When Muskogee native Diane Bucci started writing her book more than 20 years ago, it was supposed to be a humorous memoir of her family's journey raising Mikey, her autistic son.
That story took a sudden, tragic turn in 2008, when Mikey, then 25, shot and killed himself at the Walmart in Checotah.
But after Mikey's death, Bucci said, her Mikey started making his presence known on a regular basis, clucking like a chicken through houseplants, changing radio and television channels and knocking over shelves full of family photos.
That's when the story took a turn for the spiritual.
Now, Bucci has finished “The Return of Mikey,” the bittersweet story about the boy she raised who taught her unconditional love and that “Heaven is real.”
“I was trying to give people hope, some inspiration,” said Bucci, who now lives in Parker, Colo. “Because Mikey had really been a success story. He really was.”
In an endorsement for the book, Sally J. Rogers, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The MIND Institute, University of California Davis Medical Center, writes about how autism can result in an ability to laugh at the irony, humor and wildly irrational moments the disease can create.
“Here is a book about autism written by a family who knows autism: the pain, the embarrassment, the laughter, and the humanity that is part and parcel of the everyday life of a family loving and raising a child with autism,” Rogers wrote.
It was Rogers who administered behavioral tests, observing Mikey and diagnosing him with “a textbook case of mild autism.”
A success story
Mikey had been an exceptional child — intelligent and curious with some unusual personality traits that would lend themselves to the autism diagnosis at age 3. The family lived in Denver and Diane Bucci would soon become deeply involved in the autism community, even being elected president of the Colorado Association for Autistic Persons.
As most any parent of a child with autism knows, living with the disease involves tremendous hurdles for all involved. But along with the trials come moments of pure joy, lightness and humor.
“We cannot find humorous parenting books on the shelves that relate to our children,” she writes in the book's synopsis.
Today, autism affects as many as one in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.com). In the '80s, when Mikey was diagnosed, even less was known about the disease than is today, and less support was available.
So Bucci started chronicling the unusual things her precious little boy did as a way of remembering them and sharing them with other parents of autistic children.
In “The Return of Mikey,” Bucci writes about raising Mikey — the good and the bad. She writes about her concerns for his older sister, Susie Lynn.
“We were always each others' advocates but I always felt like I had to protect him,” Lynn said. “Not just because he was my little brother but because I felt like he already had a strike against him having autism and having to deal with kids making fun of him at school and things like that.”
Bucci writes of Mikey's childhood obsessions such as spitting and drains — he could watch water swirl down the toilet for hours and had to be convinced over and over that he was too big to go down the drain himself.
“Mikey is a wonder: a curious, intelligent boy who communicates in words and feelings the confusion, the contradictions, the crises, and the pleasures of his moment by moment experiences,” Rogers said.
Bucci writes of Mikey's funny names for things: “The bowl got holes” is a colander, Mrs. Hair was his blanket, and “No, Moggy, no” was what he thought was his own name as a little child.
She recalls some heart-wrenching moments such as admitting Mikey into a psychiatric hospital when he went through dangerous behavioral cycles as an adolescent.
Bucci also writes of the triumphs Mikey experienced as he grew into a young man, got a job, graduated from gunsmith school (he was an avid hunter with his father) and found a career and an independent life.
And she writes candidly of the horrific day her son took his life.
Dreams of farming
Mikey had been doing well in life, Bucci said. As a child living in Colorado, he'd spent much time in Checotah at his grandparent's farm, and one day he dreamed of living on and running the farm.
Shortly after Mikey graduated from a trade school, he and his mother moved to Oklahoma. Mikey got a gunsmithing job at H&H Gun Range and spent half his time in Oklahoma City and half at the farm in Checotah.
“He had been so happy and really at the top of his game,” Bucci said.
But, shortly before Mikey's death, Bucci noticed certain things that, in retrospect, likely were signs of an eminent psychotic breakdown, she said.
He started acting paranoid — more so than the hypochondria she said was usual for him. He was convinced he had a deadly disease.
He stopped eating well and couldn't sleep at night.
The morning of Nov. 10, 2008, Mikey walked into the Walmart in Checotah and shot himself in a deserted aisle near the back of the store.
“Honey, it's as bad as it can get,” were the first words Bucci's mother said to her after driving two hours from Checotah to Oklahoma City to deliver the terrible news.
“That told me everything,” Bucci writes in the book.
But why would her son do this? He had seemed so happy.
“Dear family, I want you to know that I was murdered,” was the first sentence of the suicide note found in Mikey's pocket.
The note went on to describe delusions of demons that lived inside Walmart. The demons directed him to kill himself, Bucci said.
“I felt horrible for Walmart because those people were nothing but nice to him,” Bucci said, referring to the fact that he'd worked at a Colorado Walmart and had friends at the Checotah store.
It's important to note, Bucci said, that this breakdown was probably not due to Mikey's autism and that delusional thinking is not a symptom of autism.
“I don't believe autistic people are any more susceptible to a sudden bipolar attack than anyone else is, but Mikey had shown some signs of manic behavior when he was young,” she said. “My advice is to be very aware of any differences in eating and sleeping patterns, as well as complaints of added stress or worry, especially if the person has had any history of behavior in their life that might be considered symptomatic of bipolar illness.”
She also doesn't attribute Mikey's death to his access to guns.
“I believe Mikey would have found a different way to kill himself. Since he was a gunsmith, that was the handiest means,” Bucci said.
The return of Mikey
After Mikey's death and funeral, strange things began happening in the Bucci household, happenings that the family attributed to Mikey communicating with them from a spiritual world. The first thing, and most scary, Bucci said, happened the day after Mikey died.
Bucci, Lynn and Mikey's father Mike, were asleep in various rooms of the Checotah farmhouse when a loud crashing woke them all. All the framed photos on a large, sturdy oak bookcase had been knocked over.
This would be the first of many “visitations” from Mikey that Bucci refers to and writes about in “The Return of Mikey.”
She said her family started finding crucifixes in strange places, such as in the mailbox or on their front porch.
On at least 10 occasions, she said the unmistakable sound of chickens clucking would come from common houseplants.
“Seven of us heard it,” Bucci said. “One of them was a Delta Force Sniper team leader. He wasn't somebody that would jump to conclusions.”
Lynn and her grandmother were the first two to witness the cluckings, Lynn said. They were sitting together in the living room of the Checotah farmhouse when they heard the sound of chickens.
“I said, ‘Grandma, I think one of your chickens is in the house,'” Lynn said. Her grandmother heard it, too. “It really did sound like you had a chicken a foot away from you clucking,” Lynn said.
Once, Bucci said Mikey seemed to be teasing his aunt by switching the TV channel she was watching to a channel featuring a show about Cuban cigars, a favorite of Mikey's.
“TVs don't just switch channels like that,” Bucci said. “That just doesn't happen — maybe once every 10 years ... and (things like this) were happening to all of us repeatedly.”
On another occasion, Bucci said she'd been feeling low, shedding a tear or two, when her computer, which had been offline, logged on to YouTube and a Michael Bolton version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began playing. Mikey loved Michael Bolton, Bucci said.
Bucci feels her son wanted her and her family to know in no uncertain terms that he was OK wherever he was.
She also thinks Mikey wants the world to know that Heaven is real.
“That had not been my original message (for the book), but I felt that after he died, he was really trying to show us to have a deeper faith,” Bucci said.
Though many people believe that people who commit suicide end up in hell, Bucci said she doesn't think that's true.
“I don't believe God would turn His back on anyone who was in so much pain they felt the only way out was suicide,” Bucci said. “In fact, we almost put that on the cover of the book. It was going to say, ‘Can dead people play tricks on us? Do suicide victims go to heaven?'”
“I can't imagine anyone believing Mikey is not in a good place now,” Bucci said.
“The Return of Mikey” can be purchased online at www.ReturnofMikey.com (for signed copies), or at Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com.
Here is a book about autism written by a family who knows autism: the pain, the embarrassment, the laughter, and the humanity that is part and parcel of the everyday life of a family loving and raising a child with autism.”
Sally J. Rogers,
Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The MIND Institute, University of California Davis Medical Center