When my son Jack was six years old, he ran right in front of an oil truck.
It was early October. The leaves crunched underfoot—a carpet of red and gold fit for royalty.
We were passing out flyers for our annual Halloween party, tucking them into mailboxes down our long, winding street.
It was one of those rare moments when life felt good. The sun was warm, the trees glowing with the magic of autumn.
And Jack was calm. Back then, he was rarely ever calm.
He was either enraged, or worried, or destroying everything in the house.
As we walked, he lagged a few steps behind. I was pushing a stroller. I made it across the street sooner than he did.
I saw the truck and I shouted at him to stay, stay where he was, wait for me, I would be right there.
Jack, wait! Mommy will be right there.
But he ran. In blue Crocs he ran across the street and with my heart in my mouth I screamed and the truck was coming and it was so big my boy was so small my boy my son.
The driver leaned on his horn. He looked right at me as he drove past. In his eyes I saw disgust, disdain, contempt. It’s possible I imagined it.
To this day, it haunts me.
So much of my life with this boy and his autism has been about keeping him safe.
Locks on the doors so he didn’t wander down the driveway.
Safety handles on the stove so he didn’t light the flame.
Keys up high on hooks to prevent him from starting the car.
Knives in the back of a closet at night to prevent self-harm in middle school.
For seventeen years, I have tried to predict every worst-case scenario.
I have tried to stay ten steps ahead of him and the bell curve.
The irony is not lost on me: the one time I was actually, physically ten steps ahead of this boy named Jack nearly turned into every mother’s worst nightmare.
What is the lesson here? I cannot say.
All I know is when it comes to autism, motherhood, marriage, and life, things are not always as they seem.
What you don’t see is behind every successful walk down the street are one hundred disastrous attempts.
What you can’t tell is the future is forever nipping at my heels—the proverbial hourglass bolted to the table.
What you might not understand is the way I stay up late at night, trying to figure out what is autism and what is my son and what is regular old adolescence.
I look over at my husband, dozing next to me on the couch, and I feel jealous of his easy sleep.
At the same time, I think of this man’s quiet grief. I think of how closely he holds it to his heart. And I am grateful for his intermittent rest.
I think of the guardianship papers we submitted—our careful signatures on the dotted line, signing away this boy’s right to make decisions about his health and his money.
He makes his own money. He works three days a week washing dishes in an Italian restaurant. He likes to be on time.
Yet we will stand in a court of law and explain to a judge he isn’t responsible enough to manage the dollars and cents he washes to earn.
I know it is the right the thing to do. At the same time, it feels so very wrong.
I am sick of tallying all the things he can’t do—drive a car, make a friend, travel alone.
I am sick of remembering days by his mood or behavior or whether he was calm.
Things are not always as they seem. Perhaps that is the lesson here.
Behind every tired smile in the grocery store is a mother who has absolutely no idea what she is doing.
Behind every father is a story he struggles to tell.
Behind the sleepless nights are moments of deep despair.
Autism is every mistake I have ever made, wrapped up in a boy.
It is ten steps behind, too many steps ahead, and the feeling of second-guessing that accompanies my every decision.
Looking back, maybe the truck wasn’t that close. Perhaps the driver never glared at me at all.
I guess I’ll never know.
But he made it to me. He crossed the street in time, his eyes wide and wild. I had never been so grateful in all my life.