The Backyard Thief, by Sarah Pearsall

(A Mother’s Journey to Understanding her Son)

One summer, I stole a backyard. If you had seen my pathetic excuse for a backyard, I would have your full support. What I had wasn’t a yard. More like a ten by ten patch of sun-washed brick pavers. It was the kind of yard you got when you lived in a zero-lot-line community with every house connected to another carbon copy of itself. Heartbreaking rows upon rows of yard-less, cookie-cutter bungalows.

So, I reasoned that my desire for a cool, green sanctuary was only natural. I had grown up with the mother of all backyards. We lived with my grandmother, and she was a plant fanatic. The yard was more like a jungle. I could get lost for hours playing explorer with my brother amongst the palms, avocados, and kumquats. We would erect lavish altars of flowers and fruits, weave hats out of fallen fronds, and collect wiggly creatures in our dirty old aquarium. I mourned the loss daily as I gazed out on the concrete slab that was its replacement.

There was one house in our community that kept a secret behind its wooden gate. There, inside, was a perfectly wonderful grassy backyard. The house was at the end of the street where the community butted up against the next community. For some reason, the owners had been allowed to gate off a large chunk of land behind their house. In the evenings, I walked by with my young son, Hayden. Sometimes,when there were no cars in the driveway, we would peek through the slats, and pine over the hidden oasis.

I became obsessed with the yard. I could see Hayden rolling in the grass, doing those things that little boys did in big yards. There would be no skinned knees from slipping on wet cement. I imagined rolling out a big quilt, eating peanut butter sandwiches and running through the sprinkler on hot days. What bliss it would be. It was a hard time in my life, and I was looking out from the gutter for any star. The world had dumped too much on me, too quickly. My son was almost two and a half, and he didn’t talk. The summer of 2006 brought a diagnosis: Autism. I had known before they told me. Some deep, ancient intuition mothers seem to possess. What hurt the most was the unknown. What would the future hold for Hayden? I wanted so many things for him. I had dreamed so many dreams about his life. Now, after the doctor’s news, everything was murky. My biggest fear: Would I be enough for him?

What irritated me about the whole yard situation was that an old woman lived alone in the house. She never went outside, and I was positive she never took full advantage of her glorious backyard. So when the lady disappeared, and the “For Sale” sign went up out front, I knew exactly what I would do. That summer, I claimed the empty backyard as mine. It became my hideout from the world, for the only thing I wanted to do was hide.

The gate swung open and for a moment, I felt like the little girl from the Secret Garden. Hayden and I stood inside the yard, still and silent, holding hands in the shade of the Banyan tree.The air was different inside. So fresh. So cool. Memories of my childhood flooded my thoughts. Hayden took off running, kicking off his shoes, letting the dew covered blades slap against his feet. It was almost dark, but I promised him that we would come back the next day. We carefully shut the gate, making sure it didn’t lock and went home dreaming of our secret yard and what fun we would have.

That summer the old lady’s yard became our yard. We would sneak in through the gate, making sure no one could see us. We would blow up our little pool and fill it with stolen water from the old lady’s tap and float for hours. I must admit here that we did have a perfectly fine community pool in our neighborhood. And that pool was mere steps away from our stolen yard. But it just wasn’t the same. We could have boat races in our pool. My son could touch the bottom and not depend on me to hold him up above the water. We could sit in the shade and eat our peanut butter sandwiches and watch the sky – just like I had dreamed. It was just the two of us and my big belly.

Yes, my big belly. We had found out we were having another boy only a week after Hayden’s autism diagnosis. I had read the studies. Boys were more inclined towards the spectrum. It was a double-whammy. Would the new baby have autism too? How could I be good enough for two when I was already afraid I wasn’t reaching the bar with one? I couldn’t talk about it with anyone. My husband was still in the “denial” phase, so anything I said sounded like I was “jumping-the-gun” in his opinion.

The stolen yard was a magical place. For months, I had been so caught up in the label. Autism. Reading everything I could get my hands on, crying, a prisoner in my own head of swirling emotions. The backyard took all those silly things away. Behind the gate, it was just Hayden and me. I spent hours watching him, seeing him it seemed, for the first time. He was so much more than I had known. He was so full of expression and curiosity. He was beginning to say a few words, but beyond that, he understood the world and me even though he couldn’t articulate it. I knew he knew. That’s when I realized that if Hayden had autism, then autism could be nothing more than a gift.

That summer, in our backyard, my fears and self-pity vanished. Stimming—the characteristic hand flapping of autistic children—became art, dance, and expressions of joy rather than worrisome twitches. I found delight learning how to interpret his body language, his facial expressions. This weird and wonderful creature was my son and how lucky I was to get to be his mom. My fat belly grew to be an exciting new journey rather than a path of worry. Let him come into this world. Let him have autism. The word was no longer spoken in hushed tones, but an idea held up and celebrated. I was ready for whatever lay ahead.

I told no one about the backyard,not even my husband. He would call from work and ask what we did that day. I would never say a word. It was a victimless crime, yet I wanted it to be our secret as if the magic of that yard and that summer would somehow be lost once I spoke of it beyond the wood gate. Sometimes I think how funny it would be if someone had caught us sneaking in. What a sight: a woman and a little boy playing in a tiny blow-up swimming pool. I wonder if they would have arrested me. My defense would have been that I was merely claiming a childhood for my son. More than that, I was claiming my new life in a new world. It was in that yard that I entered my son’s world. It’s a beautiful place.


Sarah Pearsall is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Florida International University. She is currently a visiting instructor at The University of South Florida. Sarah also is a contributing writer for the Tampa Bay Mom’s Blog, an online journal that highlights all things mom-related. She is also the founder and editor of The Florida Foodie, an online food writing journal that explores the food culture in Florida. In her free time, Sarah enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring the world with her sons.

Sarah E Pearsall Headshot

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