Apology as a Rite of Passage

On Faith at washingtonpost.com, February 12, 2009

Most parents breathe a big sigh of relief when their kids leave home, even though at the same time they worry. But when your first child to move out has a severe disability, you are in a whole different realm of uncertainty and worry. You’re so used to worrying, to atypical experiences, that sometimes it’s easier to cling to the old and outgrown than to take that horrifying, breathless leap and let go, as I am learning now.

My oldest child — and my first to leave home — is autistic. Last fall, we moved him to a group home. While I did feel some relief when he left, the larger part of what I have felt is fear and guilt that I let him go too soon. How could he be ready for this? What were the signs? As always with Nat, there were none that I could make out. So for the longest time, I did not really let go of him at all.

I would pop into his classroom unannounced. I would take him home sometimes during the week, sometimes on weekends, without a plan, because I needed to see him and be sure he was OK. I asked the staff to have him call me every night. Our conversations were formulaic - scripted because of his language difficulties:

“Hi, it’s Nat, how you, I’m good.”

“Hi Nat! I’m good, too. What did you do in school?”

“You worked in school. You worked on pronouns.”

Such dear innocence! And proof, I thought, that he was not ready to be living away from me. But everyone from teachers to family told me that he was doing really well there: no outbursts, no unpredictable behavior, a beginning ability to complete chores around the house. New hobbies, like running and playing catch. But I could not listen to that.

Surely no one could love him or take care of him like I could! Nothing would convince me that this had been the right thing to do.

So when I had a phone call recently because Nat had had an outburst, I felt bitterly vindicated. At last, he was showing his unhappiness with his group home. Here was the evidence that I had done the wrong thing, that he could not live away from me. Things, indeed, would never change. As hard as that was, it was what I was used to. All the same tapes that had played in my head since he was born: things will never be right, no one gets it but me.”

Martin, the staff working with Nat at the time, called me later. “After it happened,” he said, “we went on a little walk, and I said to him, ‘Nat, all you have to do next time is tell me what you want.’ And then — he apologized to me. He said ‘I’m sorry Martin.’”

What? Nat had apologized? Just like that? Since when? All those years of trying to get him to understand his effect on others, and hoping he got it, but never really knowing for sure. But that night, he had said he was sorry to Martin! I burst into tears as I hung up the phone. I had a giddy feeling, like my world had just spun off its axis. What did this mean? That Nat was ready? More than ready, I realized. He was growing more than I had ever thought he could.

They say it takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. I guess this means that Nat is truly a man, and a strong, good man at that. Despite his awkwardness with words or his frustrations with the world around him, he has indeed found his way, just like other young men do.

It’s hard for me to admit I was wrong. But actually, being wrong is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.