Sunlight streams golden through beech and maple canopy. We walk, three of us, mother, father, son, through a cathedral of light. Leaf mold tickles the nostrils, leaves crunch underfoot, and above us, sycamore leaves applaud the day. A wild flutter erupts in my chest as thousands of grackles take flight, flash purple and black against a patchwork of blue sky. Taste of smoke sits on the tongue, carried across lake on October breeze.
We hike single-file. For a change, I lead the way. I am exhausted, moody, yet eager to soak in what could be the last nice day of autumn. Joel, our youngest son, as always in the middle, walks slowly, tentatively through the leaves, afraid of tripping on a root. My husband Wally brings up the rear. Joel’s constant chatter has subsided and we are quiet, our feet doing the talking as we scuff across yellow carpeted forest floor.
I hear Joel’s footsteps quicken, turn to see him approaching at a near-run. Surprised, I stop. He grabs my hand, looks me in the eye, grins, and pulls me forward. I wait for him to drop my hand, as he always does, but instead he squeezes it and swings my arm, his grin widening at my delight. For a moment, it feels so right, his hand a perfect fit in mine. A jolt of joy shocks my body, answered almost immediately by my mind, which says, no, don’t go there. There are no happy endings with 26-year-old sons with autism. There are no happily-ever-afters when they move away from home and you are left, not with “this is the way it’s supposed to be,” but with guilt, and sleepless nights, and often, regret.
Joel holds my hand tight, matches my gait stride for stride, steals sideway gazes, his eyes playful, a smile flitting, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, across his handsome face.
For a month he has been constant motion, constant chatter. Lashing out at staff with hands. Walking, running, walking, running around the 60 acre farm, for adults with autism, he moved to last year. Behavior staffings once a month, charting aggression. Manic swings, which we thought he’d left behind with adolescence, erupting again, keeping him awake at night, keeping everyone in his house on edge.
Dreams die hard. It will never be what we expected, our third son’s adulthood. You think you’ve moved into a place called acceptance, when yet another transition takes place and you grieve it all over again. Letting go of this son is nothing like letting his brothers go. That was the natural, normal progression of life, something to celebrate, knowing you did your job as a parent, giving them roots and wings. This feels like an amputation, so deep is this son’s need, so intensive our care-giving, a quarter century’s worth.
Joel’s hand, still clutching mine, is warm and sweaty. I leave my doubting, monkey-mind behind for a moment. Become pure body, pure hand, pure connection.
Friends tell me I must cut the cord, not hold so tight to this broken boy-man. But this connection—this fleshly hand in mine—tells me what my gut already knows. This cord is a living cord, a cord of flesh-and-blood. Unlike an umbilical cord, this cord can never be severed. Yes, like the towering maples and beech along this trail, we will go through fallow seasons. Like this past year, with his move away from home, a seeming death for him, for me, for his father.
Every October I mourn the passing of summer. Dread the dank days of winter to come. I want to stay pure hand, hold onto this moment forever. But my head calls me back to remind me that spring always follows winter. Spring, when the sap flows upward, bringing with it new life, new possibilities, new ways of being.
This is what is true: I am his mother. He is my son. And we are walking up a hill, hand in hand, through sunlight streaming golden through a canopy of maple and beech.
(This story appears, in an edited version, in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum, available at www.amazon.com