After I meet with a psychologist for a few sessions, she begins to mention the possibility of an autism spectrum diagnosis. I bristle, insist I’m just there to talk about depression.
She asks if I’m familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome.
I tell her, “I guess I don’t want to talk about labels or diagnoses or any of that. I don’t know if I believe in stuff like that, overall.”
She asks, “You don’t know if you believe in what?”
“In just…I don’t know. Words or whatever. Too much of this stuff just feels like words to me.”
“We can talk about some of what I’m seeing,” she says. “We can talk about the spectrum, what that means. If you have questions and wanted to know more about that, I could help you. But if you’re saying that’s off the table…then okay.”
“It’s better to just keep it off the table for now.”
She nods. And she keeps her word, steers clear of the topic as the months go by.
After a year or so, I begin to feel a little curious. I mention the spectrum every now and then…say I’d read an article or blog. She always has the same response: “When you’re ready to talk about that, tell me, okay? I personally would like that.”
I kept getting less and less standoffish about it. One day she says, “You know, a lot of the time when adults receive a spectrum diagnosis…they realize they have a family member who fits the profile. They realize it’s not such an out-of-the-blue thing. And that can help them think about it more concretely…that can help come to terms with it, sometimes. I wonder if that could be a first step for us.”
I don’t say anything. She continues.
“Can you think of any relatives who, you know, remind you of yourself? Or have traits that might fit within a spectrum profile?”
“Not really. The idea of retroactively applying labels to other people like that, it just feels sketchy to me.”
She holds her hands up, palms out, said, “I’d like to share some observations, but we’ll hold off. No pressure, okay?”
She waits. I fidget, swat at my shoelaces. I change topics.
A few months later, a family get-together happens. It’s at my grandmother’s house…aunts, uncles, cousins, the whole thing; a few dozen people.
The bigger the group, the more social claustrophobia I feel, so I mostly stay out of the house. This is kind of out in the country, so there are chickens and geese roaming around; a goat pen. I just watch animals, kick rocks, throw pine cones at tree stumps…passing time, waiting it out.
I hear sounds coming from the old workshop in the back yard. I stare at the shop…all of the doors are closed. The sounds can only be Uncle Jay; he’s always in the shop. At any get together or reunion, the first thing he does is seal himself up in the shop and avoid everyone as much as he can. You rarely see him, so I usually even forget he’s in there.
He practically lives at grandmother’s house. He sticks around to do the chores she can’t- with the garden, with the animals, and so on- so he’s always there. But during social events, he does the hiding thing in the shop.
His hiding has never bothered me at all…but a lot of the family think of him as strange. He’s an introvert to the point that most people call him a hermit…and in a small town like this, that’s not really okay. It comes off as rude to some, weird to others.
I think about that.
I walk over to the shop…knock a few times. I hear him grunt the word, “Yup.” Nothing else. To the closed door I say, “Just wanted to…I don’t know, really. Thought I’d say hi.”
It’s quiet for ten seconds, twenty. Then thirty. Then I hear a quiet, “Hello.”
I open the door, step into the shop…it’s a grimy old workshop filled with benches and saws and metal bins…tools are piled and stacked up everywhere. Uncle Jay is sitting at one table, staring at a heap of machine parts. He’s gifted with whatever it’s called when you can take things apart, fix them, put them back together. Like my grandfather, he’s obsessed with machines, their bits and pieces, how they work together. I just assume that’s why he’s in the shop so much…building, disassembling, fixing, tinkering.
This is a small, rural community and he’s basically the town handyman. When something breaks down- lawnmowers, cars, etc.- people ask him for help. And he does help…but at random, unexpected times. He waits until no one is around before fixing anything. Usually he waits until people go to work before showing up, but he’s also been known to make repairs in the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep, just to avoid the interaction. People just wake up, find their lawnmower in a conspicuous place, suddenly working.
I look around the shop, find a bench to sit on. He doesn’t move. He just sits perfectly still, staring off into space. I ask how he’s doing.
He opens his mouth. Closes it. It’s quiet for ten seconds, twenty. Then thirty. Then he says, “Oh. I’m good.”
I nod. For awhile we just sit, stewing in the awkward silence. I point at the machine bits in front of him, ask what he’s working on.
He laughs and says, “Alternator. I had a sort of funny idea.”
When I ask about the idea, he just laughs again, doesn’t say anything else, so we go back to the silence.
I try a few other topics. He responds with monosyllabic grunts.
Then I say, “Outside, I noticed the stack of boxes…is that for bees?”
“Yes,” he replies. “Been keeping bees for probably two years now. Oh bees are interesting.”
I ask if he’s getting honey. His entire demeanor changes. He sits up straight, turns around to face me. He starts waving his hands around and says, “You wouldn’t believe the honey! It’s…I thought you just get bees, start making honey. But it’s…oh it’s interesting.”
He stands up, starts digging through a few cabinets, says, “You gotta see this.”
He walks over to me, shows me a small ventilated box. He asks, “Do you know what this is?”
I shake my head no.
He says, “So what happened is that, one time, I saw this ad in a magazine. And it said, send us some money…and we will mail you a queen bee!”
He sits down, shakes his head in disbelief. “Well, I had to find out if that was real, so I sent the money. And one day this box here just shows up in the mail. So I open it and there’s this bee just sitting there, looking at me. And I just stood there, looking at her. I couldn’t believe it. Someone mailed me a queen bee. So I ran to the library and started researching bees, because I had no idea what to do with her.”
I laugh. He gets up again, starts taking books out of a cabinet, says, “I ended up buying these. You wouldn’t believe how many bee books are out there.”
He stacks around 12 books on the table.
“You read all of those?” I ask.
He says, “Oh I had to. I had to take care of her, you know. It turns out bees are complicated and you have to really understand them to make them comfortable.”
He starts leafing through a book, says, “So, to start a colony, you don’t need a ton of bees or honey or any of that. All you have to do is get the queen bee…and set her up in the right kind of box…and then bees from the area will just show up to start taking care of her. That’s how I got started.”
He proceeds to describe the honey collection process. He says that if you take too much honey at once, the bees lose interest, leave the hive. He says the trick is to take just the right amount each time, and to make sure they have plenty of honey developed before you even attempt a first harvest.
Then he discusses bee behavior. And hive construction. And brood chambers, mite infestations, odor plumes, behavioral differences between Italian and African honey bees; he describes (with bonus demonstrations) the various tools you need to maintain a hive.
He talks for 40 straight minutes. Then he pauses, stares at the small, ventilated box and says, “The day she showed up. In a box. I’ll never forget that.”
Then he’s silent.
I sit around a bit longer, try to renew the conversation, but he just sits and stares. It’s like the words emptied out of him, hourglass style.
I get up to leave. At the door I tell him, “Thanks for the discussion.” He nods, doesn’t say anything.
Outside, I look back at the shop. I think about him sitting there, year after year, waiting out every get-together. I think about him helping people, fixing machines, but always during off-hours…always careful to avoid others. And I think about the general impression people have of him, despite the fact that he helps them: strange, much too quiet; rude, a hermit.
Later that day, I tell mom that I had a conversation with her brother. She replies, “He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, he can really go on.”
I describe his bee keeping set up.
“Most people don’t know it,” she says, “but he has all sorts of hobbies. Once he gets settled on something, he goes all in. Did he show you the pictures?”
“No. What pictures?”
“He takes close-up pictures of rocks. He goes into the woods with a camera, takes pictures, develops them, then sorts them.”
“How does he sort them? Like, what specifically interests him about rocks?”
“I have no idea. He won’t talk about it. He just showed me the pictures one day. Thousands of them. He had a cabinet filled with thousands and thousands of pictures of rocks.”
Week later, the psychologist asks how I’m doing. I nod. She says, “So, you had a family thing over the weekend? How was it?”
I think about it.
It’s quiet for ten seconds, twenty. Then thirty.
“Uneventful,” I tell her.
Hiding is a difficult habit to break.