Susan's Blog

Monday, December 14, 2009

Separated At Birth, Together At Manhood

Watching teenagers grow up is like a sweet sad joy and torment. So much they don’t know, so much you don’t know. Things you want to say but can’t find the words or don’t dare. So much emotional constipation. Just as Nat and Max were babies and toddlers together — more or less (they’re 2 years apart) — now they are both teenagers aging out, more or less (Nat’s a very young 20 and Max is a very old 17, so that together they average 18 1/2 (Ned just did the math for me on this.)).

My father was reading to Nat the other day; Nat was so edgy, jumping out of his skin, needing something, constantly moving. But when he sat down on the couch, like a bird resting for a split second on a branch, my dad seized the moment to offer to read him a story. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is an old favorite of Nat’s, and Dad loves it just as much. We all do. Yes, it is a children’s story, but you could also call it ageless. Innocent and childlike but also right to the heart of familial love, where the only thing that matters is being able to be a family together.

I watched Dad reading to Nat, pausing to ask him what was going on in the picture, or letting him read a word or two. This is a tableau that is so familiar that I could almost not notice it, except there it was. Nat so old now, but also so young — I’m not supposed to say that, some of my very high-functioning autistic comrades have told me — but Nat seems young because his verbal language is so underdeveloped. He talks “like a baby,” Ben might have said, years ago. These days he speaks a lot of “gibberish,” as Max called it in his college essay. Harsh, but true to them.

In the verbal/social sense, Nat seems many years younger than Max, but that is the tragedy of disability. He seems that way, but he is most definitely not. There are so many ways in which you can see Nat’s 20 years. Most obviously, his low voice, his beard-roughened face, his rock-hard man arms. But there’s also the way that he is more distant from me, more unto himself than ever. He doesn’t share his candy anymore. He does not willingly hug me — not that he doesn’t want to, but it’s clear that it’s for me, not for him. He does not want to talk about things in my language, and when I delve into his (“Nat, did you just start singing Your Mother and Mine? That’s from Peter Pan!” — “No Peter Pan.”) the wall comes down. It is so hard for me not to feel that this is Nat rejecting me somehow. It is so easy for me to believe that this distance means Nat is unhappy with his current life, mad at me for sending him to live at his school. Did I break his heart as I did mine? I will never know and many would tell me therefore not to think about it or not to think the worse. But I do. There are so many interpretations of his dimmer connection to us all, and most of them are not good.

But when I observe Max and his recent development, I can interpret Nat a little differently. Max has more social skills, so he knows how to coat his distance with kind smiles and soft shrugs. He never comes over to me to hug me, and I would never expect it. And just as I get a pang of jealousy when he so happily runs to open the door for Hannah, this is kind of the same pang I feel when Nat walks into The House so eagerly.

Ned says the eagerness on Nat’s part is about his hunger for consistency, rather than it being a preference for The House over home. I, of course, do not know what to believe but Ned’s interpretation feels too cold for me to accept. Nat is not just a creature of routine. Nat is one of the most complex human beings I have ever known, but for some of us it is easy to reduce his actions to simplistic reasons (like thinking he’s babyish for loving the Sylvester story or for speaking in a simple, childlike way, when really there are plenty of adult reasons for this). For me it is easier to interpret his actions as being complicated and full of painful meaning. If the truth is absolutely somewhere else, I don’t know how I will discover it.

Last night Max and Hannah went to see a concert at The Middle East. It may have been his first or second rock concert, but definitely his first in a bar-like atmosphere. I drove them because it was a cold rain and naturally one or the other of them was unprepared for the discomfort of the T, the questionable safety of the neighborhood, or of standing outside for a while waiting to get in. But I could not get them to think ahead. They were utterly unconcerned about the rain or the seediness of the neighborhood, the time of night (a school night), or any of it. I realized that this time next year Max would be completely without me, going off to places like this or worse, possibly underdressed and definitely unprepared. Driving home in the dark almost-winter of the night I felt kind of bitter and lonely, jealous, too, of his youthful innocence. Feeling so far from that myself as the mother of two young men at this phase in life — both so innocent and both so unaware of all that may lie before them.


Wouldn't your heart break even more to know that Nat didn't want to go back to school and his other house? It's just like any child, going to boarding school or college, it's fun to go home but it's also good to go back to school. I think from my years of working in a residential school, that it wasn't that the kids didn't want to see and be with their families, they did. It's that they liked having something of their own. A place where they could be "part of the group" and not the child that consumed someone's every waking moment. For some, it was almost a relief. The pressure to be the object of so much love and angst and hope and confusion can be challenging. Maybe being away at school helps your son be more a part of everything at home, when he's there. We may never know, but if he's happy to go back, that is a very, very good sign. Michele

— added by miti on Monday, December 14, 2009 at 7:35 pm

That was incredibly well written.

— added by Therapeutic Ramblings on Monday, December 14, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Thank you, Michele. You are probably right.

Thank you Therapeutic, you are right, too… 😉

— added by Susan Senator on Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 8:14 am

Susan, I am going through similar emotions. My son lives in a group home and he has become more distant when we are together. For me, I think it is because when I see him, I tend to ask too many questions about his experiences there. I have a responsibility to ensure he is safe and his needs are being met. I can tell you that there have been instances which required intervention. He does seem to welcome returning to his own space apart from us, but I don't know if he can recognize situations that may place him at risk. If I believed he could recognize this and report it, I could sleep much better than I do. I carefully look for behavioral signs. With limited speech, that is his primary means of communication. Jane

— added by Anonymous on Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 11:32 pm

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