A New Reality

It should have been more momentous.

Sitting there, in a classroom last week, listening to my autistic son’s teacher tell me that he was doing well in all his subjects was the stuff of my dreams a few years ago.  A reality I couldn’t imagine, but one I hoped to attain in the far away world called Someday.  A scenario I’d all but dashed after his preschool speech therapist told me my son would “never be normal” and would “never catch up” after I’d seen their IQ testing.  He’d tested a 70, just a cut above mentally retarded.

But somehow, this is now my reality.  My son is in fourth grade, and after years of struggling to help him assimilate into the main stream, he is there.  I sat across from his teacher this year only to hear glowing after glowing report.  My son wasn’t just doing well “under the circumstances” as is usually the case.  He was simply, “doing well.”  He is on grade level in all of his subjects.  He has friends and in fact shows concern for others who are not doing well socially or academically.  He is funny and well liked.

It took a long time for us to adjust our expectations for our youngest son.  To put ourselves in the mindset of not just being parents, but being “special needs parents”, a small but mighty breed of fighters whose sole focus is advocating for and pushing their child as far as they can reasonably be expected to progress.  To accept that he might not ever live an independent life, or go to college, or hold a job, or even drive a car.  But we did it.  We were there.  It was our reality.

It isn’t anymore.

It almost feels too soon, too scary to think about readjusting our expectations and goals again.  To dare to dream that someday our son might just live, but thrive.  That we could experience days of pride and joy for him as we have with our oldest child.

For now, I will be happy with where we are.  It’s going to be a while, I think, before I know that this is new reality is going to stick.



“So Mom, do you think that you’ll be going back to teaching or something now that Michael is doing better in school?” asked my eldest son, home for the in between of his college days and his working days.

I understand why it’s on his mind.  He has spent every day since his graduation last May searching for a full time job.  He worked hard for four years, graduated with top honors, and is ready to strike out on his own.  I remember the feeling; I was so excited to be “near the end of the tunnel” at the end of my college experience.  Since I’d moved home when I had Z, I looked forward to that rite of passage of graduating, getting my first job and setting up my first apartment, just me and my little boy, finally self sufficient and on our own.  My end of college and subsequent job search though ended up getting intertwined with my mother’s illness and then her passing, so life and plans and expectations changed.

But Z, he has a clear path.  And he’s very focused.  So I can imagine that he looks at me, the former teacher with a degree and a certificate growing yellow around the edges in a file cabinet in the basement, with some confusion.   He’s seen me work as a teacher when he was young, and then still pursue it in the evenings when he was an early teen.  But that all fell by the wayside when we moved here and my youngest was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  I needed to be available during the days, because sometimes things happen.  And over the years we’ve lived here, R’s job has made him less and less able to help, until we’ve gotten to the point now where it truly is all on me, all of the time.  If R’s around it is a bonus, but I pretty much expect that I am the one in charge of all things related to the children.  It truly is my job at this point, and everything else plays second fiddle.

It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was standing where Z is right now.  I thought I would work and have children and be married and share all of the home and children responsibilities equally with my partner.  I made all sorts of black and white statements, the kind that kids that age make when life hasn’t thrown them too many curveballs yet.  But yet somehow, here I am.   I’m OK with it for now, after many years of struggling and chafing at the thought of being “only” a mom.  Watching Michael do well in school or Melinda push herself because of something she’s seen me do or say helps me stay in the game, seeing Z prepare to take on his first real job after college and start his life.

But still, I wonder too, where I will go from here.  I thought of the times in my life when I didn’t have a choice.  All of the choices that life took away from me.  But I realized:  I’m lucky to have choices now. And I realized that I have plenty of time to think about it and make the right choice for me, whatever that may end up being at this stage in my life.

“I don’t know yet,” I answered Z, honestly.  “I think I’m fortunate to be able to be here for all of you now, and to be able to decide which job I want as opposed to which job I need just to survive.  It’s a blessing, and I’m grateful to be in this place now, because so many people don’t have a choice.”

The News

“Mom, I have some news for you.”

I gulped, holding the phone.  It was a cold day in March, and I wondered what my boy, standing in his apartment seven hundred miles away in college was about to tell me.

I remembered uttering those words to my mother as well, from my dorm room 100 miles from home.  They were life changing words.  I was 18 years old.  A lifetime, my son’s lifetime, flashed before my eyes in the pause before I said, “Sure honey, what’s up?” as if I wasn’t shaking a little.

“Well, I have a girlfriend.”

A girlfriend.  This was indeed news.  Poor Z had never really had a serious relationship in high school; there were some crushes back and forth, and a long distance thing he’d carried on via the Internet with some girl out west, but he’d never really had anyone special enough to confidently give that designation to.

“Wow, that’s great news,” I responded cautiously.  “How long have you been seeing each other?”

“Two weeks,” responded my son with the seriousness that only a 21 year old can muster when speaking of a relationship.

I sighed.  I remembered the days when two weeks seemed like a lifetime.  When you thought you knew that your entire world had changed and that you could confidently say that this person was going to be there for you, forever, after only two weeks.  I stifled the matronly words that leapt into my head and spoke:  “Wow, OK.  What’s her name?”

And just like that, things were different.  My son had a girlfriend.  My son was an adult, graduating from college, looking for a job, and had a serious girlfriend.  I have friends that are married to the people that they met when they were where my son is.  More than one.  As if I wasn’t quite sure that my son was growing up, moving on, getting ready to start a real life, the news brought it all into very sharp focus.  And that’s a good thing.  This is what parents work towards, hope for, make sacrifices for their whole lives for.  To see their children happy and moving forward.

Fast forward six months and my son has come home with his girlfriend for the weekend.  They are still together, they are still serious, and they hold hands under the table at dinner.  She is polite, she is respectful and she loves our younger children and our dogs.  Her parents are closer to my father’s age than my own, but I suppose that is to be expected.  I can’t tell who is more nervous:  her at staying with us or us worried that she’ll find us somehow less than her own experiences.

Either way, we’re all trying.  Who knows where it all will lead, but for now, it’s good.

The 20 Year Old Wound

These days I call him “my eldest”.  It’s innocuous enough to not belie his non traditional way into the world, my nearly 22 year old son.  It still stings every time I hear the phrase, “Wow, you look young for your age” (insinuating that of course I must be older than I appear because otherwise I would have been WAY TOO YOUNG to have a child so old).  I’ve got a flip response that I always use to mask the way my heart tugs just a little every time I hear it: “Thank you so much!”  It perpetuates the charade right along with whomever dared to make a comment.  Most people are trying to be complimentary, I’m sure, but it always digs a little that that now decades old but yet still surprisingly fresh wound.

After my 20th high school reunion I tried to put to bed the fantasy that one day things would be different.  That somehow in adulthood Joe and I would find a way to make up for the lost years of Z’s childhood, where he and I found our way through life, growing up really side by side.  His absence there and my conversation with one of his old high school pals reminded me of all the ridiculousness of expecting others to behave as you wanted them to, rather than who they are.  There’s a quote I love that says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”  After 20 years of waiting, I slowly gave up the watch after that night.

But last November, on a Sunday morning before church, my phone suddenly rang.  It was my eldest, calling from college.  He was in his senior year then, and I hardly ever heard from him on a weekend; they were too full of marching band, football games, and homework.  So my radar was up the second I answered and said:  “What’s wrong?”

A long pause.  “My great grandmother died last night.”

I drew a total blank.  My grandmother, his great grandmother, lived in Delaware and while in her early 90s, was not sick the last I’d checked.  And certainly if she had passed, my father would be calling to tell me,  not Z. His other great grandmother, my mother’s mother, had been dead since the 70s.  R’s grandmothers had both passed in the last few years.  My mind raced and scrambled, and then I realized:  he meant Joe’s grandmother.

I knew he’d met her over the weekend of my 20th high school reunion.  He’d kept up communication with Joe’s aunt and that weekend they’d met for the first time.  I could hardly stomach the idea of him alone with Joe’s family, but I also encouraged it and he’d spent an afternoon at the same home that Joe had lived at briefly while we were dating.   He hadn’t spoken much about it, but every so often Z would pepper conversations with comments about “his aunt” or “his grandmothter” or “the family”.  I asked him once if they ever spoke about his father and he’d said quietly, “No.”

“I’m so sorry,” I responded, taking the phone into the bathroom with me, away from R and our two younger children, who were in the final stages of putting on shoes and tucking in shirts for church.  “What happened?”

“My aunt told me in an email that she’d been sick and in the hospital, but she thought she was getting better.  But then late last night, she sent one to tell me that she’d passed.  I’m so mad at myself for not checking my email when we’d gotten back from the game last night.”

I sighed.  “Well don’t beat yourself up about that, Z.  You couldn’t have known what was waiting in there for you.”

“I know,” he answered.

There was a question hanging between the 700 miles between us.  Z hardly ever spoke about his father, but there had to be a reason he’d called me to tell me all of this on a Sunday morning.  He called home once a week these days, sometimes less.  He wanted to talk about this.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked slowly.


A Different Path

“Mom, look at this.”

Z handed me an envelope.  It was oversized, and the return address was the University of Pittsburgh.  He hadn’t opened it yet.

Helping Zach apply to colleges last fall had been an overwhelming experience for me.  It was a constant series of flashbacks to my own time doing the same thing.  In some ways, it was all so similar to me:  my son and I were so similar in our academic performance.  He had earned stunningly high grades and SAT scores, as I had.  It left the choices so wide and vast as to where his life would begin, as it had for me.

When I had sat down to choose colleges to apply to, I remembered the experience being a solitary one.  Neither one of my parents had ever sat down with me to choose; the ones I’d applied to had been choices of familiarity coupled with random choices based on location.  I had known that my mother couldn’t really afford an out of state choice, but on a whim I’d applied to Boston University and Tulane mostly because I’d always wanted to visit New Orleans and Boston.  My in state choices were again chosen based on my heart, not my head.  I’d applied to Wayne State just to see if I could earn their Merit Scholarship (I did), Michigan State because I was familiar with it from dating Ray, and Calvin College because it was in Grand Rapids, where my extended family had once lived.  No counselor at school had mentioned perhaps I should apply to the University of Michigan based on my grades and scores.  In the end, I’d gone to school where my best friend and boyfriend had decided to go to school.  My college choice was wrapped up in emotion; when it came time for Zach to consider his choices, I vowed he would not repeat my own mistakes.

We’d purchased US News and World Report “100 Best Colleges” tome, we did research.  We attended meetings held by the guidance department at Z’s high school about how to choose a college.  We visited some of the obvious choices, something else I’d never done when considering my own options.  In the end, Zach applied to seven schools:  Yale (because it was so close he couldn’t help himself, even though we knew we could never afford to send him there), Penn, University of Delaware, University of Connecticut, University of Michigan (I was no longer biased against it), Rennsaeler Polytechnic, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Pitt was the odd man out in the grouping.  While all of the schools were rated well and had good programs, Pitt stood alone in the middle of our two geographic target areas:  east coast (where we currently lived) and Michigan (where we used to live but still had family).  I had been surprised when Zach had decided to apply there; they had been sending him literature ever since he rocked out his PSATs.  The slick brochures touted all of the great advantages of attending an urban university; its close proximity to other great schools such as Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon; its top rated Honors College; its fantastic sports program.  The sports program was important to Z because he planned on continuing in a collegiate marching band; having a strong sports program meant by default a good marching band.

“Well, it’s a big envelope.  That’s encouraging.  It doesn’t take a lot of paper to say you’re not in,” I offered.  “Do you want me to open it?”

He shook his head and held out his hand.  I handed back the package, and Z tore it open, leaving ragged edges at the top.  I hoped he hadn’t ripped any of the papers inside.  He read over the cover letter silently, his eyes scanning the page quickly.  I saw him go back and reread a section, before he looked up at me.

“What?” I asked.  “I can’t stand it, what?”

“They offered me a full scholarship,” he responded.  “Look.”

My heart fell to the floor in relief.  A full scholarship.  No matter what else happened, no matter what, my son was going to get his college education, and we would be able to afford it.  I could feel the emotion welling up in my chest.

“Congratulations,” I whispered, and reached out to hug my son.

What Comes Next

I was sitting in the same classroom I’d sat in ten years ago, a student once again.

I could see Mr. Vance’s handwriting still on the chalkboard, the same lessons as when I took his Advanced Composition II class:  weekly vocabulary drills to prepare us for the SATs, journal assignments about current events to be turned in twice a marking period, and classic literature to be read and written about on a regular basis.

Except Mr. Vance wasn’t my teacher now.  I was in his classroom after hours, taking a class towards my Master’s degree in School Administration.  The university I attended was actually sixty miles away, but they held satellite classes locally in my home school district.   This particular class started at 4:30 pm, which was a good time frame for most teachers.  My brother had agreed to pick Zachary up from daycare for me since the class let out after the program at school closed. Fortunately, my brother lived just a mile from my old high school, so everything was working well for all of us.  Z loved hanging out with his uncle, who pretty much allowed him to play video games the whole time and hardly ever remembered to ask him if he had any homework.

My classmates varied in age from 25 to 65, most of us working locally as classroom teachers.  I found it interesting to speak to them and hear what life was like in other school districts.  I still couldn’t be happier with my job, having had a seamless start to my second year teaching 8th grade math at a suburban middle school a few towns away from where I lived.

My coworkers were so similar in age to myself, I found myself encouraged to see several of them completing the same degree work I was in.  One of my favorite co workers, in fact, this year was our new assistant principal.  Two other colleagues were conducting job shadowing of other principals in the district, the last step towards finishing a degree in administration (much like student teaching capped off an undergraduate teaching degree).  In them, I could see room for advancement and support for stand out teachers within my school district.  One of the colleagues was a single parent by choice, which was even more inspirational to me.   Her ability to juggle her classes, her job shadow, and her young son gave me hope that in a year or two I might be able to do the same.

It seemed rather ironic to me that I would be sitting here, seeing another path to my future close enough to touch, in the same classroom where I’d started dreaming of a very different future.  The last time I’d sat in this room, I thought I’d be a musician, or at the very least a music teacher.  As I’d written endless journal entries and term papers, I had dreamt of my four years at Michigan State:  a traditional trajectory.  My mother had been alive and healthy and so supportive of my dreams that had changed by the minute back then.  I couldn’t even imagine how so many events would converge to change and twist my path.

Still, as everything flashed through my head, I couldn’t call the overriding emotion I was feeling sadness, or regret, or even disappointment.  My wistful musings led me to a much different place.  I felt strong.  I had survived much in the past ten years since I’d last sat in one of these chairs.  I had stopped believing a straight and clear path was in my future, but I had faith that whatever lay down that path in my future, I would make the best of it.

I put my head down, opened up my notebook, and readied myself for what came next.

A Crazy Plan

I was coming back down I 75 in my mother’s car, five hours into the drive.  I was “somewhere in the middle” with the radio turned up and Zachary fast asleep in the back.

I’d left Houghton early this morning, before Tom’s roommates were even awake.

I just couldn’t take it any more.  Three weeks of intermittent phone calls and letters (sweet, saucy and wonderful though they might have been) and my crazy took complete control.  I had to see him.  I wasn’t going to be able to make it until the next time he came home, which might be as late as Thanksgiving.

Things were hard at home.  My mother’s treatment was in full swing, and she was tired all of the time.  Trying to keep her mood up, making her foods that she could eat, taking care of the house and all that entailed, was exhausting.  I’d never realized how much my mother had done around the house before, even during her busiest times at work.  I’d never done laundry before; my mother always had.  I changed all of the beds, the towels, cleaned up the dog’s messes outside, washed the dishes, bought the groceries, watered the plants, vacuumed the floors.

My brother and sister would come over sometimes, to help.  But the enormity of the tasks needing to be done were lost on anyone who would come over for an hour or two.

I begged my sister to come and help with my mother’s appointments for a few days so I could go see Tom.  I figured if I had Thurs-Sunday, my sister would only need to cover two days of appointments and then there would be the weekend.  If they each came by once on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the appointments during the week, I’d be covered.  I’d take Zachary with me to see Tom, driving all day up on Thursday, having Friday and Saturday to spend with him, and come back on Sunday.

It was a crazy plan.  Houghton was ten hours away.  It was by far the furthest I’d ever driven before, and I would do it alone with my nearly three year old son.  But as I was able to put all of the pieces into place and asked Tom if he’d like to see us, it all fell into place.

Driving back now, two thirds of the way home, I had mixed feelings on the success of my idea.  I wasn’t sure how it all had gone.  Sure, I’d loved seeing Tom and being able to place him mentally in his current location; seeing the house he lived in off campus, the campus itself, the beautiful scenery around the Keewenaw Peninsula.  He’d graciously introduced me and my son to his roommates, his friends in the area, even his mentor, the pastor from the university church.  We’d chuckled together conspiratorially when the check out girl at the grocery complimented us on the good manners of “our son”.

But I’d also seen the tiny seeds of frustration in him when I’d had to keep Zachary quiet during his previously scheduled study group.  Or when I’d spent half an hour in the bathroom with Zachary because he was still potty training.  Or when Zachary gleefully woke up at six in the morning in the little nest we’d made in his absent roommate’s lower bunk.

I wondered, when we kissed each other goodbye that morning, not knowing exactly when it was we’d see each other again, what emotions he was feeling upon our depature.  Sadness?  Relief?   Doubt?   I had a feeling there was some of all of those things in his face as I watched him slowly grow smaller in my rear view mirror.

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