Last night, I joined the best people for food and fireworks in Marshfield, by the ocean. Unlike many towns, Marshfield has taken to allowing private citizens to light their own fireworks along the shoreline. Not sparklers and bottle rockets, mind you. Real, honest-to-goodness fireworks. And lots of them.
Of course, this is all off the books. Fire and police officials “happen” to be very busy in remote parts of town at those hours, it seems – ::wink wink:: – but let’s just keep that between ourselves, shall we?
As our little clan made our way along the sidewalks, the town was out in force. Patriotic music played strong and clear as we passed one yard, then seemed to garble like the tuning of a short-wave radio as we walked, only to gradually form itself into another solid tune as we approached the next yard – all accompanied by much boisterous and bad singing. Dogs strained at leashes, barking wildly at the cacophony. Children clustered together on quilts and blankets, bedecked with glowing bracelets and necklaces and halos, all wide-eyed and slack-jawed as they beheld the wonders in the sky.
The sea wall was packed, layers deep. No one seemed to mind. But I navigated my way through the crowd and down the concrete steps, then jumped from the wall to enjoy the spectacle from the rocky beach below. The nearest firework bundles and boxes were a mere twenty feet away from where I sat. Should be exciting.
The colors and assortment were dazzling, all fired quite low and seemingly right overhead. But what struck me most was the magnitude of sound. Whizzing. Screeching. Whirring. BOOMing. It was the loudest I could recall.
At one point, it became overpowering. The sound – not the light – was actually hurting my eyes. So I closed them for a moment, placing my hands over them and pressing firmly with my fingertips. That’s when the flashback hit.
It was the summer I had graduated from high school. I’d gotten a job at a school for the blind, and I had three “boys” assigned to my care, all of them in for a short-term summer program. In truth, they were each older than I was.
Ricky was 18. Aside from being blind, Ricky had pronounced Asperger’s Syndrome. This was also accompanied by a form of echolalia. That is, Ricky’s tendency was to copy or rephrase what other people said, rather than forming responses with any real personal meaning. So, if one asked Ricky, “Are you having a good day?” he might reply “I’m having a good day” – whether he was having a particularly good day or not.
Ricky was the best. Though he was a year older than I was, he had the affect and voice of a sweet-tempered six-year-old. I was fascinated, but even more determined to have actual communication with him. I was 17 and had no real training. What did I know. But I thought it odd that staff just fell into Ricky’s patterns, asking predictable and repetitive questions to which they got his predictable and repetitive responses. One day early on, I tried something.
“Hi, Ricky,” I said.
Ricky smiled, weaving his head back and forth, which I already understood meant that he was excited and happy. “Hi. Hi, Ricky. Hi,” he replied.
“Did you have a good day today?” I asked.
“I had a good day today,” Ricky said.
“And what did you like about today?” I continued.
Ricky fell silent. He stopped swaying as if he were listening for something far off. Then he continued his dance, without answering me.
I tried again. “What did you like about today, Ricky?”
He paused again for a moment, then resumed his rhythmical bobbing. “It’s nice,” he said.
I welled up (much as I’m doing even now as I recall it). Ricky had given a real answer!
I continued asking only questions which Ricky could not repeat or rephrase with ease. In what seemed a very short time, Ricky and I were having meaningful exchanges regularly.
I remember the day – or rather the night – that Ricky spoke first to me, without my having asked him anything. I had just tucked him into bed and he began to cry. “I’m sad,” he said. This was very unusual for someone like Ricky, to report on how he felt, however obvious.
“Why are you sad, Ricky?” I asked.
“Mom,” he said.
“You miss your mom?” I asked, again finding this peculiar behavior, even without any real training.
“I miss my mom,” he replied, giving in to his comfort zone of repeating. But that was all right. He’d already told me as much.
Ricky sobbed for a long time that night without any more talk. I stayed with him, lightly raking his hair with my fingertips or squeezing down his arm, which he enjoyed. After more than an hour, he finally fell asleep.
This same scenario played out for the next three nights. Ricky would cry when I put him to bed, and I would stay with him and get him to sleep. After a few days of contemplation at his bedside, I had concocted a plan. There was no way to be sure whether or not it would work, except to just try it and see what happened.
The next day was my day off. I picked up a painter’s cap for $5.00. I chose it because it was soft and durable, and the lid was flimsy instead of hard. The following day, I tucked the hat inside my work bag. When bedtime came, sure enough, Ricky began to be homesick. I hated to think about the night before, because I knew the other staff member would not have stayed with him or comforted him. As Ricky began to cry, I took out the hat. I placed it into his hands and helped him feel it. “What do you think this is, Ricky?”
“A shirt,” he guessed.
“Nope. It’s not a shirt. Good guess. Try again,” I urged.
“Try again,” he agreed. A few moments later, he said, “Underwear,” then scrunched his face up and giggled like he’d told a naughty joke.
Weeks ago, when Ricky had first arrived, I’d helped him unpack. He had exactly two pairs of yellowed underwear in which the elastic waistbands were stretched and torn. There were two undershirts and one pair of socks, all in similar repair, along with a couple of T-shirts, a pair of jeans and one pair of shorts. This was to last the whole summer. The following day, I had immediately gone shopping and later presented Ricky with a small but new wardrobe – one item at a time. And so it seemed he did remember the day I had given him the underwear, as he guessed at what lay in his hands now. The memory of Ricky’s reddened face, giggling even as the tears of homesickness streamed down, is still very clear in my mind.
I laughed, too, and replied as if he’d really gotten me with his joke. “No, Ricky, it’s not underwear, silly. It’s a hat.”
“It’s a hat,” he said, as if he’d thought of it himself. He felt around the opening and the rim again, trying to make sense of the new revelation.
“It’s not just any hat, though,” I said mysteriously. “It’s a magic hat.”
He didn’t reply this time, just listened. I had his attention.
“Here’s how it works. You say out loud all of the things you miss and love about home, and the hat remembers them. Then, you put on the hat, and it helps you think good things about what you miss, so you won’t be sad while you fall asleep. So, here we go. Let’s hold the hat together in our hands and think of as many things as we can think of that you love about home. What’s first?”
“Mom,” Ricky said, sniffling.
“Good one! And what else do you love about home?” I prompted.
He scrunched his eyes, which were always closed, as if considering. “Cookies.”
“Cookies? Nice! And what else?”
“Books.” (I hadn’t realized before then that, of course, he might like a bedtime story. But I didn’t interrupt.) Ricky had already stopped crying as he thought. Before long, his answers became mumbles that meant he was drifting off . I took the hat from his hands.
“OK, now let’s put the hat on you, so you can think about all those things you love about home,” I said as I pulled the hat over his mop of brown hair. He reached up and touched it, then pulled the covers up and fell asleep. “Good night, Ricky,” I said.
The plan had worked. And it continued to work every night thereafter at bedtime.
The 4th of July fell on a Saturday that year, and most parents had come on Friday to get their children for the weekend. Ricky’s parents lived in New York, and so had not come. I offered to take Ricky to fireworks that night, even though I was not on shift. This was met with much debate. Bringing a blind student with multiple needs to an event like fireworks? Too upsetting. And you’re not even working. But no one could argue that Ricky trusted me and was calmer when I was on. And I had clearance to drive the vans. My taking Ricky for the night would also mean that other staff would not have to stay on duty for one student.
And so, we went.
Now, I honestly can’t remember how the next turn of events came about. But my sister wound up coming along. She was sixteen at the time, and had absolutely no experience with special needs. Still, she came. I wondered how she would be with Ricky.
Ricky grew very anxious as the crowds thickened approaching the main event. My sister and I told him that fireworks would sound very loud and scary, but that it was the fun kind of scary. “It’s fun,” he said, but he didn’t seem too sure. Patriotic music played somewhere close by. My sister, without hesitation, asked Ricky if he would like to dance. Ricky’s whole life was a dance, in a way – rocking and bobbing and doing the two-step. And so he accepted her offer. My sister helped him up and she fell right into his little two-step, as if it were the cool kids’ dance. “You’re a really good dancer, Ricky,” she said.” He laughed his giddy laugh. “I’m a good dancer!” he shouted, elated to be dancing with a real live girl.
Soon, the first “test” rockets fired, and Ricky was clearly nervous. We sat down on the grass, my sister on one side, and I on the other, pressing in tight on either side so that Ricky would feel safe. “This is going to be a lot of fun!” I assured him. “All of the sounds will be different, because the fireworks look different.”
For Ricky, there would be no bursts of color. No designs in the air. No light – only sound. Ricky tilted his face upward in expectancy, as he waited for whatever would happen next, somehow understanding that the noise had come from above him.
Then my sister said something which I’d forgotten until the memory resurfaced last night: “I’ll draw pictures on your back of what it looks like.”
It was brilliant, really. And moving.
The first legitimate explosions rained overhead. Ricky gasped, but he didn’t seem anxious now. I squeezed his hand and said, “Wow! This is scary! Sometimes, it’s fun to be scared!” Ricky smiled, with red light shining on his upturned face. My sister got up and knelt behind Ricky, then wiggled her fingertips over his back in an outward motion approximating what was happening in the sky. The next one screeched out five separate rockets that spiraled away at the end. Ricky squeezed my hand tighter. My sister drew arcs with curly-Qs up Ricky’s back, one at a time. And so it continued.
I really believe that Ricky was having all the fun of going to a scary movie with good friends. He began to laugh out loud, or crouch smaller at the bigger booms, giggling. All the while, I squeezed his hand as my sister drew forms.
Back on the beach in present-day Marshfield, I sat there with my fingertips still pressed over my eyes. A few tears escaped as I remembered Ricky and the events of that night.
I wondered where he was, and what he might be doing today.
I wondered if he still had the magic hat.
I wondered if he remembered me, or that night when he’d danced with a girl who smelled nice.
I wondered if he might be at fireworks somewhere even tonight, smiling, squeezing his hand tighter and feeling imaginary fingertips drawing pictures across his back.
What I did not need to wonder about – what I was certain of – was that time and love had been well spent all those years ago.