It was a snowy day, and we were inside, my son and I.
The wind was cold that afternoon, and he couldn’t bear the feel of it on his face, so sledding with his sister was not an option. He decided to keep me company instead. As I stood there mixing, he watched one of his favorite movies, "Despicable Me." He was silent for a while, and then he asked me a question.
“Mom? Are the girls sad? Or mad?”
He asks these questions, my son, because it isn’t always so clear to him. Autism makes it hard for him to read the social cues that would clearly separate mad from sad. Some people would tell you that since he has problems identifying the emotions, he can’t feel them so much either.
They’d be wrong. He can feel them, all right. He has empathy by the bucketful. He just has a hard time understanding the why and how of someone else’s feelings. Once he gets it spelled out for him, he can feel it, too.
So as he’s gotten older, he’s learned to ask, just to clarify. I shifted my eyes to the TV screen, and answered his question.
“The girls are sad, because they miss Mr. Gru,” I said.
He considered that for a moment, then put his chin in his hand and observed:
“Sad is harder than mad, I think.”
For a kid who can’t easily identify emotion, he sure can strip it down to its essence.
Sad is harder than mad.
I know mad. I know it well.
Mad burns you from the inside out, incinerating and eviscerating. Mad devours you and gnaws you and shoots like flames out of you, scorching everything in your path. Mad is raw and ugly and full of energy and purpose.
In the early days, after David’s father walked out, I lived and breathed mad. I kept it roiling inside me, clung to it like a talisman, reveled in it and wrapped my arms around it tight. It gave me focus and direction and justification.
But most of all, it kept me from feeling sad.
Sad weighs you down. Sad takes everything inside you to push through, or against. Sad seeps into your pores and leaks out of your eyes and leaches through your bones until you feel nothing but hollow.
Sad can leave you so empty and aching that you feel like anything, anything is better than feeling this, even feeling nothing at all.
It makes me sad to write that. It’s been three years after he’s left, and life has righted itself and we’ve moved on. I’m not even mad anymore – I was over that a long time ago. I guess the sad never goes away entirely, not really.
It still shows up, even when you’re just sad to remember how sad you once were.
This has been an excerpt from my book, David And Me Under The Sea: Essays From A Decade With Autism, available via Kindle.