Long Day's Journey

I’m an unreliable narrator. You should know this.

Here are my flaws: I’m alternately delighted and devastated by other people (there is, for me, little middle ground); I look for meaning in everything I see, whether or not it exists; and I believe too fervently in my own ability to change circumstances, no matter what the odds.

So it was with my older son, who came back to us from the Mayo Clinic in June, like a whiteboard wiped clean. We’d spent years treating him for autism — OT, PT, kinesthetic exercises, biofeedback, social skills programs, and DMG. He made remarkable progress until the age of 17, when, after treatment for depression he began to slide back and then went into a near-vegetative state. Eighteen months later, we took him to Rochester nearly dead and they returned him to us (for which I am profoundly grateful) exactly the child he’d been at five: mute, ritualistic, lost . . . .

The thing about my son — about so many people with autism — is that he was very able to do things. Play chess, navigate the city, balance my checkbook, or bake a cake. Most of his brain was functioning just fine, but the area controlling his ability to communicate had been shuttered down or roped off.

For the past three months, he’s been in a transitional post-high school program where one of his main activities seems to be riding the bus from class to the shopping mall, three miles away. The goal, I guess, is to teach independence. But the tedium of his days, frankly, drives me insane.

"We could drop him off in St. Paul on a Sunday," I told my husband. "Give him 20 bucks, tell him to buy himself lunch, and I’ll bet you anything he could find his way back."

"How sure are you?" my husband asked. At which point, I went to an ATM and withdrew a $20 bill.

Last Sunday, on the first chilly day of winter, we took our nearly-20-year-old autistic son to Highland Park mid-morning and left him with instructions to find buses that would lead him home and call us if something went wrong. Then we waited. . . .and I spent the afternoon pacing, wondering how crazed and wrong and stupidly hopeful a mother can be.

Around 5, about an hour after a wet snow had begun to fall, my phone rang. I was certain it was he, calling to say he was cold and ask me to pick him up in some remote and unkown locale.

It was my son, but he was calling only to ask if I was ready to see him at home. He’d had a pleasant time wandering through the shops in Highland Park then found a bus bound for Minneapolis, transferred twice, treated himself to a calzone at Old Chicago in Uptown around 3:30 and had been killing time ever since.

He arrived a short time later. And all this is true: He speaks little, and only haltingly, but there was a broad smile on his face as he took 20 minutes to describe his day. I tried not to cry and opened a Collection des Chateaux de Bordeaux.

I’d love to draw a parallel here; the essayist in me is dying to tell you I chose this wine because it, too, is put together in an utterly unconventional way, mixing the best Bordeauxs of any one year to come up with a blend of Merlot and Cab that’s instantly drinkable but also ages well. That would, however, be a lie: I had none of this in mind when I uncorked the bottle and took the first sip. I really only wanted something to do as I waited through the pauses in my son’s story, never mind the dry, oaky flavor and piano notes of pepper, tannins, and plum.

There is no real moral to this story. My husband drove my son home to the place where he lives with his father, then returned and gently took my glass away. The bottle was nearly empty and I was bleary, limp with wine and relief. I still believe I can change the world if I just wish hard enough. Sometimes it is that glass at the end of the day which comforts me after I find out the world is not this way — none of us is so powerful.

And other times, it’s the glass I drink in wonder because, after all, it’s just possible we are.






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