She had a high school sweetie, a boy she met in art class named Tom Hand. After he spent a brief period in the Coast Guard, they married against the wishes of both families and moved to North Carolina. He went to community college, she taught high school art, and, though they were hardly scraping by financially, they had a child, Nathan. When Nathan was 6 months old, the threesome settled in Newport News, Va.; Tom was to begin a work training program with the Navy, dreaming of one day becoming a naval architect, and Chou Chou thought they had found stability. Just two weeks into their new life, she says, “I wrote my mother and said, ‘I think this is finally happily ever after.’ ” That night a police officer knocked on the door: Tom and a friend were in a car accident. The friend was killed, and Tom, then 21, had suffered severe brain damage.
After Tom was released from the VA hospital in Hampton, Va., his mother brought him home to New Jersey; he could hardly talk and couldn’t walk or feed himself, and she could offer full-time care. He never improved and died five years later. The strain of the incident kicked up what Chou Chou now recognizes as autistic behavior. “I was beating my head against the wall,” she says, and means this literally. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”