes, at six, he would already know these facts and use words bigger than himself to say them. Words he knows can make others laugh or cry or gag, words he can almost taste but cannot understand why a word, it’s just a word, makes so much emotion.


Not one, Mama, I have one hundred. I love you one hundred hearts. For everyone else, I just have one.

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, PhD, emigrated from Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six. She is author of three poetry collections: 40 Weeks (YesYes Books, 2023), Don’t Touch the Bones (Lost Horse Press, 2020), and The Many Names for Mother (Kent State University Press, 2019). Her poems and essays appear in Poetry, Ploughshares, and Brevity, among others. Julia is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Denison University.