Part of me thinks that no one should ever have to outgrow Toy Story.
Ever since the 18th birthday earlier this spring, I’ve been in a state of emotional turmoil. It’s only a slight exaggeration. Now I try to make some sense of a teenager’s room that runs the gamut from Winnie-the-Pooh to Scooby Doo with everything in between. It’s a collector’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. I’ve learned the hard way that throwing the wrong thing out means I will be hounded eventually to replace it – it could be five weeks or 5 years from now, just long enough to make what cost me $1.99 in 2003 now cost $67.99 on Ebay today. I know parents who have purged their house of everything Thomas and Pixar to help their kids become adults but my problem is that I really am loath to replace Toy Story with the Man of Steel. To me, that’s just another kind of arrested development. More importantly, he’s not interested in that stuff – he sleeps soundly through superhero movies on a regular basis. He loves what he loves.
And the books. Which ones will he ever read? How can we know what will prove useful or interesting, just by waiting patiently for him to notice the ones placed where he sees them every day? To get rid of the easy readers seems mean, to get rid of the more advanced books seems pessimistic.
Will he look beyond the action figures to the books behind them? Maybe.
Downstairs are the bins of paperwork that requires filing or tossing – one for school, one for insurance, one for general ASD stuff, one for transition, one for keepsakes and artwork that show developmental progress, or the lack thereof. But I only end up weeding things out I know are redundant – I just don’t know when a school or a court will need to see what we have and I’m afraid to get rid of something that could be a key piece of evidence of … I don’t know. And every bin or toys or papers brings a flood of memories and emotions that don’t want to stay on the shelf where I keep them. I am trying so hard to focus on the future that sifting through the past seems like a bad idea just now.
So I guess I’ll stick with The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music – at least they are live action – and wait a bit longer for the moment when we can at least move some stuff up to the attic. And we will know soon enough what schools, doctors, agencies and lawyers require and then, maybe then, we can let go of at least some of the past.
I took this photo in the parking lot of the Lurie Center in Lexington, Massachusetts, a branch of Massachusetts General Hospital that serves children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. These are iconic fries, a not-so-secret symbol of what it often takes to get an ASD kid to and through a doctor’s appointment; I can only imagine the tears spilled when they hit the pavement. The clinicians at the Lurie Center are among the best in the world and yet even the skilled and gentle support they offer can’t always extend out into the parking lot where worried parents and anxious kids struggle – sometimes mightily – to fit yet another specialist appointment into their lives.
But with this photo I see and offer up hope that persistence pays off. Not always, not when we want it to, but it is hard for me to adequately convey my joy at seeing these fries and knowing that they were not going to cause me the meltdown we once might have had just seeing them ice cold on the ground. My boy looked at them and remarked, “Someone’s been to McDonald’s!” and then danced – literally, with iPod – toward the entrance. Next to the door there is a wisely placed trash can, which he glanced into and noted, a little somber now, “There’s the box.” Some part of him knew and felt the pain of the child whose fries had met the wrong fate.
It was a lively day in the waiting room, with several families with antsy children waiting to be greeted by doctors and therapists. We recognized one clinician as she came out to greet a child. We knew her from work we did as part of a research group a few years ago, and she delighted at seeing our boy. He spoke politely with her and then began to tease me about what he wanted from me in exchange for being brave about having his blood drawn (more research – that’s another post – and the covet du jour was yet another Scooby Doo movie) that day. I saw her look at him, and at me and as she listened to us negotiate I saw on her face a measure of disbelief that this could be the same boy she knew in 2009. She looked at me and lowered her voice and said, “Do you know how lucky you are?” And even though I said yes, later I had to stop and take stock of how far we have come from our french fries in the parking lot days. Our challenging times are by no means gone but they are different, and it is best not to dwell on what they are like now – they will return soon enough.
I am standing in the same place this photo was taken. My boy has his back to me, motionless, on this side of the blue-tarped wood pile. On the other side is a grizzly bear on its hind legs, paws up, teeth bared. As I search for a weapon unidentified people around me are telling me not to do anything, that it will be okay, but I keep looking for something to hit it with. Whiffle bat? No. Badminton racket? No. Umbrella? No. I run down to the garage and grab the push broom. I run up the hill and around the house and as I swing the broom over my head the top of the broom flies off and only the stick is left. I see the bear turn toward me, I see my boy turn toward me. I swing.
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.
The blue dot is our house at midnight last night, complete with chick pea sized hail and forked lightning. There are moments, during fine weather, when this is exactly what it feels like inside our house. Thanks for the visual cue, Mother Nature.
Last November, I read an article in the New York Times about the alarming number of people with developmental disabilities who die unexplained deaths while in state custody. I couldn’t finish it through my tears. The previous weeks had been largely devoted to transition planning and cognitive testing for our teenaged son, so my worries about his future were already close to the surface. I usually am better at keeping a lid on my anxiety on the long term issues; I don’t think it’s fair to my other children to let autism dominate the family dialogue any more than it already does. So after my decidedly lid-off response to the article, I went up to take a shower, which always helps me regain my equilibrium.
In my extremely nearsighted state I fumbled with the new razor I took with me into the shower, and nicked a bit of skin off of one of the knuckles on my left hand. It bled a little bit but for what seemed like a long time, and I stood there in the steaming water, watching it channel through grooves in my skin, run off the side of my hand and disappear in the cascading water. Maybe this is why people cut themselves, I thought, understanding for the first time why anyone would do such a thing. The bracing clarity of pain and the fascination with flowing blood make other troubles fade, if only for a moment. Having drawn blood, your instincts take over and stopping the flow becomes your only goal. There’s a strange kind of release (adrenaline, I guess) in that kind of single-mindedness, especially when the pursuit of multiple goals is what is making you crazy. I thought of my worries running down the drain with the hot water, and how what is terrifying in one moment can seem perfectly manageable in the next.
I haven’t been tempted to capture that feeling again in that way, but I understand better now the value of tackling challenges one at a time and setting short term goals rather than taking on the entire future at once. And perhaps I should be a little more selective about what I read in the paper, and when.