The Goodbye Song

We have a new addition to our Thursday line-up: “Ax”, a 12-year old boy with severe autism.

As we settled into the observation room to watch R and Yani (Yes, Ax is so challenging to work with that he needs two therapists!), Ax’s mother came in and sat next to us.

Throughout most of the session, while R and Yani were doing their stuff, converting Ax’s mono-syllable vocalizations into song, using the momentum from his ever-moving hands to beat in pulse, all the while trying to get him to articulate vowel sounds which might eventually lead to speech, Ax’s mother made small talk with us. She seemed light-hearted and was even able to laugh when her son had bouts of non-cooperation, only to bounce up, full of energy a second later.

When it was time for the Goodbye Song, Yani decided trying to get Ax to say “bye”, or at least something similar to it.

“Goodbye…” she sang, pointing to herself.

“Goodbye…” R joined in as Yani gestured to him.

“Good…” Both of them looked expectantly at Ax, waiting for him to finish the word.

The first time went unresponded, but the second time, Ax made a clear “AYE” sound, so distinctly different from his default “Mmmm” that Yani and R burst into an enthusiastic “YES!”

Determined to elicit another greeting from him, the Goodbye Song was repeated. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth time. But Ax seemed either unable or unwilling to produce the word again.

In the observation room, we watch in silence as the last line refrains again and again, with Yani’s beautiful soaring voice, R’s gentle piano accompaniment, and that expectant silence at the end of every phrase, each time heavier than the last.

Ax’s mother has also fallen silent, and from the corner of my eyes, I can see her watching the scene unfolding before her like a hawk. In her stillness and silence, I sense her hopes and expectations, as heavy as the space at the end of those phrases Ax did not fill.

A simple wish from a mother – to hear her child speak. To be able to communicate with him. To know what he is thinking. To know that her child will be able to take care of himself and survive in the world when she is no longer around. Silently, she watched.

When Yani finally had to give up due to time constraints, Ax’s mother stood up to go too. Before she left, she said to us in an almost-apologetic tone: “You see the challenge of working with him.”

After she left, I sat there for a few seconds more, just recovering from one of the most beautiful and intense Goodbyes I’ve ever seen or heard.

So far.

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