He sits casually on a couch in the hot, humid lounge area of his dormitory, my sixteen-year-old son with mild autism who is about to embark on a two week coding class at Tufts University. He is immersed in his phone, quite relaxed since we have checked him in, made his bed, and most importantly turned on the air conditioner, which I am confident his roommate will be grateful for when he arrives. It is almost 11:00, and although the dining hall is opening soon I have a train to catch back to Jersey, and I think it would be better for him to approach some students in a few minutes and ask them to accompany him to brunch, rather than to eat with his mom.
I marvel for a moment that I can actually get up and leave one of my children for thirteen days, unaccompanied by a parent. I will never be able to leave his twenty-year-old brother with severe autism alone for five minutes. This freedom never ceases to amaze me.
I will always be profoundly grateful.
I touch his shoulder and mention my plan to him, and he says he wants to go up to his room one more time. I offer to accompany him, to make sure his ID actually works and gains him access, and to have a more private goodbye. We return to his room, and in the empty hallway I suggest we say our real goodbye here. He gives me a massive hug, says “thank you,” and I respond with how proud I am of him, and to make good choices (I’m a teacher, I can never resist that one). I get the standard eye roll and “of course” as we make our way downstairs, and I am out the door into the muck of an untraditionally hotter-than-normal Boston, and wend my way to a street I’m more confident Uber will be able to find.
This is a dry run for college two years from now. He is fine. And although I know this is not the “real thing,” I expected more of an onslaught of feelings, for although he’s been away from us before it’s never been in a situation that mimics the more permanent separation of college. As I anticipated this scene I wasn’t sure how I’d react as I wait, sweltering, for my ride.
It turns out, I am fine too.
It will remain the mystery of the universe why two children with the same biological parents had two completely different types of autism, with two completely different types of outcomes. My eldest who showed signs right out of the womb, is completely non-verbal, due to a severe regression six years ago at fourteen, and requires round-the-clock lifetime care. His father and I are fortunate that he is mostly compliant, happy, and to my profound relief years after said regression, has reconnected to us, although he is profoundly altered.
His little brother progressed normally until an illness at eighteen months (his pediatrician had done the M-CHAT and CARS on him throughout his toddlerhood and pronounced him as passing with flying colors, with just the slightest of speech delays like almost every male relative on both sides of his family). Over the course of several weeks proceeding his illness he lost the speech he had, regressed twelve months in all developmental domains according to his Early Intervention providers, and even more upsetting, lost the spark in his soul.
We thought we’d lost him. And yet, within six months he was again speaking, regaining his personality, mainstreamed completely by the first grade, and at sixteen, attending Coding Academy at an elite university.
I am confident I will go to my grave never knowing why.
I am also confident I will always want to know.
As my phone heralds the approach of my driver I think back to a saying favored by my grandmother, “it is what it is.” And although the simplicity of that message has been infuriating to me at times in my life, it resonates as a profound truth.
This is where we are.
I love them both for who they are.
I will never stop reveling in my youngest’s burgeoning independence.
I will never stop yearning for the same for my eldest.
I will always attempt to meet them where they are, and enjoy the moment when I can.
For me, there is no other way to be where I can fully encourage their personal growth, help them achieve their fullest capacity, and hopefully set them up for a lifetime of safety, purpose, and happiness.
And as my Uber finally approaches, for the moment, it is enough.
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