This was our boy’s observation as we pulled into the drive thru at McDonald’s yesterday. The fast food Mecca is the bane and savior of many an autism parent’s existence. I wish I could say that I took him there only because after 7 weeks of camp he deserved the french fries, but the fact is that after 7 weeks of him at camp plus a college drop-off I craved the Big Mac even more than he did the fries. I knew we would both be sorry in a few hours but we had both been on our best behavior for so long it seemed a minor transgression.
And the phrasing of his remark may not be grammatically correct, but it sums up perfectly the mixed feelings those of us who still go the McDonald’s (oh, come on, you know who you are) have about it – that smell and the very act of pulling up to the window are a sensory memory none of us ever forget. If you have not heard Jim Gaffigan‘s riff on McDonald’s, you owe it yourself to go here.
So, contraband procured, our boy clutched the bag and said, “Shall we wait until we get home?” and then immediately began to eat them – longest ones first. My favorite part (other than the Big Mac) was, as I watched him munch out of the corner of my eye, I asked him to share a fry with me – and, as usual, he gave me the shortest one he could find.
We went straight from camp pickup to vacation; now is the only significant length of time between June and December that we will all be together. There is a lot to process: camp, work and school transitions, the sudden loss of friends and colleagues over the summer. It seems I say in every post that we are learning a lot, but each time I write it I suppose I really mean to say we are learning unexpected things about the twists and turns our lives take, beyond what we have come to expect in the earlier years of raising children and getting older. The more I try to live in the moment, the more these unanticipated events seem to get in the way.
Even as I write a hurricane (Isaac) has popped up out of nowhere to bluster through our trip and set us back a day – it’s causing both excitement and anxiety, but right now the nearly empty beach is populated by just two people, Dad and boy out for a snorkle in a window of late afternoon sunshine between the bands of wind and rain. This is the revelation of the vacation for me. Usually too chicken to snorkel, the calm waters of Caneel Bay convinced me that even I could venture out into the reefs. Much as I am enchanted by graceful sea turtles and spiky urchins down on the sea floor, the most breathtaking sight is the beauty of our boy moving through the ocean. I have always known he is more content under the water than above it, but I never understood the truth of that until now. While I have to remind myself to breathe through the snorkle, he dives and darts down through the water with an ease that astounds. This is a moment I can savor and one I would give him every day if I could.
And when he comes out of the water he rests. And then he talks. And most of words and phrases are his – not scripted or non-sensical. He wants to know more about his friend who died suddenly of leukemia while he was away (we don’t have a lot of answers; we can’t make sense of it, either). He wants to talk about school and home and his sister going to college. The water has cleared the static in his brain and it reminds me a little of Oliver Sacks‘s stories of people who gain clarity and lose it again. Even though the increased fluidity does not last, the gift from the sea is a window into his mind, and I wish and wonder how we could prop it open a bit longer before the storm arrives, passes, and we go home.
It’s the last week of camp. I have pored over all of the camp’s photos of our boy and verified that he does look older. We’ve had a phone call and an e-mail over the last few days and I recognize that the flow of communication from him has not evolved as much as we had hoped – the separation did not widely increase the level of detail he provides in letters or over the phone. Still, we know that he is well and happy and we are all anxious to be together again. By any measure the venture has been a success, but the real specifics will be revealed in the coming weeks and months as we observe the re-entry to home and school.
Meanwhile, we have had seven weeks of clear floors, with no trains or set ups of Pride Rock, The Big Harbor, or Playmobil farms and zoos. I had the carpets cleaned yesterday; they are vibrant, soft and beautiful. All prepared for him to come home.
Last weekend I was so hot and so worried I lost 5 pounds and did not even notice until now. Suddenly I’ve lost my taste for sweets.
Week seven underway and we are all tired of our quiet house. I told myself at the outset that I would not spend the summer waiting for the boy to come home, and for the first six weeks I made good on that promise in some ways but not others. I spent time with my other kids doing things they wanted to do and sharing with them new experiences that are interesting to me. I promised to have drinks with lots of people to help pass the time but I didn’t make good on that one. I said I would sort through his drawings and keep the best ones, but I can’t go anywhere near that mountain of paper with any kind of gusto and certainly not a shredder.
But the biggest elephant in the room right now is that this adventure is supposed to prepare us for more separations in the future, and even though I should feel better about age 22 now than I did, I still can’t envision a life without this person under my roof. We were not prepared for the scale or the depth of the adjustment at home; the house is neater, cooking is simpler, and car rides are quieter, but nothing is better without him here (which is not at all surprising). I have to remind myself that this particular kind of absence isn’t what camp was about – that long distances and separation over several weeks is not the model we are shooting for, that camp is only an experiment and not a template for his adult life.
We still have lots of data to collect before we really know what we have learned, and the surprise at this point is that most of the learning has been about ourselves and not him. But a few things are certain – we are all stronger, smarter and better prepared for the next steps we take toward independence, and that we still need to address what independence really means within the structure of a family.
We got the best hugs ever and spent much of the day just soaking up the feeling of being together again. It was hot and humid and so group activities where we could socialize and learn more about camp just seemed impossible – we strolled off in search of a breeze and found it on a hill overlooking the lake.
One look at his cabin made me feel so proud of our boy – living in close quarters in that heat (lots of fans) for so long would test the best of us. And of course this is no ordinary group of boys. They are quirky and sometimes challenging kids, and fortunately the counselors are young men with good hearts and lots of energy. It is clear that he copes by drawing – the walls next to his bunk are plastered with art in which every part of the paper is colored. Our girl found a little note written on the wall next to his pillow: “6 weeks can take forever and all summer.” At that moment it was hard not to whisk him to the car and bring him home, until I asked him what he missed most. He looked wistfully away and sighed. “Wireless internet.” Okay, he can stay.
And the reality is that he showed us he has the tools to stick it out for another couple weeks, and do so happily. His knee is great, he is taller (I think), more muscular (for sure), and much more self sufficient. He swims twice a day and has learned to water ski. He got and wrote some terrific letters; there’s an impressive pile of them next to his bunk. I am overwhelmed at the generosity of all of the friends and family who make the effort to write to him and send him care packages. It is an unexpected blessing of this whole enterprise that so many people would take the time from summer work and travel to think of him – he got packages and postcards from Europe, Ohio and California representing family, friends and teachers he has known at every age all the way back to preschool.
Our world – his world – is bigger than we thought. That alone is worth the price of separation.
Naturally just before Parent’s Day they get the kids to get caught up on their correspondence – just in time to ask you to bring them stuff. You know they’ve been sitting around his bunk for a while because there’s no mention of the knee injury. Doesn’t matter – I live to see his distinctive handwriting (best in family), which I keep trying to make into a font.
You can tell that the bulk of his letter-writing experience has been to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny because he’s got the gift requests down pat – very specific, down to the materials and manufacturers. The boy understands how to communicate when he wants something – he includes visual prompts. He drew the cookies he wants me to send.