We arrived at the MacPherson’s house on a cold Saturday morning in the middle of January. They live in one of those cute little neighborhoods where the lawns are perfectly manicured and all of the homes are Tudor style–my favorite. This is the kind of house Bobby and I would love to buy if we were not so spoiled by the conveniences of urban life that New York City has to offer.
I rang the doorbell, and Christine answered, wearing minimal make-up and looking camera-ready. In my emails to her during the week leading up to filming, I tried to stress to her (without raising any suspicions) to look natural and not to worry about wearing make-up. Christine is so naturally beautiful, you could easily wonder if she is related to J Lo.
Like many children with Autism, Mikey is sensitive to changes in his environment, noise and new people. I had made it clear to the crew prior to our arrival that we needed to keep our voices low and be very respectful of our surroundings. Mikey was only four years old. The most important thing to me was ensuring that Mikey was going to comfortable. I didn’t want to scare him or upset him.
We met the entire family: Christine’s husband, Michael, was taller than I expected him to be and more in shape, too. He was jovial with a larger than life personality and a booming voice. He is known as the family “entertainer” and “ the top chef.” Michael is the guy that every mother wants their daughter to marry. A perfect combination of good looks, great sense of humor and unconditional love for his family.
Christine’s mother, Haydee, was on hand to help babysit Mikey while we filmed. It was obvious to me where Christine got her natural beauty and loving nature from. Haydee is a doting mother and grandmother. She lives nearby and comes to help Christine with Mikey almost every day.
Last but not least, Mikey made his debut. Mikey was like any other young child who’s private space is invaded by strangers. He took turns hiding behind his family members, but offered us a welcoming smile. That smile! I thought. There it is. Wide and bright. I loved him already.
My crew of six began to set up the cameras and the lighting. The MacPherson’s had set up a lovely breakfast for us and Michael promised that before the weekend was over, we would find out why he known as the best cook in his family.
You have to remember, I was not used to being on this side of the camera–I am used to being a part of the crew. The help. My job is to help get the talent ready, then I can go and raid the craft services table. On that day, I was the “talent.”
I wasn’t nervous. The only thing that would be different today from a normal day at work, was that I wasn’t doing make-up; however, I can tell you that working with celebrities as well as several (feels like a hundred) years in retail cosmetics will prepare you for anything in life.
Soon, one of the crew members attached a battery pack to the waistband of my pants and a microphone my shirt near my collar-bone. Showtime!
I had typed around eighty questions to ask the MacPhersons and I had memorized them all. Peter had a backup copy of the questions in case there was something important that I forgot to ask.
Christine gave us a tour of their home. While we were in the kitchen, she explained Mikey’s special diet to me. It is an expensive assortment of items that are gluten- and casein-free. His hot dogs alone (the only thing he really loves to eat) cost five to ten dollars per package. There is a large container filled with different types of vitamins and supplements on the kitchen counter. She described what each one is for and how often Mikey has to take each one. We sat down in the MacPherson’s living room, Christine and Michael on one couch and me diagonal in a chair nearby. We started out by looking at their wedding pictures and family photos. I had brought some of my wedding pictures too.
I began the interview by asking questions about Mikey’s diagnosis and how they found the right therapist to treat him. Then I moved on to asking them very personal questions. Almost eighty percent of marriages between parents of Autistic children end up in divorce. I wanted to know how they held their marriage together. Their responses to my questions were both shocking and refreshing. Christine and Mike were blunt and didn’t sugar coat anything.
After the interview was over, we went into their basement, which is fully finished and serves as Mikey’s playroom. At first glance, it looked like any other young child’s playroom, but every toy in Mikey’s room is used for a very specific purpose. Each toy is intended to provide a specific type of stimuli for children on the Autism spectrum. Christine took the time to explain each toy and what it does. Mikey ran around from toy to toy as we talked. Suddenly he surprised everyone by grabbing my hand. l knelt on the ground so that we could be eye level. He leaned into my face very closely. We were locked in a glance. Next, he gave me a hug and the weight of his body and the force of the hug was so powerful, that I fell gently on the ground and lay flat on my back. He then crawled on top of me and wrapped his arms around me. Christine said that this was very unusual behavior and that he must really like me. It normally takes him a very long time to warm up to strangers. I tried my best not to move. He touched my face with the palm of his hand. I stroked his dark wavy hair and we continued to stare into each other’s eyes. I wanted him to know that I saw him, I heard him and I felt his spirit. I will never forget this moment as long as I live, and it was then that I truly understood the enormity of Autism and what it means. Here was this beautiful child, always smiling and full of joy. His eyes were curious and intense. He was amused, comforted and bewildered by my presence in his domain. Who are you? What are you here for? Are you a new playmate? Only Mikey knew what he was thinking and feeling inside. The realization that he was unable to articulate all of that to the world, most importantly his family, was heart-wrenching.
Inside I prayed for a miracle.
We wrapped up filming around five o’clock that afternoon. I was exhausted but proud of myself. This is what I am supposed to be doing, I thought over and over again. I want to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.
I hate to see any family in this situation, but when the people are as wonderful as the MacPhersons, it stings so much more.
When I got home, Bobby wanted to talk about my day, but I was exhausted and overwhelmed. For the first time I really felt the weight of the situation the MacPherson’s were dealing with. I felt so many emotions. I curled into a ball on the couch and cried. I felt angry at the hand they had been dealt and sad to see a child who obviously had so much life and energy inside of him be trapped by silence.
I was deeply moved by the time I spent with them. I realized how many simple things I took for granted every day. In particular, I thought about how earlier that morning while I was getting ready Miss J kept saying “mommy, mommy mommy” for what seemed like an eternity. She was twenty-one months old and going through a phase of repeating everything. That morning, she was driving me bat shit crazy. She chased me around our house into every room I went into like a zombie with her arms stretched out , chanting “mommy mommy, mommy”. At first it was adorable but after an hour of chasing me, chanting non-stop, while stealing my make-up and rubbing a brand new lipstick onto my boots, it became irritating. Now I felt guilty and disgusted with myself for being irritated by it. Hearing Mikey chant “mommy, mommy mommy” all day and all night to Christine would be a dream come true.
She had never heard him say the word.