Saint Thomas

It began with a fever—a hundred five spike—right after the injections. He rode that for two whole days before it finally broke. When the fever left, it washed away his budding personality, that spark which had only just begun to gain form and shape. It’s who he’d been meant to be, that early glimpse now gone. They claimed the injections had nothing at all to do with his current condition.

A mother knows better.

He hides in the closet most days, right after the other kids get home from school. He doesn’t hide because he’s scared of them. Thomas hasn’t a grasp on the concept of fear. He hides to avoid playing requests.

“I just wanna play my songs,” he says each day he enters the closet, “not theirs.”

His songs, the ones he composes while the other kids are away for the day. Thomas doesn’t like an audience. The other kids, though, they all want to hear him play pop songs on his piano.

“Play Rihanna,” Paige always says.

“No,” Billy will argue, “play that one song—the one from that movie.”

If caught outside the closet, Thomas will oblige the younger sibling requests—but only grudgingly. He has an ear for song. One listen and he has it down note for note. It’s all part of the spectrum his doctors are always going on about.

Autism made my son a musical genius. At least that’s what his pediatrician claimed, way back when Thomas turned five and first climbed a piano bench. Beethoven dripped from his tiny fingers as if he’d been playing for a lifetime.

Reincarnation, my husband claimed. “He’s one of the greats come back to life.”

It’s never as simple as that. Quirks accompany his talent. Thomas couldn’t go to school with the neighbor kids. He didn’t have it in him to connect, to engage with other human beings outside of family. Home schooling gave him incredible grades, though college proved one of those abstract dreams we never really managed to bring to fruition.

“Suppose you just play that Rihanna song once?” I ask, bartering his talent to appease my daughter. “Paige will leave you alone if you play it once.”

There’s no answer from the closet. He’s inside his head again.

“Quit being such a baby, Tommy,” Billy argues. “Just play that song we heard yesterday—the one from that cop show.”

Billy and Paige are still amazed at Thomas’s one-listen knack. So are his doctors—and a host of others who see concert revenue or music-download sales rather than a young man dealing with mental deficiencies.

We never treated Thomas differently from the two younger kids. And believe me when I say the boy has always been different.

“I’ll play one of my own songs,” he says from inside the closet. “I made a new one today.”

But Billy and Paige aren’t impressed with songs they’ve never heard before.

Billy whines, “How are we supposed to know if you’re even playing it right?”

Paige stomps her foot, says, “You’re so selfish, Tommy.” She doesn’t mean it, though; she corrects herself the way she does so often with her oldest brother. “No you’re not, Tommy. You’re not selfish. I’m sorry I said that to you.”

Paige is my youngest. She’s just eight years old, but her soul is as old and wise as the Dalai Lama’s. She used to believe Thomas had abilities beyond the music. She’d tell him things from her heart—sort of like whispered prayers. And Thomas, he’d just tell her, “Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Make the kitty cat come back home.” And then our long-missing cat appeared at the front door.

“Make Grandpa not have cancer anymore.” Then some doctor pronounced my father cancer-free.

“Make me autistic,” she asked, “so I’ll be just like you.”

That’s the only time Thomas ever refused her prayer.

Of course it’s never really Thomas performing these miracles.

I wanted so much more for this firstborn—the way any mother wants for her child: A girl he’d love forever, his own children to dote over, the prestige of some amazing career that would have me telling the neighbors just how brilliant my boy has always been. But girls scare him. And they scare me as well. They’ll only damage him further. I’ve seen those anxious moments where interaction threatens to ignite the air, leaving all involved scarred and lost.

It never breaks out that way, though. It’s just easier to extract the boy from the potential.

I never blamed God. God’s not the one who brought the child to the pediatrician. But we’d learned from the firstborn what not to do with those that would follow. Paige and Billy have never felt the prick of a needle.

“Mine first,” Thomas says, stepping from his place of hiding. “Then I’ll play their songs.”

Paige takes his hand and leads her big brother to his place of honor. “I love you, Tommy,” she says, leaving tiny kisses on his knuckles.

Thomas loves her, too—he just lacks that sort of emotional vocabulary to allow for a verbal response.

At that piano, he’s right where he’s meant to be. Long fingers hover over the keys for a hushed moment before taking to dance, filling the house with delicate notes strung together like a strand of beautiful pearls. The mournful piece rises from the boy’s heart, confesses the sadness in which he drowns.

I’m the one who cries at these moments. But I no longer weep for lost potential. These are tears of thanksgiving for what I have. Thomas is ours; the firstborn of three. The one I love most—though I’d never admit that out loud.

“I love you, Tommy,” Paige says again, wrapping her arms around her sturdy idol.

“Okay,” Thomas says, his stiff posture relenting, his body taking a lean into his baby sister. “I’ll play Rihanna now.”