Innocentia and the Autistic Boy
Part II: The Bells of Saint Kunegunda
“The Bells of Saint Kunegunda — they ring once when somebody dies in the war, twice when somebody dies in the mines, and continuously when someone is dying of a broken heart.” This old claim by the residents of the village of McAdoo, West Virginia dates back to the coal mining boom in the early decades of the twentieth century. Named in honor of the Virgin Queen of Poland, Saint Kunegunda’s was just one of the many ethnic churches established by the multi-cultural wave of European immigrants. It was an era frozen in time where the boundaries between parents and their natural offspring were nebulous — so many people died in the child-rearing age that it was well-understood that other relatives would take on the roles of surrogate parents (even with the ignorance of the bereaved children themselves). For example, my father was raised from infancy by his older sister when his own father went insane from working too many years in the mines; regardless of the reality, his actual nieces remained his sisters for life. The civic mantra of the times was “blood is thicker than water.” This all changed as the blood became more and more diluted by the sociologic revolutions of the generations to follow. Although I did not grow up there, I was born in McAdoo down the street from Saint Kunegunda’s, and so I was privy to the messages of the bells.
So when the continuous ringing of the bells woke me from a deep sleep (which I had intended would last until mid-morning), my spirit was unsettled. Sleeping in on Wednesdays had become a way of life the past two months since the day after the evacuation, when I had received a letter by certified mail from the Center for Autistic Children and Other Developmental Disorders bluntly informing me that, after twenty-five years, my services were no longer required. I found out through the grapevine that I had been replaced by a young pediatrician who apparently had superior skills in implementing electronic medical records. (And “so it goes” I thought: “Take another little piece of my heart!” as Janice Joplin warned). I also found out that Innocentia had been behaving “differently” at the new, palatial Center. And that the administration had forgotten to change the locks after my dismissal. I remembered that I still had the key. After hours of mounting anxiety into the early evening, I gave in to my inertia, told my wife I had several errands to run, and began the long drive to the new Center with any second thoughts obscured by the pounding of my heart.
As I drove the long, circuitous route under the direction of the GPS Lady, I tried to put together the puzzle that was Innocentia — much like the puzzle that was autism, which I had been working on for the past twenty-five years. On rare occasions she had confided in me about her checkered past. She had been the fifth girl born to an aging polish couple. At her birth her father declared to her mother: “Name her something long and fancy to make up for her ugliness.” Although largely ignored by her parents and tormented by her sisters, she was a reasonably good student, compassionate to a fault, and, although saddled with an anxiety disorder, she planned to enter the nursing profession. Her career plans had to be put on hold when she became pregnant in her first year of nursing school. Her infuriated father demanded she give up the baby for adoption and she had no choice but to comply.
In those days, an unwed mother giving her baby up was not allowed to see her infant or even know the sex. “Why don’t you give your baby a name for your own records,” quipped a heartless maternity clerk. Innocentia heard the parents in the next bed (double rooms in those days) name their handsome new son “Gideon.”
“I am naming my baby Gideon,” she mumbled and the whole maternity ward had a hearty laugh for the rest of the day — for it was a girl. Innocentia always put a positive spin on the calamity: “Although I never saw Gideon, I got to know him for 41 weeks (the baby was born one week late). Her comment always invoked in my mind the haunting closing lines of Marjorie Rawlings’ classic tale The Yearling.
“He found himself listening for something. It was the sound of the yearling for which he listened, running around the house or stirring on his moss pallet in the corner of the bedroom. He would never hear him again. Flag — He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. He would be lonely all his life. But a man took it for his share and went on.”
Innocentia later worked her way through nursing school, accepted the first paying job offered to her, worked every evening shift at the Lesser House of God, and embarked on a life of loneliness and privation.
As I entered the well-paved parking lot of the new Center, it was immediately apparent that the administration had made a robust financial investment. However, the security was shoddy enough that I was able to enter with the forgotten key, smiling and greeting enough pre-occupied staff members to find my way to the medical office. And there she was, as she had been for twenty-five years, but truly different as they had warned.
“Doctor!” she exclaimed as we embraced. “Are you coming back?”
“Unfortunately not,” I sighed. “ I just came to visit you. You look great! What has happened? You must by very happy here.” No doubt something had changed. She appeared more radiant that I could ever remember. I sensed that she had been unshackled from the chains of loneliness. Her face was suffused even without exertion and she had an aura of beauty that I had never previously sensed. Had Justus returned to the center? (But he was an adult by now.) By some quirk of fate, had she been reunited with Gideon? Was she being courted by a gentleman in her old age? No, none of these.
“No” she responded. “I hate this place just as much as the last!” she joked. “I am even fatter and uglier. Look at my bruises and bites from the new patients.”
“But surely something has changed for the better,” I demanded. “Or are you drinking more alcohol?”
“No, no, NO!” she immediately responded. “I drink no more! The only thing I drink to excess these days is chocolate milk! Only one little thing has indeed changed. For some reason beyond my understanding, since we left the old Center I dream of Justus every night. In the dreams, he is normal and I am young again — we play games like all the others in this world — and night after night he comes back to me.” She became tearful, and then continued with her new-found radiance: “All my years of alcohol and loneliness have tampered with my mind, but these dreams have rescued my heart from the furnace, from hell.”
After a long contemplative pause, I finally responded. “It has taken many years, but justice has finally come to you, Innocentia. Remember the refrain from that old song? ‘Love is just a word I heard.’ Well you have proven it a lie.”
“The only lie that I might have disproven is that blood is thicker than water,” she retorted. I realized that in this day and age she was right. And at that moment I had the overwhelming conviction that she would dream of the autistic boy every night and that the two of them would never die.
“Good night and good luck, I said as we embraced. “I better get out of here before the guards find me and throw me in the county prison.”
“Or into hell!” she laughed.
“That won’t happen,” I countered. “That would be a miracle; you just got yours and we only get one every twenty-five years!”
Although brief, this would be our last encounter.
Yes, how wonderful and mysterious the world can be! On the seemingly endless drive home my mind was at peace, the bells had silenced, and I thought of many things: my loving wife’s likely anger at my late return, my privilege of serving so many disabled children over so many years, and the eventual fate of the steadfast tin soldier and the lovely paper dancer who kicked one leg so high that he couldn’t see it and thought she, like him, had been given only one leg:
“The tin soldier stood in a blaze of light. Whether he burned from the heat of the fire or the heat of his love he did not know….He looked at the little dancer and she looked at him. He felt himself melting away, but he was steadfast with his musket on his shoulder. Then the door opened, a draft caught the dancer and she flew into the stove to the tin soldier. She flared and was gone. And then the tin soldier melted back into a lump of tin. Next morning when she raked out the ashes, the maid found him. Shaped like a little tin heart. Of the dancer nothing remained. Save the star from her breast, and that was burned as black as coal.” — Final lines of The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Anderson.
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This story is dedicated to all those who work with, build clinics for, and of course love autistic children — whether they be their parents or not. And to those who believe in miracles — but more so to those who strive to create them. — Tony Kovatch