Coming Home

Alex’s training camp in his residential school, the first full month during which we were told to let him alone so he could grow used to his new life, is ending. He’s coming home for a few days.

He’s my son and I always lived with him. Now he lives up there. They’re now the ones who deal with letting him watch Elmo, getting him to eat, dissuading him from placing plastic animals on all the furniture and slapping number stickers on every wall. My house is peaceful these days, no doubt about it. The floor shines, the kitchen counter is actually clear three or four days a week. There are no pretzel crumbs on the couch.

Will he even want to see us? Ask Alex to do something he doesn’t want to do or go somewhere he doesn’t want to go, and he says, “No. No!” Will we be the objects of the no, no now? These and other thoughts often ran through my mind these past few weeks as my family and I adjusted to this new, somewhat liberated way to live with autism. His rumpled, cold bed doesn’t break my heart like I thought it would, I guess because Alex still lives here and yet he doesn’t; we still haven’t changed his last bedsheet.

Does he miss the asphalt and the subway? Is it too quiet up there to sleep?

“I feel sad at how happy I feel sometimes that he isn’t here,” says Jill.

I think I’ve forgotten how to talk to Alex. “It’ll come back to you,” she says.

He’s off to his version of college; he was ready, and as with typical college he’ll get out of it what he puts in. We passed the last four weeks knowing that whatever did happen we’d never see it coming. Nothing came. We’re now well into what I call “three-day mode,” where I congratulate us all every 72 hours that go by without a call saying that Alex is crying, wretched, begging to come home with cries of “Elevator! Elevator!”

But we haven’t bought a washer/dryer here: We’ve done nothing short of try to shape a life – sent him somewhere to teach him how to tie his shoes, eat a sandwich, earn some little kind of living – in a move that might ripple for decades.

We have gotten calls. “He laughed and laughed in the mirror on his second night at the Halloween face-painting,” his house manager reported. “He loves his corn on the cob. He bit his arm but transitioned right out of it.

He plays the bongos with housemates – they join in and they all make eye contact. Is there some significance to the number 8? He wrote it on the wall with a pen.”

Welcome to our world. Goo Gone works well. Let us know if you need to buy more. Other details: Alex on the computer, listening to music, “just hanging out with his housemates, adjusting well.” I miss him.

Many parents in our area have teens at Alex’s school. “It’s the beginning of your retirement,” says one mom, Angela, who loves the school and who doesn’t look like she’d put up with a bad situation for her son. “You don’t have to worry now for a few years.”

When she went up a few weekends ago to visit the school, she emailed back a pic of Alex. In it, he looked confident and happy, sprawled in a hoodie, the picture of yet another young man who can’t decide if he should shave or grow a beard.

“He looked good,” Angela emailed. “They said he’s been doing very well there and been very pleasant and he’s polite and he seems to be adjusting. He puts his own dishes in the dishwasher, and we had him deliver a note to his teacher.”

I thank her for updating us. I consider asking other local parents with kids in this school to also update us if they visit between times we go, but I don’t. I’m not sure I’d want that responsibility if someone asked me to do that for them.

The school nurse phones a few nights before Alex returns. “Oh, he’s just goofy.” (Goofy is good; goofy means not crying.) “For the first few days after he got here, when he returned to his house from the classroom building, he’d grab his luggage and head toward the door saying, ‘Home? Home?’” Does she think he knows that he’s headed back this way soon? “He’s said ‘home’ a few times,” she reports, “but I think he’s coming to understand that now this is his home.”

Wow. Alex now has a place in the country and a place in the city. He’s almost 17. I’ll soon be 53 and I’ve never had a place in the city and a place in the country.

Though, as I said and still can’t take in, my place in the city is quieter and neater now. Suddenly these days I don’t even glance anymore at the plastic animals over there on the bookshelf or filling the plastic box beside the couch.

Another of our first hurdles in this experiment looms: How will he react to coming home and then, after a few days, returning to school? “Some kids,” the nurse tells me, “they really loooove coming back to the school.” She said that as if it might hurt me to hear.

Jeff Stimpson

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