All I ever wanted was to protect you.
And I failed.
I imagined many things when you left for your college program.
Trouble making friends.
Perhaps a failing grade or two.
I never imagined you would connect with someone online, meet them in person, and get in their car. I never expected you would agree to give them money.
Our first reaction was to take your phone away. Delete all the apps. Restrict your freedom, and insist you come home.
But I don’t think that’s the answer.
After all, we tried it already. When you asked about finding a relationship, we insisted you weren’t ready. We refused to consider social media.
Maybe it’s time to move away from control and lean into navigation.
You lived under a magnifying glass for your entire life. We have been in charge of where you go, what you watch, who you meet.
My son, I am so frustrated, so worried, so tired, so lost, I could crawl into bed and never get out.
Every time I picture you in a car with strangers, my breath catches. I picture each all the earlier versions of your face—tiny infant, wriggling toddler, restless teenager.
Yet they weren’t strangers to you. An online connection combined with a longing for friendship made them seem familiar—safe.
We taught you everything we could think of to teach. How to shake hands, address an envelope, build a shelf, change the water filter, sign your name.
We didn’t know how to teach you to be wary. Watchful. How to judge the character of others and pay attention to your gut instinct.
It’s not as though you lack the capacity for fear.
Fear has lived inside your ribcage for as long as I can remember.
The wind chill factor, the color orange, the classical music played in the grocery store.
The witch on the Wizard of Oz, in her long black cape.
Each of these sent you into a panicked frenzy.
As you repeat the chain of events to us, I hear fear in your voice. You are afraid now—always looking over your shoulder for a glimpse of the car or the sound of his voice.
We never gave you a way out.
We taught you to honor obligations, to keep commitments, to tell the truth and avoid even white lies.
When they asked you to get in the car, you had no back-up plan. You didn’t realize he could fib and say you changed your mind or had a stomach ache or your mother was calling.
We gave the other kids lots of ways out. Text a code word if you need a ride. Make us the bad guys by saying we will be furious. Blame your father and say he grounded you.
We never thought to do it with you. For the rest of my life, I will regret this.
Autism is heartbreak by a thousand paper cuts. Some leave bigger scars than others.
I have to love you through it. This may be my hardest work yet.
When my heart leans toward admonishing, I’ll remind myself to listen instead.
When my thoughts veer toward frustration, I’ll choose a gentle voice.
Inside and out, I will root for you.
Today, we will love you through this.
Looking back, I’m scared there are moments when I forgot.
When I saw the diagnosis before the boy.
When I insisted on launching you on my terms, ignoring your need for connection and intimacy.
How do we safeguard your vulnerable spirit and also give you room to stretch your wings?
How do we teach you to reach for the sky, even as autism insists we live in the shadows?
How do we honor all the progress you’ve made in this one and only life you call yours?
Maybe the power is in the balance.
After all, we are our scars as much as our triumphs.
My wizard. My lion. My box full of stars.
There is always a way out. There is always a way forward.