Frankie Finds the Tears for His Father

By Magdelena Beltran-del Olmo

Did Jesus steal my daddy?" my 12-year-old son, Frankie, asked me earlier this year as I prepared his breakfast. I was stunned, not just by the elegant simplicity of his question, but because it came from a young man battling autism, and who is still learning to grieve for his father 10 months after his death.

In the nine years since autism came into our lives, the "boy with a soft, sweet smile and big brown eyes" whom Frank introduced to his readers went from a nonverbal 3-year-old who made little eye contact, had trouble focusing and didn’t understand the concept of pretend play to a vibrantly inquisitive boy with a keen intellect, greater social interaction skills, impressive imagination and improving physical coordination.

Now here was my Frankie asking me a profound question only months after saying goodbye to his daddy. I was aware of my anger at an unknown force for taking Frank from us. With help from my mother, I told Frankie that all people belong to God. When God takes one of us to heaven, he’s not stealing, because we are already his, I said. Frankie nodded, sighed and said, "I just miss him so much, Mommy."

Frankie’s Difficulty

After his father’s death, Frankie didn’t cry. When Frank’s sister and I first told Frankie that his father had died, he was stunned. He stepped away from us and kept asking questions. But he did not cry. He didn’t cry at the memorial service in Pasadena or at the burial in Monterey County. And he didn’t want people to cry in his presence.

Experts told me later that for people with autism, controlling their emotions is one way they can make order out of their chaos. For people without autism, the pain of losing a loved one is hell. For people with autism, that pain can be magnified in ways we can’t imagine. It’s the ultimate sensory overload. It explains why Frankie was more comfortable exploring death through his intellect. Asking questions was easier than crying and feeling the pain.

A month after Frank was gone, I opened a box of love letters written to me over 14 years of our courtship and marriage. I sobbed uncontrollably. Frankie disappeared into his room and begged me from afar to stop crying. Later, he approached me slowly — he was afraid. He took my arms and wrapped them around his body, compelling me to hug him and said: "Don’t cry, Mommy. You have me." But still he did not cry.

In late spring Frankie took his classmates from Village Glen School in Sherman Oaks to tour "Daddy’s newspaper." When we came to Frank’s office, where he suffered the heart attack that killed him, Frankie asked again how his father had died. He wanted to know all the details about that day. Still no tears.

Frankie’s Breakthrough

The breakthrough came in late summer. I took Frankie to a therapy based upon the French-developed Tomatis method, which retrains the brain’s sound processing to minimize auditory sensory overload. Over five weeks, Frankie listened to music using a headset, as the frequency levels were gradually adjusted to minimize the distorted sounds he would often hear.

Soon it was time for him to hear recorded voices, so I lent mine, reading from a draft of a new book about my husband. Frankie exploded. He screamed and ran away from the therapist, a calm woman named Jeannie King. She asked why he didn’t want to hear about his dad, and he finally broke down and cried. He missed his daddy, he said. I comforted him, while Jeannie said it was good to cry and let all the bad feelings come out.

Since then Frankie has cried often for Frank. But he also smiles more when he talks about his daddy.

Right after Frank died, I felt fear over Frankie’s future. I don’t feel that anymore — I am filled with the same hope that Frank and I felt when we first started to help our son. Frankie is becoming a man, just the way Frank predicted in his final column.

I told Frankie recently that he was the best present his daddy ever gave me. "Well then, hug your present," he said without missing a beat and giving me that broad Cheshire Cat smile he inherited from his dad. And so I did, knowing there would be more conversations like this one, and healthy tears too, as Frank’s legacy blooms inside our son’s special soul.

[Reprinted with permission from the Los Angeles Times, Dec 26, 2004 and published in New Developments: Volume 10, Number 3 - Spring, 2005]

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