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Those left behind

Jan. 5, 2018
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Whoever planted our “surprise lilies” is gone, but her lilies aren’t. For fifteen Alabama summers, they’ve surprised us in our front yard: pink megaphones on a stick. Hummingbirds love them, but I didn’t until now. Other names are Resurrection lilies, which my family is too Muslim to say, and naked ladies, which we think is funny. They are nekkid. The leaves that ought to clothe them come and go in spring, months before fleshy flower stalks stretch.

Three years ago, ours surprised me indoors.

As I entered my family’s kitchen before dawn, I was greeted by two naked ladies seated on top of a wide box adorned in glossy fuchsia wrapping paper on our dining table. Noticing my confusion, my mother explained that the gift was a present from our neighbor, Ms. Neal, for me and my autistic younger brother.

As my mother left for work, I began ripping through the purple wrapping paper, revealing layers of pink tissue, more lilies, a boxed set of seasons 1-13 of Barney and Friends, and a lone cicada who quickly found reprieve through an open window. My brother was up a few hours later, engulfed in an igloo of blankets on our living room sectional, the first disc of Barney and Friends in our DVD player.

At that moment, as I squinted over my glasses in search of the play button on our remote, the morning sun shot through the room. My brother was a conduit, his laughter filling our living room like sunshine, lighting the room on fire and burning my summer days amber.

Surprise: my little brother, resurrected.

What becomes of low-functioning autistic children when their caretakers are gone? Just like the Lycoris squamigera, support for disabled children is society’s “disappearing lily”, reappearing every year with no indication as to which visit will be the last. The cicada I’d found earlier had tunneled during the moon-thin night, up through soil soft from a storm, and scaled the first vertical thing it met: a naked lady. My Twilight Zone nightmare is an image of those with dependency-creating disabilities tunneling to the surface to find no surface at all–coming of age only to find that the communities that once supported them are no longer there, leaving them to face obstacles so deep and wide that they’re unable to feel their way to an edge. While I once focused on moving up and away, I neglected to realize that my brother and other dependent children, destined to become dependent adults, would remain firmly planted.

After Ms. Neal left, six successive owners have renovated, landscaped, flipped, and otherwise “improved” her property. The side porch where she welcomed us to the neighborhood with buttermilk pie is behind a six-foot privacy fence. Surprise lilies (deliberately) and grubs (incidentally) were grubbed out years ago.

The cicada I saw that day was male. Where is he now? Is he part of the buzzing chorus in the hackberry trees, singing his chainsaw call? Males start calling as the day warms. They sing and sing from tymbal tums, sometimes with vibrato, sometimes tremolo. Vibrato changes pitch, but tremolo—like a guitar pedal, like a metal Purim gragger—stays the pitch but pulses it. Sometimes a cicada waves a pattern in 2/2 time: the downbeat a ratcheting socket wrench, the upbeat a rest. They all crescendo, quicken, fade, and repeat.

At dusk, they quiet. Except one, maybe, and maybe he’s mine: my naked lady cicada. He stays up late to solo in trees already black, even as robins peent last call from tonight’s roost. And if dark comes early because of cloud cover, fooling the rest of us, he will sing even as the big brown bats start their turn in pewter sky. He will sing towards the moon, but I will look towards my brother, who once held the sun.