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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

That was then/This is now

August marks a month of transitions for many of us. It's a big one for me especially, with a birthday and a wedding anniversary within days of each other - this year's anniversary is exactly half of my age, which is so cool and so freakin' bizarre at the same time. Of course, back to school time looms large during August, especially since my husband is a college professor (I tend to measure everything in semesters instead of months or years because of this). This year is especially poignant: it's the first time in eight years that all three of my sons will be headed back to school from my home. My oldest is - very wisely, in Mom's opinion! - finishing up his Associate's Degree this year at the local community college before he transitions back to his four-year university. My youngest son started high school, which he declares is totally fine but we're not allowed to ask questions about it. And my middle son, Finn, began 11th grade, which in itself is unremarkable, except it's the first time in years - actually half of his life - I've personally put him on school bus (well, it's a mini-van, but lets not delve too much into semantics). From 2013 to 2020, Finn was a residential student at a school two hours away from us. His schooling needs could not be met in-district, so it was the best decision for him so that he could grow and learn in the best possible environment. It damn near killed me, but I lived with it until the pandemic made his moving home a no-brainer. I was fortunate to be able to homeschool him last year, with supports from his school in Springfield, but when it came time to plan for this year, we knew we couldn't send him back. It just wasn't the right fit for him anymore (and I knew that my motherheart JUST. COULD. NOT. DO. IT. Not again). I was fully prepared to homeschool him again - it ain't pretty, but we do get the job done - when an opening at a school 45 minutes away became available. Everything came together in these past few weeks, and yesterday marked his first day as an official day student, meaning he goes to and comes back home from school every single day. So this essay below, originally entitled "A Thousand Days Gone," certainly captured how I felt then. It probably goes without saying that I don't feel this way now, but I do think it's important to always remember the events that shape us, even the heartbreaking ones. Because, really, who ARE we without our stories?

The dorm hallway is long and smells slightly clinical, like a hospital corridor. Other boys are milling about here, enjoying a few moments of blessed freedom. We’ve already dropped off his bags and suitcase; I’ve made his bed and put all of his clothes in his drawers. Finn, our middle son, allows us to hug and kiss him goodbye, saying nothing as we do so. I’m furiously blinking back hot tears, but he doesn’t cry. He just smiles at me, his easy, slightly gap-toothed smile and walks away, down the cavernous hall. I spend the entire two hour ride home angrily sobbing while my husband, Kirk, rubs my forearm, not daring to tell me this: It’ll all be okay, we’ll be fine, we are doing the Right Thing.

So what? You have to let go sometime, lady. It’s the way of things; you raise them and release them, like butterflies or homing pigeons. You’d be right, if I was talking about dropping my man-child off at college, already a legal adult, where I would leave him to navigate the world of cranky college librarians and oddball professors and dorm-room politics - yes, then you’d be right.

But on this August day like any other, as we drive away from that unfamiliar place, Finn is just a few weeks past his eighth birthday. Finn doesn’t speak. Finn isn’t toilet trained. Finn eats only with his hands.

Finn has autism and I, his own mother, have left him behind.

Finn was born during the terribly hot summer of 2005. Kirk and I already had one son, a delightful blond preschooler named Jack. We figured we knew boys. Old hats, we thought, smiling smugly at each other. But Finn was an odd duck from the start – happy to stay in his swing for hours, content to lay flat on his back and stare at the fan for longer than I thought was normal. At nine months, concerned that he wasn’t sitting up unassisted, his pediatrician referred us to our state’s Early Intervention program. Still, I was unworried; weighing over 10 pounds at birth, Finn was a fat baby, all chubby legs and round middle. Jack had been rotund at that age too, and was rather slow himself to meet physical milestones (our third son, Sam, born when Finn was just twenty-one months old, mirrored his older brothers: fat and happy to just sit). Finn was just going to do things in his own time – we were sure of it.

I know other autism parents who classify their child’s disorder as little more than a hiccup in their lives. It’s something that they have to learn to navigate, like a river with many bends, but, ultimately, they see the diagnosis as a kind of twisted blessing. Autism isn’t a tragedy – running out of bacon is: I have seen that tired meme online more times that I care to count. Replace the word Autism with Juvenile Diabetes, I think darkly, and watch it really hit the fan.

This goes without saying: I love Finn, as desperately and as wonderfully as I do his brothers. He is wickedly funny and ridiculously cute, and it’s patently obvious that he loves each of us, even if he cannot say so. He adores Thomas the Tank Engine videos (but only the old, non-CGI ones) and any kind of push button toy (because of this, I am forever immune to all annoying noises). Above all, he’s not broken; we’re all that much better for loving him. BUT – if a cure for autism were rolled out tomorrow, I’d be sucker punching other parents without apology to be the first in line for it. Autism has robbed my son – all of my sons – of so much; I’d kill for a chance to put it down once and for all.

If it might change circumstances, I’d tell you of how we got to the point of having to place our son in a residential facility. I’d tell you of the years of myriad therapies and countless school meetings and multiple drug experiments. I’d tell you of his increasingly erratic, sometimes violent behavior and his two psychiatric hospitalizations. I’d tell you of all the money and time we spent, despite little progress. I’d tell you of the fighting and crying and threats of divorce. If it would help at all, I’d list it neatly in bullet point format, a special needs’ parents’ curriculum vitae; I’d tell you of everything we did right, and how, in the end, none of it mattered. I could tell you all of this, but using mere words to describe our fear and our rage, our few triumphs and our many sorrows, doesn’t amount to much at all, only a string of sorry excuses for our failure to be absolutely everything Finn needed.

One thing above all nags at me, much like a burn that won’t heal: I willingly sent my most vulnerable child out into the world before either he or I were anywhere close to ready. No matter if it was the right thing to do by him, this is what I’m guilty of. As a mother, I’m supposed to hold my children close at all times, keeping them safely tucked under my wings until they are bigger and stronger than me; somehow, I’ve failed to do this for Finn. I’m also guilty of making this one selfless choice of strength and then spending the last thousand days selfishly regretting that choice, only because I want my baby. Try as I might to fight this, sometimes I think only of myself and what I have lost.

There are people I know who believe sending Finn away has made our lives inordinately easier. They are right; they are very, very wrong. It’s true – I don’t have to change pull-ups of someone hovering on the brink of puberty on a daily basis. I don’t have to keep my refrigerator locked for fear that he’ll eat everything in there – cheese wrappers and all – and make himself sick (and make a huge mess in the process). I don’t always have to worry about someone wandering out of my yard and into imminent harm. I don’t have to worry every day about someone smearing his poop on the walls just because he likes the smell. I don’t have to get up every night at 3 am, to entertain someone whose sleep cycle mirrors that of a bipolar raccoon.

But these physical worries have been replaced by monsters with larger, sharper teeth. Without him here, I get the pleasure of worrying that Finn, who cannot communicate, misses me, or his dad or brothers, or his home here with us. I worry he feels scared or sad or lonely. I also worry (but only obliquely because it isn’t something any mother can dwell on for long) he will fall prey to a sexual predator, someone who sees him as an easy target because he cannot tell anyone what’s being done to him. My logical mind doesn’t believe these things are happening now, only they could, and I would never know. To be fair, he has some wonderful caregivers, a few truly great ones, who teach and nurture Finn in ways that even I cannot. But no matter how great they are, they can never replace me. I am Mother.

I’m not someone who comes to resolution easily; I need to bash my head against an immovable wall hundreds of times before I give up, like a punch drunk boxer (Kirk swears this is a mark of my German heritage). I dwell on the many things I might’ve done differently to change the outcome; I mull over failed strategies as a battle-weary general would her poorly executed war plans. What did we not do for Finn? Why couldn’t we hold us together? Why are we resigned to live our family lives in moments, on alternating weekends or school breaks, like we somehow divorced one son, but decided to keep the other two? These questions are unanswerable; the logic behind them is as faulty as the cell phone reception in our rural county. Still, I think them.

So my family lives apart, through choice that was no choice at all. I’ve learned how to live with a broken heart, always teetering on that razor’s edge between faith and despair.

Resolutely though, life marches forward. Recently I overheard Sam, the forever baby of our family, talking to a cluster of new friends in our backyard. He tells them of Jack and of Finn, of the big brother that is here and the big brother that is away.

Finn lives in Hope, he says, referring to the name of his brother’s school. The awkwardness of Sam’s phrasing gives me pause. He doesn’t say at Hope, he says in Hope. Finn lives in Hope.

In Hope. For you, Finn, and for your brothers too, this promise: I am halfway there.

Waiting for the bus (er, van), Finn-style!

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