I had that nightmare a few times, as a kid, the one where you find yourself on the school bus still in pj’s or naked. If you know the dream I’m talking about, you might know a thing or two about how it can stick around long after the day of the big test, or band challenge for 1st seat, or basketball tryouts or other childhood anxiety you thought was managed, but which manifested in an ever greater fear you didn’t know you even had. I thought that nightmare was the WORST.
Now, I’m 41, and I know better.
At this, the end of the school year, my family is struggling to get out the door on time in the morning. It’s always something. Another permission slip for a field trip. A half ton case of virgin teddy grahams from the Black Forest, or an extra two dollars and eighteen cents for the surprise teacher appreciation thing they forgot to send a note home about. It’s like being at the end isn’t enough. All the collective breaks and breathers that students (and parents) coulda-shoulda-woulda used earlier in the year must be placed in the last 300 hours of “instruction.” Which, of course, turns out to be not a lot of instruction at all.
But I digress… if I take my kids to school while I’m still in pj’s and slippers, it could be a huge time-saver. I can hunt and gather with the best of them before the school bell rings, or at least focus on helping my son make something sufficient with duct tape and peanut butter to look like a make up science experiment. Now that I think about it, a trench coat could be even faster, but really, I shudder–that’s too horrifying to consider. Though, it would be quick. I almost admire the daring of parents who can proceed forth with aplomb. One dad told me, as the temperature heats up toward late spring, he just goes in his boxer shorts, flip-flops, and whatever t-shirt or robe is lying around–even if it’s one of his wife’s hot pink floral numbers. His kid’s on the Honor Roll and will get the Perfect Attendance Award. So what if he has to get out of the car, for some reason, in front of the whole school drop-off line of children and thereby leaves the image of a 275lb man in a feathered, fuchsia bath robe seared into all those little brains?
I can’t bring myself to accept that “some reason” won’t happen. The statistical probability may not be easily quantifiable, but it is tangible in the portion of my imagination that can still feel that on-the-school-bus-naked horror. The efficiency sounds great, but I have the adult version of that common school bus nightmare. It is ever-present. I credit this to my mother’s very common edict on dressing to leave the house (the abbreviated version):Thou shalt not go to the grocery store in curlers. Thou shalt not not leave the house in your night gown, shorty-shorts, gardening clothes, swim suit, or, in fact, anything you would not want to be caught on a street corner testifying in. The universe has decreed: violate this rule, and YOU WILL SEE EVERYONE YOU KNOW.
There is no wiggle room in this edict for, “but…I’m not getting out of the car.” It may not be modern, like many universal mama’s words of wisdom–but ignoring it has a way of turning our rebellion into a really good story of What NOT To Do. And, of course, those are the best stories for your mama to pull out whenever company comes for dinner, or your new boss or love interest happens by.
So…I want to jump in the car in pj’s and slippers. I want to be relaxed about it. And yet…
I just know there’ll be a traffic accident or some other unexpected event where no one is hurt, but I end up standing in the middle of the busiest street in Nashville, surrounded by sirens, under-clothed in my Space & Rocket pj’s and hobbit-size slippers, and half awake in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Most mornings, that nightmare gets me dressed.
However, if you should see me on Woodmont before 8am, please do me a favor. Don’t wave. Don’t honk. Glide on by like you don’t know me. We’ll just pretend it was a dream.
I’m frequently asked how I found out I have an autistic child. Usually, the question comes in whispers or asides, or by emails of introduction to another parent who isn’t sleeping. I’d like to have a quick answer. I’d love to describe a neat, clean, logical, linear process. I can’t. There are pieces and scenes that knit together and remind me of all we’ve come through.
If there’s any true generalization for families living with autism, it may be that the sheer complexity of the context can easily render us mute. Between the focus it takes to navigate the maze of doctors and educators–if you’re even lucky enough to find any of either who are trained to diagnose or work with children on the autism spectrum (much less the cash and time to engage them)–and the sleepless nights, well, most of the parents I know with an autistic child are locked in a daily struggle to survive.
I think we’ve spent a decade without enough sleep. A decade in survival mode. That’s not great for circumspection or sharing.
My family finally has enough support systems, and habits, and help, and healthcare, and leeway–that we are generally rested. We can laugh about it, some days, when we aren’t. We’re beginning to have some room, some peace, some grace to think about where we’ve been. I’m not sure I’m far enough removed to be elegant in the telling, or brief, but I’m strong enough to try. This is one of the pieces.
In March of 2005, my son had just turned 4. He went, most days, to a private, Catholic school’s kindergarten a few miles from our little home. We chose our house in a South Nashville neighborhood because the only person we knew in Nashville, when we relocated from Wisconsin, was my brother-in-law, Tony, who lived just down the street. We had two weeks to move, and the house had been empty and on the market for some time, so, we got to move right in.
That spring, Tony was playing lead guitar for Wynona Judd and touring a great deal. We’d grown accustomed to helping out when he hit the road. We cut his grass or fed his fish. We’d forgot, sometimes, that he was due back at midnight or 5am, only to be pleasantly surprised by a text or visit. If a light was on, he knew we were up, and he was welcome. We were always up, walking the floor when our son couldn’t sleep.
My husband had a very 8-5 job with an office downtown. I had a small business providing network support for private practice medical specialists and niche manufacturing companies. Those were the folks who called for help, when I was on maternity leave from the big corporate job that had moved us to Nashville, and those were the folks who gave me enough work wiring networks, installing hardware upgrades, or repairing things in the middle of the night while the baby slept (theoretically), to build an accidental business.
All three of us, my husband, my brother-in-law, and I, the “grown-ups” in my son’s life, felt very fortunate to be in a growing city, to have work, and to be together. Bob and I were running on empty, so to speak, in terms of sleep and patience and peace, but Tony helped when he was home and somehow, somehow, we thought everything, while not perfect, was okay.
We didn’t know that having a touring musician in the family would save my son’s life.
It was damp and drizzly on Monday, so after dropped my son off at school, I called a coworker and suggested working from my dining room table for the morning instead of dressing up and trekking to the office. We arranged the phone forwarding, cracked the windows to enjoy the smell after an early spring rain, and fired up the computer systems. I remember the before of that morning as the cool smell after a rain and the sound clicking computer keys.
When the phone rang, I expected it was a customer call. Instead, a shaky female voice explained she was the secretary from my son’s school. “He walked… out of… class,” she said. “Uh…well, we’ve had a couple of…calls…a blond boy on the road…”
I’m sure I must have asked her to repeat the message more than once. I don’t remember much of anything else that was said. I recall telling myself that screaming “WHERE IS MY SON?” would not be help. There was probably some silence while I swallowed that scream. By the time I understood that he was not in the classroom, and might be on the road, walking home, by way of one of the most heavily travelled four lanes of highway in Nashville…the secretary was incoherent, anyway. If there was someone out looking for my son, she couldn’t tell me who–or wouldn’t.
I was already running to my car, the school still on the line but the secretary only babbling, when a second call rang in.
All I heard on the line was, “I have him. I have him.”
It was my brother-in-law, sobbing. He was driving to the other side of town to meet the tour bus, just happened to take the slower route rather than the interstate because it was raining–when he saw a little tow-haired boy in a green shirt on the side of the road. Wow, that looks like… he thought, and it IS him! as he hit the brakes. Pulled over and backed up, just in front of a white sedan idling on the shoulder. By the time he got out, to see if it really was his nephew, an elderly lady was asking my son who he was, where he lived.
She made Tony wait, prove he was my son’s Uncle, call the school that’s name was embroidered on his tiny green shirt, call me for confirmation, before sagging against the car and explaining they’d only arrived moments earlier because she’d screamed at her husband to stop the car when she saw a little boy teetering on the edge of the pavement beside on-coming traffic. I’ll always be grateful to that stranger who was skeptical, and required evidence before leaving my son to someone else. Though we were fortunate, yes, his uncle came along–it so very, very easily could have been a different outcome.
He’d made it half way home.
Tony asked, “Why did you leave school, buddy?”
My son answered, “They didn’t want me there. So, I left.”
Me imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of
Imbued as they, passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, noteriety, foibles, crimes,
less important than I thought,
Me toward the Mexican sea, or in the Mannahatta or
the Tennessee, or far north or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life
of these States or of the coast, or the lakes or Kanada,
Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for
To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents,
rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.
Leaves of Grass (1850-1891)