Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son
Tom Fields-Meyer (2011, New American Library)
Tom Fields-Meyer is a professional writer whose best story landed in his lap. He has written a wonderful memoir about the childhood of his middle son, Ezra, who is autistic. Beginning in 1998, when Ezra was two, Fields-Meyer and his wife, Shawn, have faced the challenge of raising a child who turned away from the social world in favor of various coping mechanisms, enthusiasms, and compulsive habits. Both as a journalist and as a loving father, Fields-Meyer pays close attention to what Ezra does and says; the day-to-day details are more telling than an abstract psychological or neurological theory would be.
Having had a mostly secure and successful life, Fields-Meyer is inclined to trust the powers of research and expertise, even in such a theoretically natural realm as parenting. For Amiel, the family’s oldest boy, the books had answers that made pretty good sense; but, Field-Meyer realizes, “Ezra has a different kind of mind.... The wisdom we have drawn on to raise our first child so far isn’t going to be effective with this one. All bets are off. We’re on our own.”
One of the unexpected things about Ezra is the pattern of his fears. He loves swings and merry-go-rounds, and he likes to climb in places that an ordinary child would quail from. At the same time, he finds noisy circumstances very stressful; he is alarmed by the motor of a water fountain; and he refuses to enter his pre-school classroom for the first week because he’s afraid of a drawing on the wall.
He gains control of himself through extremes of organization. One of the first quirks his parents noticed was his drive to line up toy animals in precise patterns. The same drive extended his habit, a little later, of visiting animals at the zoo in a prescribed order, and later still, to learning everything there is to know about breeds of dogs. This last has the advantage of being something that he can converse about with dog owners, who recognize their shared enthusiasm along with his peculiarities.
Ezra also makes an extensive mental catalog of various animated characters, starting with Thomas the Tank Engine, and the Sesame Street characters, moving on to the Simpsons and the complete catalogs of Disney and Warner Brothers. Fields-Meyer says, “Each obsession arrives mysteriously and unannounced, like a phantom that sneaks into our home in the night and seizes my son, snatching his focus. Nor can I ever imagine what might catch his attention next.”
But whatever it is, he will try to use it to engage Ezra, to grab moments of attention and conversation, and to provide him with moments of restful order, some relief from the jangle of his senses. “Over time, though, I come to realize a reward: Ezra understands that another human cares about what he cares about.” With such connection comes a way for his parents to reach Ezra, to guide him, and help him learn to control himself.
All this goes on in the context of a vibrant family life. Shawn is a rabbi, and Ezra’s brothers Ami and Noam have their own rounds of karate and violin lessons, Hebrew school, and visits with cousins. What do his brothers make of Ezra? They have never not known him; they know he’s different, and they know he’s their brother. This is not saintliness, but it is compassion and fellow-feeling.
A small spoiler: Following Ezra ends with his Bar Mitzvah, which is a signal triumph, celebrated by the village of family, friends, and teachers that has helped raise this special young man. It’s a fitting wrap-up to this lovely book, a worthy entrant in the growing literature of autism parenting stories. Beginning by discarding all expectations, and all hope of ready-made answers, Fields-Meyer has found a path for fatherhood in his son’s footsteps. “It wasn’t about finding the right expert for my child; it was about learning to be the right parent.”