An Italian-Style Field Trip*

Rita Miceli with son Giaci

After our hilarious Sunday service, we arrived home just as the phone rang. It was Mom calling to tell me about a religious retreat organized by the Italian church. “There is a religious retreat, and I’d like you and Giaci to come,” Mom said in Italian. She wanted me to bring Giaci because she felt that a special blessing would help him recover from his delays.

“Uh, I really don’t want to go,” I said, turned off by the idea of a day-long retreat with the older generation of parishioners. If she heard the hesitation in my voice, she didn’t acknowledge it.

“For Giaci,” she said, tempting me the only way she knew how. “You, me, and your in-laws – we all go.”

I could have made a fuss and declined, but sometimes with family it’s easier to give in and say yes. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how much my parents and in-laws were struggling with Giaci’s diagnosis. When I told them that Giaci had “special needs,” they understood it as him being delayed. Any explicit discussion of autism had never actually happened because the complexity of autism was difficult for them to comprehend fully. Other family members and friends knew about Giaci’s autism, yet there wasn’t much discussion of it. Regardless, they understood Giaci was “special,” and in their minds, praying to God would help him catch up.

The weather was bright and warm on the day we left for the retreat, a sign of good luck for our travels and for the grandparents’ mission to pray for a cure for their grandson. The bus to the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, a village in northwestern Ohio, was full. This so-called “retreat” felt more like an Italian fieldtrip, one to which my parents and in-laws arrived armed with rosaries in hand and snacks in their bags.

The bus soon began to absorb the scents of Italian-style cured meats. Wafts of prosciutto, salami, and soppressata seeped into the seats. Homemade biscotti, cheeses, and olives completed the spread, as “snacks” were really a full meal for Italians. Our culture’s deep connection to food floated from one seat to the next, and it subsided only to substitute the smell of food for that of bitter espresso steaming up the windows. Women had thermoses filled with the concentrate and were passing them around like kids hiding a flask at a school dance.

Giaci and I were the youngest passengers by far, and we were surrounded by an entire generation of Italian immigrants. A sigh of relief washed over me when I realized that the two-hour bus ride would be air conditioned; if it were otherwise, all celebration would have been replaced by rhythmic cursing in every Italian dialect.

Each section of the bus was divided like a map of Italy; everyone sat with others from their region. The southern Sicilians sat together speaking in their dialect, while the northern Italians sat on the other end of the bus speaking among themselves in their distinct dialect. I could only understand the southerners because that is the dialect I was raised speaking. Giaci wasn’t bothered by the loud chatter on the bus because he was being fed by all the nonnas.

Cu fu?” said one paesano to another as they gossiped wondering, “Who did it?” to other fellow countrymen. I wasn’t inclined to eavesdrop; all I took away from the conversation was that “what that person did was a mystery.” It was an Italian version of the “who’s on first” script by Abbott and Costello.

I kept Giaci occupied on the bus with snacks and videos until we arrived at the sanctuary, where every Italian woman took out a little plastic water container that had a small gold cross dangling from its front. They were going to fill these containers with holy water blessed by the clergymen. Holy water is used to bless a person or repel evil. It was the weapon of choice for Italian mothers and nonnas.

One by one we disembarked from the boisterous bus. As each person exited, they made the sign of the cross, kissing their finger to seal their genuine love for and belief in the Lord. I held Giaci tightly, as I always did, afraid of him tearing away from my grip and running off.

Standing off to the side, waiting for my in-laws and parents to get off the bus, I reflected on why I had agreed to come. There is no cure for autism; this was not going to take Giaci’s autism away. But to appease his grandparents, I had come along because it was what they needed to believe. They were here to pray the autism away, and I had to admit that there was – and always would be – a little piece of me that still hoped for such a miracle.

When the grandparents got off the bus, they walked over to us and kissed Giaci on the head. They were doing this for him, and Giaci didn’t understand why we were there, so who was I to deny them this comfort?

We all proceeded to the shrine of the Virgin Mary. As we walked, I noticed the crumbling brick and stone on the outside of the old, weathered church. I was in awe of the sculpted detail in the arches of the ceiling and the hand-painted images of the Lord and saints on the walls. The flickering flames of the vigil candles represented faith and prayers, each paying homage to the Blessed Mother Mary. The smell of burning wax sank into our pores.

As we approached, I could see that every person kissed their first two fingers and then touched the statue of La Madonna and the other statues of saints. Everyone was reserved, displaying their spiritual respect. Women retrieved their rosaries, holding each bead ever so gently as they chanted prayers over and over again. My mom and mother-in-law, after kissing the feet of the Madonna statue, touched Giaci on the head, as if Mother Mary’s magical powers would be transferred to my son. Giaci barely flinched at their touch; he was behaving extremely well given all the walking and silent time. His belly was full, so he seemed satisfied.

To most it would have seemed like an exorcism ceremony, but to me it was a sign of their faith, which they believed would help their grandson. Their prayers were so intense and passionate. Raw emotion was evident on the women’s faces. They believed that God and the Blessed Mother Mary would provide sublime intervention. They willed it through their spiritual beliefs, reminding me of the early days when I also tried to pray Giaci’s autism away. This was how they coped with Giaci’s disability. They felt that this was their strongest contribution to him.

Lined up like sheep following a shepherd in the fields, we formed a procession line, walking at a leisurely pace behind La Madonna.

Many of the older men wore their coppola hats, and most women wore dress pants and blouses, clutching their leather purses as they walked in an orderly fashion. Everyone prayed as we marched obediently behind the statue that was held above our heads. They prayed, calling on all the saints, angels, and dearly departed to help with their specific religious requests. They prayed in such a powerful way that it caused my throat to ache and brought tears to my eyes. I had to step out of the procession to compose myself.

For the first time, Giaci was growing bored and tired and was starting to fuss. I took him to the bathroom in the basement of the church to gather my thoughts and to give him a break. I took a deep breath as I once again came face-to-face with the new Rita in the mirror. I had spent so many days looking her in the eye and begging her to go back to normal. I thought that maybe by finding the normalcy in myself, I’d be able to find some normalcy for Giaci as well. This new Rita had colour back in her cheeks and her hair was combed to the side, slightly above her mascaraed eyes. My reflection bounced back at me like the shine of water waves.

Now, being there with all the praying grandparents, I realized that they were just as desperate – if not more so – to help him as I was. Seeing how they gazed at their grandson with such anguish and pain in their eyes, I realized that I wouldn’t have been so alone in my desperation and loss if I had shared it with them sooner. This was an important lesson I wish I’d learned earlier. The grandparents were experiencing the loss too, though on a different level, as observers. They hadn’t struggled with the daily realities of autism, hadn’t stayed up with him for days at a time, struggling to balance all other aspects of their lives while endlessly trying to get help for him.

My shoulders began to shake as I clutched the sides of the bathroom sink. Giaci stood by my side for a few minutes, but then began running around the locked bathroom. Watching his grandparents yearn for the same thing I had yearned for – for years – only solidified our lifelong reality. This wasn’t going away, no matter how hard we prayed or begged God.

There were so many times when my parents tried to reassure me, as if they’d seen Giaci’s behaviour before in other children.

“He gonna be okay,” Dad said in his broken English as he gently patted my shoulder. “When he go through lo sviluppo, he gonna be okay. I know.” He believed that once my son reached puberty, he would self-correct and catch up to typically developing children.

It was hard to hear. For a time, part of me hoped this was true, but now, with Giaci being almost six years old, I knew it just wasn’t the case. There was no outgrowing autism.

Only recently, I had begun to glimpse the life we could have – my girls, Giaci, John and I – and it was beautiful. We were so affectionate with each other, always hugging and saying, “I love you.” Praising each other constantly was our new norm. No more negativity or unrealistic expectations. Our family was growing stronger, and there had been more and more wonderful and easy days. I couldn’t spend any more of my time trying to will away our challenges, not when there were bigger things to focus on. I had to enjoy my life with my kids and my husband.

In the church bathroom, I made a small sign of the cross, thanking God for another realization. I would let the grandparents pray for their miracle, but I knew that we were moving toward the next phase in our lives. No matter what was ahead, we could handle it. We were built for it by the very people waiting outside.

Stitched into our beings were the strength, perseverance, and faith of our parents. And that was more than enough.


*Excerpt from Giaci and Me: A Mother’s Journey of Loving and Raising an Autistic Child

A life-long educator, award-winning author and dedicated advocate for autism awareness, Rita Miceli teaches in the Autism and Behavioural Science Graduate Program at St. Clair College. She has published works on multiple platforms related to the topics of special needs and autism. Rita is the proud mother of three daughters and her autistic son. She lives in Windsor, Ontario, with the love of her life, John. TikTok: @giacimiceli | Instagram: @giacimiceli

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