My Heart Goes Out

Sam and I visited our first college this week. It is a small college, truly in the middle of nowhere. We passed one McDonalds in our last hour and a half of driving. I taught Sam the word bucolic. Sam saw a few cats on windowsills in this town of four thousand, and she was happy. At least one of us had a good visit. As the therapists say, I have a lot of work to do.

We stopped in that lone McDonalds. Sam doesn’t like soft drinks, only consumes rBGH-free ice cream, and of course avoids meat, but she knows better than to challenge my road-trip habit of fries and a drink. Another family with an autistic child about Sam’s age pulled up the same time we did. I watched the child, a large child, walk into the restaurant wearing headphones, flapping periodically, and moving with the uneven, slightly hunched gait I recognize so easily. The mother, a small woman, stayed close and shepherded the child to a seat. The family was clearly of limited means, the child clearly could not be left unsupervised, and my heart clearly went out to them. Would I celebrate neurodiversity if that were my child? I thought I could write about it.

Then we drove on for college visiting day, where we joined about thirty other families of rising juniors and seniors. During the opening presentation, Sam blew her news trumpet-style, and I could see the people sitting next to her shift a little to their right. In a harsh whisper I told her to leave the room next time, and she looked at me a little bewildered. I could see, so clearly, four years of other students shifting in their seats or just moving away. We peeked into a dorm room and I could see, so clearly, Sam’s roommate requesting a transfer to another room. We visited the dining hall and I could see, so clearly, my daughter alone at her table eating a quick meal. I could see the other students sipping coffee and lingering for hours, just as my friends and I did in college. All I could see was loneliness—I’m just not sure whether it was mine or Sam’s.

Here are a few things I learned:

1.     Because I spend so little time with Sam in public spaces, I forget how it feels for me to watch her behave in ways that are socially alienating. I’m not sure that I forget how socially alienating her behavior can be, but I forget how her alone-ness affects me.

2.     My conception of “the college experience” has not adjusted as well as my rhetoric. I’m pained to know that Sam’s experience will differ so dramatically from mine. As we toured this college, I did not envision any opportunities for Sam; all I saw were the experiences she would not have and the challenges she would not successfully master.

3.     Deep down I have little faith in her ability to manage without help—my help in particular. I am trying to remind myself of all the ways she continues to surprise me, but the refrain in my head is that I don’t want to follow her to a cornfield. She says, “I feel less stress in this bucolic place.” I think, “Would a better mother be willing to move to a cornfield to support her child?”

4.     I am not ready for her to go. I remember that we have at least two more years, but it’s no comfort. I am scared.

By the time we got home, through the sirens and the traffic and the potholes, I was working hard to convince myself that Sam could make a go of college in a couple of years without me hovering. Then I ran into an acquaintance and mentioned the trip. “She’s going to college?” he asked incredulously. I nodded. “My heart goes out to you and Sam,” he sighed.

Wait a minute. My heart went out to the parents at that McDonalds. Now his heart is going out to me for the same reason? I refuse to admit that we need anybody’s coronary extrusions. My demons and fears are supposed to be my “issues.” They are supposed to be my coping mechanism. What they are not supposed to be is reality. His pained expression lingers in my mind, and I know I’ll spend the next two years proving it unwarranted.