Tuesday, October 06, 2009
COWBOY AND WILLS: A Love Story
1 in 84 boys will be diagnosed with autism. 1 in 150 children. If your life is not already touched by autism, it will be, either directly or indirectly. Monica Holloway has done an amazing job of bringing the diagnoses, and subsequent grief process, to life for those of us that have walked a similar path, and for those that haven't but who empathize.
This book is a love story. It's about the love a special dog named Cowboy has for a special boy named Wills. It's about the special love they have and the miracles that happen because of that love. It's also very much the story of what all parents experience, that I'd-do-anything-for-my-child phenomenon.
I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of the book, which I tore through in a couple of days, laughing, crying, and shaking my head in agreement all the way through. Monica gets it.
Monica is many things, she is a gifted writer, a born comedian, a devoted wife and friend, but what she is most of all, is a mother. Wills is a lucky boy and we are lucky to be privy to their story. A love story.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MONICA HOLLOWAY
1) Oh, Monica. You've gone and turned me into a dog person, and they said it couldn't be done. Tell us, why animals? Why did you go there? And how does a self-proclaimed OCD neat freak, deal with all the pet hair/mess? You're a bigger woman than I.
All of us turn to the things that comfort us most—the person, the taboo dessert, a second glass of wine or (in my case) the animal—that turns down the volume and keeps us as sane as possible in the face of a crisis. I had no idea that animals had actually become that security blanket for me until I was standing in my living room at 11:00 AM, still in my pajamas, having been up since 5:30AM playing with Wills, cleaning cages, feeding Wills, feeding a rabbit, two hamsters, a dumpy frog, changing Wills’s shirt, throwing balls for the puppy, barely choking down oatmeal to sustain myself before attempting to fix the aquarium filter – to no avail.
It got crazy, but here’s the payoff (and it just might be me), but try being sad or hopeless when there are four soft paws following you all around the backyard as you pick up plastic balls and then right out to the mailbox where all of those hideous and expensive bills are lying in wait. A rough tongue laps the back of your knee as you fill and refill the dishwasher. You can see the back of her light blonde furry head as she sits patiently beside the shower door counting the seconds until you emerge, her hero. And you hardly feel like Super Woman. Your child is in trouble, and you have no idea if you’re doing everything in your power to help, even though you’re turning over every rock, reading every single book and crying—a lot. It’s a whole lot of love—especially when the world looks a little shaky.
As I say in the book, after Wills’s diagnosis, “I began collecting furry and scaly creatures who were more dependent, but less scared than I was.”
And what began as just that, an attempt to distract myself from the diagnosis and lap up some animal love myself, grew into an absolute lifeboat for Wills. Animals require nothing in return, and he could relax and have fun with them at a time when strangers scared him half to death.
2) I love all the "firsts" for Wills that came along after Cowboy came along. One of my favorites is how it used to be when you said, "I'm going to crack the window" Wills got worried - he was so literal, but when you guys are all eating pizza and Cowboy gets away from the table and wreaks havoc, Wills laughs and you say, "Funny, right?" He answers, "Killing me." What were some of the other "firsts?"
The biggest first was that Wills told Cowboy that he loved her. I’d never heard him say that to another living soul. It was too intimate for him to say it to us, but when that little voice said, “I love you, Cowboy,” I knew I’d fallen into a goldmine.
Another first, and one that helped my marriage a lot, was that once Cowboy arrived, Wills was able, for the first time, to sleep in his own room. Wills was six years old and had never slept there without his dad or me lying on the floor next to him. Usually, he slept between us in our bed.
Once Cowboy arrived, we successfully got the two of them to stay the entire night in Wills’s room. I have at least forty pictures of Cowboy (in various stages from puppy hood to adult) and Wills sleeping together with her paw resting across his chest. His night terrors also stopped once she arrived.
There’s a ‘bath” scene in the book where I talk about how difficult it was for Wills to have his hair washed or take a bath because bubbles and sometimes even water “hurt” his skin. It was a sensory integration problem that plagued him in many aspects of his life. Tags on the back of shirts gave him “goosebumps” and he refused to eat many kinds of food (grapes, bananas to name only a few) because of their texture.
But one morning, he was crying in the bathtub and I was trying to hurry to cause less upsettment (not a real word) on his part when Cowboy (as a very young puppy) came busting through the door. Before I could stop her, she’d jumped into the water with Wills. I was hysterical, rushing to grab her out of there, but Wills began laughing really hard. Wet fur, water—nothing about this bath was upsetting Wills. Once Cowboy was in there with him, he wanted to bathe her. So he asked for bubbles.
He came out covered in hair and dirtier than he had been going in. But he was happy. Laughing. They bathed together from then on, and I did get his hair washed every time.
So the firsts were many and mostly centered around his comfort with messes and getting really close to another being.
3) I love the scene in the book when the BITCH in the parking lot tells you the problem is that Wills just isn't getting enough love at home. How do you deal with other parents who do not understand? How is that approach the same or different from when you first got the diagnosis?
It still happens, but I’m much more confident now. Autism doesn’t set off the terror in me that it once did – the terror that made it difficult to separate who was misunderstanding us out of love, and who was just plain judging us.
I was waiting for Wills outside a summer camp dedicated to children with disabilities last year. I assumed the parents there would be more open about their child (or mine) having a disability. Not so.
A mother I’d met a few times before said to me, “Wills rode in my car for the field trip yesterday and he’s such a sweet boy.” And I told her how happy I was to hear that and that he was always that way.
“He’s very verbal,” she continued, “he enjoys talking to people.”
“He does,” I said, “and it’s so exciting because he has high functioning autism, and talking to strangers used to be very nearly impossible for him.”
She drew back as if I’d tazered her. “I would not go around telling people that Wills is autistic! No one would ever know. Why put that out there?” She stared at me in disbelief.
“Wills is not ashamed of having autism,” I responded.
“But why say it?” she asked, as if he had a flesh eating virus.
“It’s part of his every day life,” I explained, “not the end of the world.”
Suddenly her daughter ran out to greet her. She was a darling girl with huge green eyes. Wills ran out behind her.
The daughter turned to me and stuttered, “IIIIIII likkkkkkkkkkke Wiilllllllls.” It took great effort for her to speak.
“I’m so glad,” I told her, smiling. “What’s your name?”
Her mother jumped in, “Gina.” (I’m not using her real name.)
I turned back to Gina. “Are you in Wills’s group?”
Her mother answered, “She a year younger.” And then hustled her daughter away.
“Nice meeting you, Gina,” I called after them.
Her mother seemed to have quite a bit of shame around her daughter’s communication skills, not even letting Gina speak for herself. I felt very sorry for Gina.
But I was once that mother. It still embarrasses me to think of how I worried about what other people might think of Wills or me, if they knew he had autism. The shame that I attached to Wills having a disability was painful and wrong. And you know when I let go of it? When his therapist of nine years said to me, “Why do you want Wills having autism to be a good thing? Why do you feel so guilty that it upsets you? Would you be happy if he had diabetes?”
And I realized, no, I wouldn’t be happy if he had diabetes, but I also realized that I had a choice. I could always be upset that Wills had autism or I could accept it as a part of him like his gigantic blue eyes and his freckled nose. Because it isn’t diabetes, and my heart goes out to children dealing with that. Autism is a neurological disorder and we are fortunate enough – in fact, have won the lottery—that he is very, very high functioning.
4) You do an excellent job portraying the love you and Michael so clearly share, while expressing your different paths in dealing with a diagnosis of ASD, and ultimately of acceptance. Can you tell us more about that, how you felt when you got the diagnosis, how Michael felt, and how you worked through that together?
When we got the diagnosis, Wills was three, but he’d been in therapy since he was 18 months old. Still, the diagnosis slapped us right upside the head. The fact of it.
I got busy. My anxiety and fear kicked my energy level up to the moon, which might seem like a good thing if you’re not living with someone who’s picking up your glass before you’re done with it so she can stick it in the dishwasher or finishing all of your sentences because she’s so manic. I took Wills to therapy three times a week and read every book I could find and began learning about new ways to help Wills. My relationship with Michael would take care of itself.
Michael was just as anxious and afraid as I was, but his reaction was to distance himself —not from Wills—but from the diagnosis. It was very nearly impossible to get him to talk about it, let alone pick up a book. In his terror, he shut down.
So we both felt very alone and I got tired of pulling him around by his collar, quoting the books out loud, and he got tired of being pushed and shoved toward something that literally paralyzed him with fear.
Somewhere in the middle — someplace between mania and disassociating—were two people who loved each other very much and, even more importantly, loved Wills.
We went into couples counseling because, clearly, Michael’s avoidance, and my assuming the role of the martyr, was going to destroy this little family.
Thank God we found the middle place. And, of course, it still gets out of whack, but we do pretty well.
5) In your prologue, you killed me with the last paragraph: "Often, these two are heading nowhere in particular, but wind up in that ambiguous place between bravery that only comes in pairs – and miracles that continue long after there is no one to toss the ball to." Gorgeous. Tell us more about Wills today, and some of the miracles of his time together with Cowboy, that live on.
Wills is still very sad about Cowboy, and yet, he very much keeps her memory alive – pictures of her in his room, her old toys that he gives to Buddy Rose.
My writing this book has had the two of us telling all kinds of stories to each other and laughing so hard. But then Wills saw the cover for the first time and cried really hard about losing Cowboy. He cried like it was happening all over again.
A composer friend, David Murphy, created the music that is in the book trailer just for Wills. It’s entitled, “Cowboy’s Waltz.” But he also wrote a song about losing his beloved cat. That song is called “Over Yonder” and you should be able to hear it on my website very soon. But Wills can’t listen to it at all. “I’ll see you over yonder, my good friend …”
He now has Buddy Rose, the new golden retriever he gets at the end of the book who’s 2 ½ now, and just recently, we got a nine week old puppy named Leo Henry. (Another golden.) No surprise—the three of them are inseparable.
The miracles that continue after Cowboy’s (way too early) death all have to do with Wills feeling more comfortable in the world. He still sleeps covered in dog(s), but he doesn’t need a dog to get to sleep or to stay in his room. Messes don’t bother him at all. In fact, since Cowboy’s sloppy, roust-about reign in which she created chaos and great untidiness, I’ve had the pleasure of being irritated about Wills’s dirty laundry being thrown around his room. Such a normal parental annoyance. He’s relaxed enough to create and leave messes—Yahoo!! He’s even been seen with chocolate stains on the front of his shirt.
Almost immediately after Cowboy’s death, I was in the hospital having minor surgery and Wills came with Michael to pick me up. He wheeled me down in the wheelchair I didn’t really need and told me for the first time, “I love you.” And from that day on, it’s been a daily occurrence for both Michael and I: Wills tells us he loves us. And we never take it for granted—never. It’s always an enormous blessing.
Thank you, Monica!
If you have not already watched the trailer, either scroll down to yesterday's blog, or click here.
The book is available in your local bookstores TODAY! Or you can order here.