When my son Moe was diagnosed with autism, my first instinct was to read. Get on the internet, get the books, and learn and much as I could. There are so many books on the treatment of autism, and I quickly became overwhelmed with all there was to learn. I couldn’t read them all. Then there were the memoirs, famous in autism circles: Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son. I read a little bit of these, here and there, but I found it difficult. The grief was too new and it was hard to read about how challenging life could be, even for successful adults living with autism. It took me weeks to finally watch the Temple Grandin movie on HBO, though I knew it would be excellent. (It was, and now it's a big Emmy winner too!)
Earlier this summer, I was approached by the publisher of the book Cowboy and Wills: A Love Story, a memoir written by Monica Holloway, the mother of an autistic boy. I’d heard of the book long before, but could never bring myself to read it. But it has been over a year since Moe’s diagnosis, and it seemed time. So I asked if we could read it for the From Left To Write book club, and today we are writing about Cowboy and Wills.
The first thing I noticed as I read Cowboy and Wills, is that Wills is nothing like Moe. Where Wills is incredibly verbal, Moe has very few words. Where Wills is extremely sensitive to noise and commotion, Moe seeks light and sensory input. Where Wills has anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies, Moe eats mud. They say that when you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met, well, one autistic child. Wills are Moe are very different kids.
The second thing I realized is that it didn’t matter. I felt for Wills and his struggles, and I understood Monica’s feelings of fear and isolation. I understood her willingness to do anything for Wills. In one scene, Wills bolts out of the front gate at a birthday party. She catches him but wonders what if she hadn’t been fast enough? She knows that "I would be fast enough…even in my eighties.” I've had the same fears. She wishes that “love cured autism.” Me too.
Warning: Spoiler Alert. If you don’t want to know how this book ends, stop reading here! Though frankly, I wish I'd had this information before I started the book.
Cowboy and Wills is a book about how a dog helped bring a boy out of his shell, helping him break through his autism. Cowboy, a golden retriever puppy, helped Wills with his confidence and with his ability to handle change. When Wills was not sure how to approach others, Cowboy would do it for him. When Wills was scared or upset, he could use the dog, saying that Cowboy was afraid or upset. Cowboy was ice-breaker, interpreter, and therapist all in one. But here is the thing nobody told me: the dog, a pet store purchase, died after only 3 years.
I was reading the end of the book, as Cowboy was getting sicker and sicker (why wasn't I warned??), when I received a call from Moe’s teacher at school, the magnificent Mrs. M. Moe had had an accident at school. My heart raced and I imagined myself racing to an emergency room somewhere. I imagined that he had run out of the gate, but that his teachers - wonderful people but not in love with Moe like I am - weren't fast enough. Moe was fine; he just fell on the playground and cut his lip, but it bled pretty badly and she wanted to let me know. He could stay the rest of the day. As I read on, crying a little out of relief but mostly because the dog was dying (are you kidding me??), the phone rang again and I had to quickly pull myself together. Moe’s teacher called back. He was pretty uncomfortable and fussy. Would I come get him? I hung up the phone and broke down in tears.
I guess I'm still pretty fragile. Perhaps I haven’t quite come to terms with Moe’s diagnosis. Hearing others’ stories will always be difficult, but I have come a long way. In the earliest days, I was afraid to involve myself in any support groups for fear that I’d hear too many upsetting stories. But I went to one parent meeting and found other people with humor, open ears and a lot of great advice. I was worried about what I’d see when Moe first entered school. What would the kids be like? But seeing the other kids like Moe is great. They laugh and play, and yes, occasionally have difficult times. And that is great too because then I know I’m not alone. And after reading Cowboy and Wills I realized that I need to read more autism stories. Wills has many challenges, but he’s a funny, smart boy. This book, though the dog dies (seriously??), is full of inspiration and hope. And we all can use a little dose of that.
I was given a copy of the book Cowboy and Wills free of charge by the publisher, with no obligation, as part of the From Left To Write book club.