I’ve been here before. A fiery fissure breaking through my heart, Richter scale 6-8, the pain of saying goodbye to a son. This feeling is familiar territory with motherhood. But with autism there is an additional darkness in the chasm. My oldest, Nat, is 27 and autistic, and he is leaving today for a group home.
I spent the morning, and the day before at those home accessory stores, lost in a fog of pastel household goods and women, glassy-eyed like me, stroking carpets that hung like a row of furry tongues and other items they did not need. I was shopping for Nat’s new room: towels, bedside table, curtains. The only guidance I had from him was the word, “green,” in answer to my question of what color he wants in his room. And I was lucky to get this tiny chip of information, real information, from Nat in his otherwise barely intelligible symphony of sounds. I say symphony because his self-talk is so musical, rising and falling like a nursery rhyme, yet as complex as Beethoven’s Ninth.
In the store, I found myself looking at other colors, though. How would orange be? He likes his orange Gap shirt. Or yellow? He wears yellow tee shirts all sunny summer long. But does that mean that this room should have those colors? He said “green.” But still, there I was, wondering about the orange pillow, the splashy yellow dust ruffle. Always wanting to meet him where he is and pull him into more. Pull him to me. A la Greenspan/Floortime. Build that bridge, tote that barge. As if I am somehow the example of where he should be. I am so not.
I wandered the aisles thinking of Floortime, having thoughts like, “will they know him? why does he want to go, because he thinks he’s supposed to go, or because he wants to?” But mostly I felt like apologizing. Yeah, I’m really sorry for not being absolutely certain of what to do for you, Nat. I’m so fucking sorry that my body did not equip you with the easier, neurotypical DNA, those mainstream building blocks, that ladder to independence. You will always need others to watch out for you, and it can’t be me forever, and so I need to find others, I need to get you used to others. But Goddammit, there are others out there who are stupid or evil. Or indifferent. Lazy. I can’t imagine how they can be that way. I see red when I imagine a person not taking care of you right. HOW DARE THEY? You are a gift to them. You are utterly you, and yes, I’ll say it, you are pure. I’m not saying you are superhuman or an angel or any other such bullshit. You are special in that unlike Us, you are purely you, no guile, no artifice. Well, I know that the sign-song self-talk is an attempt to hide what is going on in your mind. Oh that is so dear. No, no, not patronizing you. I’m matronizing you, that’s different. When you vocalize, I listen with my deepest, quietest self. I heard “hooo-me” this morning and I knew it was “home.” Stretched-out words. You want to keep your thoughts private while expressing your feelings at the same time. You are infinitely clever. Who else could build what you have, with the tools you’ve been given?
Aside from this seven-month stint since July, Nat has not lived at home since 2008. This is a good thing. It was a good thing. He learned to live with others who do not love him or know him the way we do. He learned how to make his needs known, even with limited verbal ability. He acquired skills like food shopping, laundry, and other daily living activities. He developed beautifully.
But he also came home with mysteriously fractured ribs. And though he did articulate a tantalizing few words explaining how it happened, we could not trust this for sure. The state investigation heard other such explanations from his disabled co-workers at his former day program, but deemed them “unreliable reporters.” Can you imagine being thought of that way? It chokes me, it feels like a kicked ass kind of rage. And yet that is how I sometimes think of Nat. I explain to doctors, “Well, he often answers just ‘yes’ by rote, because he either doesn’t know how to answer your question about his health, or he doesn’t want to talk, so ‘yes’ will get you off his back.”
So even when guys like Nat do express themselves in an effort to engage with us (the neurotypical world), they don’t really get very far.
And so, my dear, I will buy you green. All the green I can find. And I will hope that you will unfurl like the best of leaves, and find equally healthy growth in your new place.