My son Elisha is one of the greatest gifts I’ve been granted.
He was born the day after Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year in Toronto. Elisha, my second child, came into this world after a cathartically normal pregnancy for both my spouse and I, who had been traumatized by the early birth at 33 weeks of Elisha’s older brother Nadav 2.5 years before.
Elisha was born at thirty-eight weeks of gestation, after a short labor, he nursed well and was a joy to his tired parents.
One of my nicknames for this beautiful child is Deutero, because he is a spit image of me.
The biblical story of Elisha is a terrible one. Elisha was a prophet and miracle worker in ancient Israel, who cured sickness and helped in war, but that is not what is most memorable about this biblical character. One day a gang of kids heckled him and called him ‘baldy’. He cursed these kids and two bears came out of the woods and ate the forty-two children. In modern Hebrew there is an expression that refers to this horror, ‘No bears and no woods’, it is offered in contexts of incredulity and indirectly reflects the belief that this horror never took place.
The second Elisha was an apostate of the rabbinic period, famous for his erudition and his very public heresy. Among his students were some of the most important rabbinic sages. In rabbinic literature he is simply named ‘the other one’.
My son Elisha is named for both these figures and for my wife’s stepfather who never got to meet him.
At 3 it was clear that Elisha’s verbal development was lagging, and at 5 he was diagnosed with autism. Elisha was more like me than I knew. Only one of my children inherited this neural wiring present in both our families, and he was deeper on the spectrum than I ever was. Elisha was the quintessential other, like his rabbinic namesake, and it took me too long to recognize it. I feel that we lost a year with Elisha, because of my internalized ableism, I recognized that he was lagging, but I chose to believe that he was a slow developer and did not pursue early intervention, despite a clear genetic proclivity towards autism. This was stupid stubbornness.
And what of the original biblical story? Elisha is such a sweet and gentle child, surely there is no inherent connection I wish to make between my son and that story.
There is though.
I am a bible scholar, a student of the beautiful and terrible stories we find in our ancient texts. So many of the values expressed in these ancient stories are not my own, I violently recoil from the idea that a prophet would kill 42 children because of a slight. But at the same time, I need to acknowledge that human beings are capable of both the horrible and the wonderful, of being the brave freethinker that the rabbinic Elisha was, and the prophet that lost control like the biblical Elisha. A parent of any child, but especially of a neuro-atypical child, must contend with the enormous responsibility of teaching a human being with unique deficits and strengths how to tell right from wrong and be a force for good in this world.
I hope I can do it.