The What-if Moment

Montreal in mid-winter is no picnic.  In the grip of the latest polar vortex or the latest ice-storm, I can’t even remember what a picnic is. This may explain why I sometimes wonder what if I lived in a more temperate climate; if my Ukrainian and Romanian-born grandparents, who had the sense to flee the pogroms, also had the sense to stowaway in steerage until their ship made it to, I don’t know, Miami Beach. In any case, they didn’t and now I stowaway in my house all winter. Even our dog, furry as she is, would rather hide under the blankets on our bed all winter. Like the dog, I’m resigned to enjoying the great indoors. During the winter months, one of those indoor activities is party-going. When they’re cold, Montrealers are a particularly sociable bunch; even anti-social types like me can’t duck every invitation.

But parties have their own hazards. At a recent get-together, I found myself making small talk with a woman I’d just met. Inevitably, we got around to discussing our children and discovered we both have eighteen-year-olds. She began describing her son’s efforts to find the right university. All the research, all the anticipation. I knew, of course, where the conversation was headed and braced myself.

“What universities are your son looking at?” she asked.

“Jonah is on the autism spectrum,” I said. “He attends a special needs school. He can stay there till he’s 21. University isn’t likely to be in the picture.”

A long silence followed; it seemed long anyway. There wasn’t much for her to say. She hadn’t said anything wrong. If anything, I felt a little bad for her. I’ve come to terms with the fact my son has autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not brought up short, on occasion – reminded all of a sudden that your life, his life is going to be very different from the lives of other people. Or the one you might have expected. It’s what I call the “what-if-moment” – the moment you can’t help wondering what if your son didn’t have autism. What would his life and yours be like?

Such questions are at the heart of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, the memoir I wrote a few years ago about my family. In some ways, writing the book brought me a small measure of acceptance. I don’t sweat the big stuff anymore. Wondering what it would be like if Jonah were headed for university makes as much sense as wondering what it would be like if I were heading out the door with my surfboard.


Still, the small stuff lingers. It would be nice, for instance, if Jonah and I shared an interest in sports, in particular watching sports on TV. Yes, I wish I could instill in my son my talent for being a couch potato – especially now, at Super Bowl time.

The good news is the “what-if” moments don’t linger as long as they once did. It helps, too, that in the last few years I’ve come up with some trick plays to keep Jonah in front of the big game a little longer. Just before kickoff, for example, I’ll make a super-size bowl of popcorn and place it strategically beside me on the couch. My thinking is: if I can just keep Jonah there until half-time, I figure he’ll want to stay for the half-time show. Jonah and I do share a love of music as well as an uncanny knack for knowing the lyrics to popular songs. When he was a toddler I taught him Beatles and Bob Marley lyrics. More recently, he’s got me singing along with Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga. On a recent Super Bowl Sunday, I got lucky: the half-time performer was, indeed, Bruno Mars. So, even though the popcorn bowl was empty by then, Jonah and I sang along with Mars’s last song – “Just the Way You Are.” This year I’m hoping together we can belt out: “We are all born superstars…. I’m on the right track, baby I was born this way.” In any case, once Lady Gaga is done, I know what I’ll be doing – making a lot more popcorn.


 By Joel Yanofsky

Joel Yanofsky is a Montreal writer. His memoir Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism won the Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize.