Don’t mind me.
I’m just a mom, sitting in a minivan, crying behind my sunglasses.
I have a son about your age.
His name is Jack. He has autism.
A few days ago we dropped him off at a college program. This program is geared for kids like Jack, who need extra support for daily living and academic courses.
It is year-round.
There is staff available twenty-four hours a day.
They work on life skills, social pragmatics, and financial concepts.
We got there first thing in the morning.
We unpacked the car.
We carried in his new comforter. We unpacked the new dishes. We folded towels and arranged his t-shirts in the drawer.
There was a lunch. We ate burgers. We made small talk with other parents. We met his team—lovely people with name tags that said things like Academic Director and Team Leader.
After the burgers and the small talk and the name tags, we walked out to the parking lot. The sun was shining bright even though the radio promised thunder.
We hugged. Jack doesn’t really like to hug so it was more like a one-armed embrace. He said goodbye. He had tears in his eyes. Then he turned back toward the small brick building.
He went one way.
And we went the other.
I guess you could say I’m numb.
I woke up this morning, and before I even fully opened my eyes, I listened for his footsteps.
I listened for the bang of the bathroom door, and the shake of the small vial of white pills.
For a boy who hates noise, this son of mine is perhaps the loudest person I know.
Lying in bed, it occurred to me I’ve been listening for him for eighteen years—fussy infant, mischievous toddler, restless teenager.
Now, the house is quiet.
Don’t mind me, as I sit here in my car and listen to the radio and contemplate all the things I should have said and done.
I should have inhaled his sweet-smelling hair after a bath.
I should have been more patient when he wanted to watch another Baby Einstein video.
I should have put down the laundry basket and sit on the carpet and stacked his beloved blocks with him.
I should have made life wait.
I should have made autism wait.
Don’t mind me, as I reach my fingers toward the hot flame of regret.
I saw you look back, your bag slung over your shoulders. A long metal bat poked out alongside a pair of cleats.
Jack never played baseball. His brother Charlie did.
For the longest time he couldn’t make it through a game.
I’d coax him through the innings. I’d sit in the bleachers, torn between a son on the mound and a son with his hands clamped over his ears. I didn’t know which way to look.
I remember every moment of those endless days.
Yet I don’t remember my life before autism.
Sometimes I look at kids like you—with your easy smile and you relaxed movements—and my breath catches. I think about what Jack might have been like before anxiety and the spectrum took over his body and his heart.
Autism is heartbreak by one thousand papercuts. They are small. You don’t need a Band-aid. Yet they sting all the same.
Don’t mind me.
I’m just a mom, sitting in her car, wondering where the years went.
A moment ago I was wiping noses. I was looking across a sunlit lawn watching them jump into leaf piles.
A moment ago I folded small overalls. I helped tie shoelaces. I set seven places at the dinner table.
We were so tempted to keep him here, in this house, in this town, in this life.
Like a bird in a gilded cage, we longed to protect him. We weren’t sure he was ready to fly. We didn’t know how to let him go.
He probably won’t run for office, or cure infectious diseases, or become a pilot.
Still, he will do great things.
After all, how do you measure greatness?
Some might say it is measured in wealth, or academic degrees, or social status.
World-changing ideas, Nobel Peace prizes, a commercial aircraft in your command.
This boy Jack, his greatness is measured in small steps forward toward an independent life of his own.
He went one way.
We went the other.
He stood tall.
He looked determined.
Don’t mind me. I’m just sitting here, in my car. I’ll get out soon and get on with my day.
For Mom. I like it here.