When Mason was born, we just didn’t know how he would change our lives. He was a sweet, loving baby, with a wobbly head and no muscle tone. We grew concerned for him almost immediately, because he just seemed so fragile. At six months old, we took him to a neurologist and received the diagnosis that would change our lives in so many unexpected ways. Mason was autistic.
At the time of Mason’s diagnosis, I had a vague idea of what Autism was. I’d seen rain man and I had a nephew who was severely autistic. I lived quite a distance from my sister, Karen and didn’t visit often. I just knew her son was different than normal. He was delayed, and fascinating and the whole idea of being responsible for a child with this disease scared me beyond all reasoning.
In the beginning, life was full of frustration. No one could tell us why Mason was Autistic. No one could tell us if he would be able to sit up on his own, walk on his own, or talk on his own. There just seemed to be this black hole of information. All the preconceived notions we’d had about our baby boy growing up and becoming a doctor or the president, or just becoming a typical young man seemed to go down that hole. It was almost as though one child had died and been replaced by another. That may sound dramatic, but as soon as you get a diagnosis like we did, you have to rearrange the life plans that you had for your child. Every thing changes and you are left in limbo, just waiting for each milestone to be met.
The first three years of Mason’s life were our “easy and fun” years. Because Mason wasn’t very mobile, he was easy to watch. It took a long time for Mason to learn to crawl, but when he did, man he was fast. Then around three years of age, he took his first steps on a treadmill and from the second he realized he could walk, he ran.
Prior to him learning to walk, Mason had no real interest in being outside. He crawled on his hands and feet and just couldn’t stand the touch of grass on his hands. Once he began to walk though, he craved sunshine. The only thing that gave him more pleasure than being outside was water. He would play in the toilet, the sink, the bathtub, the dog’s water bowl, the garden hose, the baby pool. Water brought him joy. He would laugh and laugh as he played. He would laugh before he even got to the water, just because he knew what was waiting for him. He was trouble on two legs, and he was fast.
We moved to the country two years ago, and Mason got his first taste of real freedom. We have a huge yard, chickens and horses, just lots and lots of room to run and play and he loved it. At first the only precautions we took were locking the door with the regular locks, but he quickly figured those out, so we added hotel latches to the top of every door. Within a month he had figured out how to unlatch those with a long stick, a chair, or a broom. We added double key locks to every door.
Most people think Autism is this debilitating disease that robs the child who is diagnosed with it of everything that a normal child can do.
I look at Autism as a disease that trapped my brilliant little boy inside his head. Although he couldn’t express himself with words, that wonderful mind never, ever stopped working and he had the problem solving skills of a rocket scientist. If he wanted something , he figured out how to get it. He would literally watch, without you realizing it, and if one person forgot to close the door all the way, or latch the latch, he was out the door in a blink of an eye.
Every fifteen minutes, I would ask, “Where’s Mason?” I was hyper vigilant with him. I knew he had absolutely no concept of danger. I knew he was a runner, and I knew he would be attracted to the most awful of dangers if we didn’t always know where he was.
During the five years that I had my son, I never slept more than a foot from him. Never. I was terrified that he would wake up in the night and some how find a way out of the house and be lost to me forever. I couldn’t take him to a babysitters house because there weren’t any that had taken the precautions we had. How can you explain to a daycare that the standard locks they have are not Mason proof. How many child care providers are willing to add multiple locks to their doors and take on such a risk as a child who wanders at the first opportunity? From personal experience, I can tell you none that I know of.
On July 26th when the temperature reached 105 degrees our air conditioner stopped working. Our land lord came to our home and said he would be able to fix it in a couple days. I went to the store and bought a few fans.
My youngest daughter, Mason and I slept in the sun room, which has a window unit in it, and I put a fan in my oldest daughter, Megan’s window. I sat the fan on the sill and closed the window halfway over it. I fell asleep that night holding Mason’s little hand.
The next morning I got up and thought about staying home. I was worried it would be to hot for the kids, but I decided to go for the morning and come home around noon. I woke Megan up so she could watch the kids and left for work.
At ten thirty I got a phone call that would eventually destroy my life. My youngest daughter called and said that they couldn’t find Mason. I rushed from work, dialing 911 as I raced to my car. I knew then that it was going to be bad.
A year before, when we didn’t think Mason knew how to unlock the doors, we had been in one room uploading pictures from a party we’d had. The next thing I knew, my husband was racing out of the house after Mason. There is a retention pond across our street with a large windmill. Mason had never been there before in his life, but I think the windmill attracted him, and then he saw the pond. Kenny had pulled him out when he was chest deep in the water.
From that moment on, we’d lived in fear of that pond. Mason never, ever forgot something he wanted.
I knew instantly that Mason had pushed the fan and screen out of my daughter’s window and gone to the pond. I just knew. I begged the police officer I spoke with to go to the pond. I told him he was non verbal and had been there once before, and I called 911 twice to alert them that my son was missing and to find out if they had located him. I work twenty five minutes from home. I drove over a hundred miles an hour, frantically calling every neighbor, every family member, begging everyone to go to the pond. When I turned down the street that we live on, there were police and firefighters everywhere, looking in buildings, walking through fields, yelling Mason’s name, but not one person was at the pond.
I went directly there, got out of my car and looked at the water. The first think I saw was something pink floating in the water. For an instant, I thought it was a piece of paper, but then I knew. I just started screaming Mason’s name over and over as I dove in and pulled him out. I threw him on the bank. His lips and nose were blue and his eyes were closed. I started CPR and all that came out of his mouth was water.
A policeman was about a hundred yards from me. He had drove past the pond and was headed up to a neighbor’s house. He raced over and took over CPR. I ran back to my car screaming, “NO, no, no, no….” I knew then that Mason was gone forever.
They took Mason to the hospital and got his heart beating. For a moment we had hope.. The doctors told us that there wasn’t any, but we refused to give up. We prayed, we asked our community to pray. We just didn’t want to let him go. I told God that if he wanted my son, he would have to come and take him from me. I would not take him off life support. I didn’t care how I got him back, I just wanted him. If that meant caring for him in any state for the rest of his life, that is what I would do. On July 29th, God came for my son. They tried everything to keep his heart beating, but it slowly just stopped. At 7:29 in the morning all the light went out of my life. My son was gone.
Unless you have a special needs child that wanders, I think it is hard for anyone to grasp the relationship that develops between parent and child. Mason was the center of my world. I revolved around his needs and wants. Our household was one big dance all designed to keep him safe. He literally was my joy. He was in my arms or by my side every second that I was home. Unlike a normal, independent child, I was the center of his universe, too. He knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me. It was such a pleasure to watch him dance, or laugh at the wind blowing in his face. I could sit and watch him go round in his car, stopping in front of the glass door each time to wave at himself. He just gave me so much shear pleasure. I couldn’t have and wouldn’t have wanted a better son. He was fabulous. But under all the joy was a constant fear for his safety. I guess since he had no fear, I had a double dose of it. He would climb to the tops of cabinets, leap off dressers and tables, and always was looking for a way out into the bigger world.
The day we lost Mason, a lot of people failed him. I failed him by not seeing the window as an avenue of escape. I should have known that he would be able to figure out how to get into the big, wide world through that small space. I also was so overcome with terror and fear that I was unable to vocalize my fears in a way that would get vital information to those who needed it.
I called so many people in such a small period of time that I lost track of who I had told what. I never told 911 to go to the pond. That would have instantly gone over the radio. Instead I told an officer and assumed it would go out to everyone. I also never mentioned to anyone the fact that there is a large windmill to the pond. We later learned that the officers who did know to look for a pond were unable to locate it because it was overgrown with weeds. If I had just mentioned the damn windmill, they would have gone right there. I will never forgive myself for all the mistakes that I made, and I don’t even have an excuse for making those mistakes. I will tell you that I was in a state of utter terror and despair. I was trembling so hard my hands were bouncing off the steering wheel. I was so desperate for Mason to be safe, and yet I failed to relay important information because I was in the grip of overwhelming panic and terror.
The next group of people to fail Mason were the first responders. They did not know how to search for a child for Autism and they did not take my requests seriously. They assumed that this little guy would be near by. They didn’t think that he would have made it a quarter of a mile to a pond in such a short time. They looked in all the wrong places in all the wrong ways. They were shouting my son’s name. They did not understand that a non verbal autistic child is not going to respond to his name. They didn’t understand that an autistic child is going to be drawn to what fascinates him no matter what is in his path or what danger that fascination poses. They didn’t communicate the right information to each other. The officer I spoke with never went over the radio and told others to go to the pond.
The sad truth is, through my overwhelming terror and panic, I never told the right people the right thing. I called every neighbor and friend that I could speak with and ask them to send someone to the pond. I told the police officer to send someone to the pond, but i never told the dispatcher for 911 to send someone to the pond. Those seventeen minutes from my work to my home were full of terror, fear and confusion. I lost track of what I had told to whom. Also, I failed to give a good description of the area. There is a large windmill by the pond, but I never mentioned that to anyone.
Why, you ask? God, I wish I knew….. if only I could redo that day and just change one thing. But, I can’t. All I can do is stand here before you, a mother who longs for her son, who has a hole in the middle of her chest that will never go away. All I can do is point out the mistakes I made, the mistakes others made, and the lack of resources that claimed my child’s life and ripped him from my arms forever.
I will pray that anyone reading this never has to endure the absolute despair that fills my life. It is a horrible thing to endure.