A boy and his dog -- that is sacred stuff. Layer onto that autism and the singular love of a mother and you've got the makings for deeply worthwhile reading. Monica Holloway is any one of us, doubled over with hope and pain and wishing. -- Kelly Corrigan, New York Times
bestselling author of The Middle Place
"A young boy with autism is able to make friends with the aid of his pet dog named Cowboy. Pets can help open up social doors." -- Temple Grandin, New York Times
bestselling author of Animals in Translation
and Animals Make Us Human
"An intimate, loving, funny look at the heartbreaking relationship between one mom, one dad, their very special little boy, and the puppy that was heaven-sent to love them all." -- Leslie Morgan Steiner, New York Times
bestselling author of Crazy Love
and Mommy Wars
"Monica Holloway had me laughing AND crying within the first five pages of Cowboy & Wills
. She crafts artful and, so often, hysterical observations of everyday life, while also revealing the many dimensions of heartache that come with being a mother who wants only the best for her family. Monica is the genuine article when it comes to pitch-perfect memoir writing." -- Jennifer Lauck, New York Times
bestselling author of Blackbird
and Still Waters
"Cowboy & Wills
is the very best kind of memoir: a quietly profound story that reminds everyone of the power of simple acts of love. Holloway and her remarkable son are bound to inspire and transform many lives." -- Hope Edelman, New York Times
bestselling author of The Possibility of Everything
and Motherless Daughters
"Monica Holloway has written one of the most extraordinary memoirs I've ever read. Tender, loving, and heartbreakingly intimate, it chronicles her struggle to coax her son, Wills, out of the shell of autism. I highly recommend this gorgeous and frank book about family, connections, and the ephemeral state of belonging." -- Barrie Gillies, senior editor, Parents
"Monica Holloway's Cowboy & Wills
is a refreshing look at high-functioning autism. Her writing is personal, insightful, informative, and helpful. I highly recommend this book to families with autism, as well as to others who wish to gain a better understanding of the challenges and victories these families face." -- Elaine Hall, CoachE! in Autism: The Musical
and author of Now I See the Moon
The day after Wills was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, I took him for a ride to Ben's Fish Store in Sherman Oaks to buy a large freshwater aquarium. We picked up all the equipment; a ten-gallon tank, a filter, multicolored rocks to spread on the bottom an imitation pirate ship made out of clay, tacky neon plastic plants, a large rock with a hole in the middle for the fish to swim through, fish food, a small green plastic net, a special siphon with a clear hose on the end to clean the tank, and replacement filters. It totaled $462.84 -- a high price that I could barely afford to squeeze onto my overextended Visa. I didn't care; my three-year-old had autism.
We couldn't buy the actual fish that day because the entire aquarium needed to be set up, with the filter plugged in for at least a week before any fish could go into it.
"What would happen if we bought one fish for him to look at right away?" I asked Ben, the owner, more for myself than for Wills. I didn't want to face an empty aquarium.
"That fish would die," he said, at which point Wills began crying and cupping his hands over his ears to ward off the unsurvivable grief over the loss of a fish we hadn't even met yet.
"We'll wait," I said, picking up Wills and balancing him on my hip. Then Ben, in full Goth regalia, helped us carry our booty to the car. It took three trips.
Wills was elated, I could tell. His eyes were flashing that clear blue twinkle I only saw when he was really, really happy. Sometimes his eyes were more like mirrors, my image bouncing back at me. Those were the times I was most panicked, watching Wills recede so deep inside himself that I saw no way to grab hold of his tiny hand and pull him back to me.
But when Wills was present, the world tilted toward perfection.
I, like Wills, was thrilled with our fish store purchase. The aquarium would push back the grief I'd felt twenty-four hours earlier (and every waking and sleeping moment since), sitting in his therapist Katherine's office, hearing her say, "Wills has autistic spectrum disorder. He clearly possesses autistic traits, but at three years old, I hesitate to diagnose him more specifically. For now, we can assume he's under the autistic umbrella."
It wasn't that the diagnosis was a shock; we'd dreaded hearing it ever since we first took Wills to see Katherine a year and a half ago. Even before I'd called her that first time, autistic indicators had been lining up with shocking accuracy: he was a clingy, anxious baby who hadn't hit a single developmental mark. He was terrified of strangers, on sensory overload every time we left the house, and he refused to make eye contact. But still, the diagnosis struck with the velocity of Hurricane Andrew. And then, even more devastating, was when I learned later that day that autism was a "lifetime affliction" -- no cure.
I placed the aquarium on a beach towel I'd spread out on the family room carpet and watched Wills pour the multicolored rocks into the bottom. He held the heavy plastic bag with both hands as the tiny stones pelted the glass, creating a huge racket -- the kind that usually drove him to tears. He stopped for a moment and the noise stopped. He poured more rocks and the noise resumed. Wills looked at me.
"It's noisy, isn't it?" I said. He hesitated, but then kept pouring.
Already this aquarium was paying dividends. If Wills could ignore the clatter, then his overly tidy, more-than-slightly OCD mother could relax enough to tend an enormous fish tank with all of its gelatinous algae and floating poop ropes hanging from fish butts.
I was hoping for something reliable and alive in the house.
My husband, Michael, had no say in the fish undertaking because he wasn't home. He wasn't even in the same time zone.
Michael had been working as a writer on a television show in Chicago for the past six months and, even though he flew back every other weekend for a thirty-two-hour visit, during which he was exhausted and distracted, and even though we'd made the Chicago decision together, it created a huge support vacuum.
In my ugliest, most self-pitying moments, I clung, white-knuckled, to the notion that I was the helpless victim of a neglectful and absent husband. It was less devastating than placing my outrage and disappointment where it was warranted -- on the gods who anointed my towheaded, blue-eyed boy with a life of autism -- because the truth was, there wasn't anyone to blame. Still, thoughts of revenge ricocheted around in my head, looking for the culprit, worried, I think, that it just might be me.
It was a fact that with all of the therapies Katherine said Wills needed, it would take plenty of cash to keep him moving forward, and for the first time in both our lives, Michael and I had some.
When we first met, Michael was driving a taxicab while working on his writing career and I was a struggling stage actress, working as an office temp. Neither of us could afford health insurance, but we didn't spend much time contemplating that -- we were enamored, consumed by each other, and young.
Our finances were slightly better once we married, and I was hired as assistant to the executive producers of a reality television show and Michael began writing for a small animation company. But right before Wills was born, Michael's career took off, and as it turned out, just in time.
So his job in Chicago was an enormous blessing. We had the money and insurance to help Wills, and I was free to be a stay-at-home mom, spending my days fawning over my darling son and trying to make him better. I knew how lucky I was.
The only problem was how isolated I'd become. In a cross between Mommie Dearest and Girl, Interrupted, my family and I had parted ways. Only my sister JoAnn, who lived four blocks from us, and I remained close. This lack of family presence put a lot of pressure on Michael. With the exception of JoAnn, he was my entire extended family -- mom, dad, uncles, cousins, aunts, sibling. It wasn't fair, putting that much pressure on him, but I didn't know that then. I was attached to my six-foot-five pillar of calm like paint on a barn, so when he temporarily moved, it was like losing my family all over again -- only this time, a family I really, really loved -- one who took care of Wills and me and loved us right back.
JoAnn pitched in when she could, keeping us company and letting me out of the house once in a while, but she was extremely busy working in social services. Still, what a comfort it was having her so close.
I pulled the aquarium filter out of the box and read the directions aloud. Wills looked at me, hopeful. "Place the plastic shelter-cover onto the rotating mechanism..." I looked at Wills, "We'll have to wing it," I said. I was lousy with directions. He nodded.
Somehow we managed to get the filter working and for a week it hummed away in the fishless aquarium, the green and blue plastic plants sashaying in the current. Wills and I sat in front of it, admiring the cozy underwater environment we had created.
"It's beautiful," I said. He smiled.
"Daddy will like it," he said, watching the bubbles tumbling from the filter.
"Yes," I said, "when he comes home, he'll love it."
Michael had called to say that the show was a mess. He'd have to work on rewrites over the weekend and couldn't fly home. I was looking at another two weeks without a break, and still hadn't had a chance to process Wills's diagnosis, let alone discuss it in any depth with Michael. What would it mean for Wills's future and ours? Wills was autistic, and I couldn't change it. It was a fact, like the sun setting or the sum of two plus two. I'd let him down. Someone did.
"I ordered monkeys," I told Wills, attempting a lame joke that just might work on a three-year-old. Wills didn't "get" jokes due to his concrete thinking, but Katherine had suggested I try some out on him. "I hope they fit in there."
"In the aquarium?" I asked.
"Fish." He looked at me confused, his eyebrows pinched together.
"Oh, that's right, fish," I agreed. He nodded, serious and focused. "Mommy's only kidding, honey. I didn't order monkeys." He looked directly at me. "But wouldn't it be funny if I did? They'd be so much fun."
"Monkeys don't live under there," he said, poking the glass.
"I know," I said, giving up. "I was joking." Bombing was more like it.
Wills had the misfortune of having silly parents. Michael and I were careful to keep our laughter under control, but nothing gave us more pleasure than cracking each other up. And this would send Wills into a screaming fit, pointing and yelling, "NO! NO!" The fact that laughter, such a vital part of life, was so disturbing to Wills was one of the cruelest ironies for this couple of born comedians.
The quiet, the lack of fun, made Michael's absence even more profound. Where were the Frank Sinatra songs he played while cooking Swedish meatballs in his underpants? What was a Sunday afternoon without Michael's Mets game muted in the background so that the cheering (or, given that these were the Mets, sobbing) fans wouldn't upset Wills? I sat down and wrote my husband a love letter -- one of many -- except that he wrote more frequently than me. His were often just a couple of sentences scribbled on the back of a script, but sometimes he wrote on his legal pad. Those were the keepers. The letters were something I could look forward to, but they didn't have green eyes and wavy brown hair like Michael. Today I was needing the real thing.
Still feeling fragile from Wills's diagnosis, the two of us stayed home all week with only the sound of the humming aquarium to keep us company -- no weekly visit to the grocery store, no walks around the block, nothing. I didn't want to run into someone we knew who might ask how we were doing. I hadn't figured out an answer to that one yet.
We found plenty of things to do. Wills loved wetting down our sidewalk with the garden hose. I'd help him pull on his green boots with the frog faces molded into the toes, and watch as he stomped around in his boots and diaper soaking the place. With all of the wa...