My Two Sons

Jewish Advocate, October 3, 2013

It’s the New Year, and autumn, and all of this usually hits me right in the face, not gracefully at all. Where others rejoice in the way summer ends in bountiful harvest and blazing color, I feel loss.

In the past three years, fall has become that time when my two older sons move back to their own homes, and I have a hard time with that. When the boys leave, they suck everything out of the room — including my peace of mind. Although Nat, my oldest, goes back to his group home in Boston every weekend, when it is coupled with my middle son Max resuming college in New York City, their exodus feels especially sharp.

My two adult sons could not be more different, and yet when they go, my anxiety seeps in for the same reason. It’s all about how well they can live on their own. I cannot stand not knowing if they’re going to be OK.

Nat’s group home is nice enough, but the budget is tight and staff oversight is sometimes erratic as a result. This may have played a roll in an alarming weight loss in Nat. He is severely autistic and cannot tell us that he is hungry or in pain, and so we often have to guess what is wrong. If you ask him how he is feeling, he’ll say, “Good.” But that’s his default answer for everything. If you then ask him if anything hurts, he’ll say, “Yes.” So I take him to the doctor often, to get him checked. At this point, the doctor knows him very well and so the two of us puzzle these things out together.

I have a very different relationship with Max, who is as communicative as any normal 21-year-old young man in college (that is, not much). So I worry about him, too.

This year his apartment in Brooklyn is more squalid than usual because he is off-campus, not even close to the illusory protection of the school grounds of New York University. I had to learn just how bad it was from Facebook. Max posted something like this: “Ugh, the toilet doesn’t work and we have bugs. Only dead ones so far.” He was “pretty certain” they were not bedbugs.

Panicking, I told him to tell his landlord but I knew that would likely be an unsatisfying experience in such a slum-like apartment. I know he is a young man and has to learn to do these things himself — but bedbugs? That takes a mother’s muscle, not a mellow young man’s. I asked him to send me a picture of the bugs and I would show it to a pest specialist. He emailed it, saying, “pictures of bugs, sorry about the white balance.” Oy, film students!

To my surprise and relief, Max actually did sort this out. The landlord came and fixed the toilet. He sprayed for bugs. Yes, the corpses were still there when went down there to help him with additional furniture. Yes, he’s since seen a few more and they were very much alive. But they turned out to be cockroaches, not bedbugs. I never thought I would find myself saying, “Thank G-d, cockroaches!” But the experience of your sons leaving home gives you a new perspective on such things. For now — just for now — I feel I can relax about Max. Maybe he will be okay — as long as he locks those bars on his windows.

And Nat, well, it is a bit more complicated, of course, because he can’t call a landlord or complain. It is heartbreaking and scary. I solve this by bringing him to his doctor for extra visits, just to be sure, which is not easy because he works and lives 20 minutes away. The doctor is perfect for Nat and me. She takes each visit very seriously. She rejoices at his progress. She really “gets” Nat. She worries enough that I trust her, but knows enough science that she doesn’t go overboard. She also happens to be a Jewish mother as well, and perhaps that gives us an extra connection.

I had to bring him in the other day because I’ve been worried about the recent weight loss, and his overall diet and health. After a battery of questions about his belly/tummy/stomach that he may or may not have answered accurately with that same “yes,” the doctor turned to Nat once again and asked if his head hurt. Nat bellowed, “Nooooo” — so firmly that we all just sat there stunned for a moment. Then the it was as if the sun came out, and we burst out laughing. I wanted to jump up and hug him, but of course, he is a 23-year-old man, so I didn’t. Instead I gave him a dignified thumbs up. But, wow. That time he really told us. Loudly.

So sometimes, I can kinda, sorta let go. And I know at some point I will have to let go. Autumn comes and then — winter. But not quite yet.

In the end, after a thorough exam and later on, blood tests, the doctor decided that Nat was OK. She felt reasonably certain that a focused diet would help. Her final advice was in that most sage of tongues, Yiddish: “Eine bissele, mein kindelah!” (“Eat a little bit, my child. Just one piece.”)

One piece at a time. More broadly, one step at a time. I realized a little later that this could apply to Max, as well. One step at a time. I guess that’s all any of us can do — sons and their worried mothers.