In our house, we chose the dinner table.
It wasn’t always easy. With five kids and autism, there was a fair amount of chaos and noise.
Arguments over spilled milk, forks dug into the wooden table, sibling rivalry, arguments about peas.
When our son Jack was little he got up and circled the table nine thousand times. Nine thousand times we picked him up and put him back in his seat.
When he was three, threw food. He screamed at his plate. He dumped his cup.
When he was six he refused to eat anything other than chicken fingers.
We set timers.
We put his fork in his hand and reminded him to use it.
It was hard. It was work.
Still, we sat for dinner.
Throughout the years, this meal gave shape to long, wintry afternoons.
Meatloaf, chicken cutlets, green beans, buttered noodles, pork tenderloin, a Rachel Ray concoction we call sausage kale pasta.
We chose the dinner table even as the outside world beckoned, all crooked finger and muddy fields.
We chose it because somewhere deep beneath my ribcage I believed if we gave him a seat here, he might learn to make one anywhere.
We chose it because so many other parts of the day tasted like acrid failure upon my tongue. But once we sat down at the table, I could forget.
We chose dinner.
We still do.
I shop for groceries.
I chop garlic.
I melt butter in the pan.
The whole time I perform these somewhat ordinary tasks, I think.
I think about a tall 14-year old girl and the tiny heartaches of ninth grade.
I think about my dark-haired boy and how every afternoon he stands on the mound and tries to pitch the perfect pitch.
I think of my youngest, Henry. A boy who hides anxiety behind laughter, and fear behind jokes.
I think of all the mistakes I made with my first child.
I think about my complicated son.
I think about the extraordinary sting behind ordinary words.
I think about an award’s banquet and how one boy, exactly Jack’s age, stood up for his trophy and hot tears pricked my eyelids.
That could have been him.
But it’s not.
Autism makes you choose things. It makes you look at your life and decide what matters—what you’re willing to work for and sweat for and defend and build.
For some, it’s a spot on the team or getting through Easter Mass without a meltdown.
For others, it’s learning to swim or eating breakfast at the local diner.
For us, it was the dinner table.
We chose it even when the mess threatened to eclipse the gains.
We chose it because it was all we knew to do.
Now, at seventeen, Jack sits for the entire meal. The timer collects dust at the back of the junk drawer.
He sets out the plates. Carefully, he lights the candles.
He fills his dish with the food the rest of us eat—beef tenderloin and Brussel sprouts and baked potatoes with lots of butter.
Heads bowed, we say a short prayer. We talk about war, girlfriends, politics, books, alpacas, Wordle, baseball, the best kind of ice cream.
Jack doesn’t say much. He rocks from side to side in his chair. But every once in a while, he shares something new. It is like finding sweet gold at the bottom of a river.
Today at school. We learned the bus route.
We did the work.
We’ve come a long way.
Yet I feel a quiet ache.
Our familial landscape is changing.
My firstborn now lives a plane ride away, home only for breaks.
Then this July, it’s Jack’s turn to leave the proverbial nest.
My wild-child. My Sunday son.
We’ll load up the car with his Chia pet shaped like Yoda, his beloved Star Wars pillowcase, his alarm clock radio. We will drive to a new city. We will put his sheets on his bed and plug in the radio. And then we will ger back in the car and drive home.
I’m not ready.
I don’t think a mother is ever ready.
She is never ready to alter the domestic landscape upon which she has built her life.
Around the table at night, our remaining trio banter about far-flung places: Utah, Texas, maybe New York, or California. The world is their oyster with pearls for the taking.
It’s mere geography to them, but another empty chair for me.
The dinner table was our amnesty, our connection, our battleground, our safe landing, our yellow light against darkness.
I want it back again.
With all my heart, I want it back.
Toothy grins, the clatter of forks, questions, confessions.
A mysterious boy’s quiet words.
I like. These potatoes.
I’m not ready.
Yet it is time.
It is time he stretches beyond these walls and these dishes.
The problem is, time and readiness rarely share the same clock.
We gave him a seat.
Together, we bowed our heads.
Through all the chatter and the plates and the food, we told this boy that here, in this house with this table and this family, he matters.