As the mother of nine grown children, only two of whom are still at home, I’m experienced at navigating the uncertainty of the Empty Nest Syndrome. It’s not just about loneliness, as anyone might expect. It’s about second-guessing. Have I given them all the tools they’ll need to build a satisfying life? How will they change? Will they make sound choices, and how will I respond when they don’t? How can I protect them now?
And late at night, when the house is dark and brooding: Will they still love me?
Childrearing lasts so long that it’s easy to lose sight of the goal: we aren’t raising children, we’re raising adults. The point is to match their physical growth with the skills and maturity that will make them stand-alone grown-ups. The point is to empty that nest.
Not always, though. Our daughter and son who still live with us will never be able to reach that launching place into an entirely independent life. Disabilities cloud their judgment and, with it, their safety in acting alone. Emptying my nest is not an option, and I struggle with how to redefine my role in fostering freedom and personal accountability. I don’t always get it right.
Last month Tony, our adult son with autism, eloped again. Eloped: in the autism world that word doesn’t refer to an over-eager love bond resulting in instant marriage. No, it’s a technical term that means he ran away. Again. He was angry because his dad, Bob, asked him to quit raking and put his tools away. Asked him nicely, since they’d been working together happily at the community garden and Bob wasn’t expecting fury as a response.
But that’s what he got. Tony stormed over to the van, heaved his rake into the back, and kept on going. It took Bob several minutes, while he locked up the shed and closed the garden gate, to realize Tony had not gotten in, and by that time he was out of sight. Bob jumped into the van and searched for blocks all around the garden. No Tony. He came home and picked me up, and we went off together, four eyes searching instead of two. Two minds struggling to imagine where Tony might go. Or even why.
It was early evening when Tony took off. We called the police, of course, and they sent out an alert to all the local law enforcement, fire, and transportation networks, along with two recent photos of Tony and a complete description of what he was wearing: dark shorts, a navy t-shirt and a dirty baseball cap on which the word “Arizona” could barely be deciphered. No bright colors to make him stand out against the gathering dark.
The detective who interviewed us asked where we thought Tony might go. But that was impossible to guess. Easily turned aside by whatever attracted him at the moment, he wouldn’t have a plan.
“Then, what attracts him?” he asked, as though reason could be called upon to track down a young man whose mind soars perpetually in other realms.
“Garbage,” I answered. “He picks up garbage.” The officer stared at me, silent, awaiting an explanation I didn’t have. Tony considers himself an environmentalist, and he notices things no one else does: anything out of place. His passions run to cleaning and straightening. He makes beauty by a process of eliminating ugliness.
“He’ll have a grocery cart with him,” I finally offered, feeling for one glorious moment practically clairvoyant. Out-of-place grocery carts are another fascination of his. Still the expressionless stare. “For the garbage,” I added, tamping down the humiliation rising inside me, failed mother of an unsocialized child.
Throughout the night we left the lights on in the house and the doors unlocked, took turns slumped on the couch beside the front window watching for his return. And meanwhile Tony wandered alone through some of the worst neighborhoods in our city. He never slept, just kept on walking, hour after hour, an ecologist on a mission.
Twice the police stopped him. Once because he was lying in the street retrieving discarded cardboard from a storm drain, and once for blocking traffic while he picked up empty cans in a busy intersection. Both times they asked his name, and he told them. But they didn’t escort him home, or even call us to come pick him up. As the detective explained to us later, it was probably because he was pushing a grocery cart. Instead of being an identifying factor, it branded him: people pushing grocery carts are among the most invisible in the social landscape. They’re derelicts, not cherished sons. No matter how unsafe, how hungry or thirsty or lost. No matter how loved.
He wandered until noon the next day, when he turned up at a school-supply warehouse where our family sometimes volunteers. They recognized at once that he was alone, fed him, gave him water, set him to cleaning up behind the warehouse so he’d stay put, and called to let us know he was there.
When you lose a child and then find him again, you do a quick assessment—like counting toes and fingers the first time you see your baby in the delivery room or the social worker’s arms. This time there was dried blood on Tony’s feet, visible between his sandal straps. His lips were parched and cracking. He walked with a limp. Street grime streaked his arms and legs in tiger-stripe patterns. But his eyes, even glassy with exhaustion, held a look of unaccustomed confidence. Or maybe it was triumph.
I hugged him, of course, consciously embracing the dust and sweat of his solitary travels, and he hugged me back. “Sorry about that,” he breathed into my neck.
“It’s okay,” I said. I hoped that was true, but it would take time to sort out how our lives had shifted in the short time he’d been away.
Over Tony’s shoulder I spotted his grocery cart parked to one side, crammed with a jumble of hubcaps, assorted lengths of scrap metal, a black garbage bag bulging with crushed aluminum cans, a large chunk of cardboard and a couple of half-empty power drink bottles. He had no money with him; the bottles he was drinking from were found objects. I quashed my horror at the unthinkable provenance of those bottles, with the relief that Tony had thought to stay well hydrated.
“Ready to go home?” I asked.
He nodded. “We better take the sign,” he said.
Sure enough, the chunk of cardboard I had glimpsed in the cart was, in fact, a sign. “CAASH FOUR CANS $500,” it proclaimed in thickly penciled letters. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t sold any, but there was a strange gravitas about this purposeful attempt at entrepreneurship. In less than 24 hours he had hatched the idea for a new enterprise, acquired both a mobile workspace and the stock to fill it, set up an advertising scheme and taken his business (literally) to the streets.
Home again: a long shower, a favorite meal, bandages for his feet and a brace for his knee. And then a sleep as long as his trek. He awoke stiff and achy, but ready to slip back into his routine, apparently unconcerned about the danger he’d been in. “So many homeless people!” he told us, marveling. “And so many empty buildings!” As though a midnight stroll through ruined neighborhoods held no more peril than a museum tour.
But loving Tony, being responsible for him even as an adult, is not the same as knowing him. I err when I assume he is oblivious to the dangers he navigated, or even that the collection of rubbish in his grocery cart was random.
Alone in the kitchen one evening, emptying the dishwasher, Tony narrates an idealized version of his life to some invisible audience. From the next room, I overhear him.
“Yep, Tony was ready, guys,” he says. “Nobody was going to beat him up. He had a hubcap right there in his cart in case anybody attacked him. It was his shield.”
A pause, pans clattering into place in the cupboards. And then, “And long pieces of metal. Tony could fight somebody off with that. Whack, whack!” He laughs, relishing the imagined triumph. It’s the stuff of heroes.
It won’t work to try to convince him he might have been hurt, because he wasn’t. He tried his wings, and they kept him aloft. He was tired, sure, and his feet and legs took a beating, but does it matter how hard a thing is if it’s worth doing?
I sit in silence, humbled by the ignorance of my own assumptions. He was not oblivious to his danger after all, and he took the precautions he could to defend himself. His weaponry might not have provided the protection he imagined, but I have to admire the resourcefulness that went into it, the way he made creative use of the materials at hand. As a survival quest, a coming of age on the city streets, he aced it. If that fact gives me little peace and zero assurance of his future security, I can still accept the comfort it offers of a strong, confident son—disabled, but with his dignity intact.
* * *
Clearly, in our efforts to protect Tony and maintain our own equilibrium, we’ve underestimated his readiness for new challenges. Now instead of aiming simply to control his world, we experiment with providing him with new skills, new responsibilities. We’re well outside the bounds of the usual age-related guidelines all parents use to mark their child’s progress. Instead we stretch ourselves to find new ways to give him space and opportunity. Small steps, so he doesn’t fail.
Can he learn to sort and launder his own clothes, start to finish?
Yes, if I’m willing to monitor the washer controls and ignore some wrinkles in the stack of freshly folded shirts he puts away on his shelf.
Will he decide by himself to head for the shower before bedtime without being badgered?
Can he muster the focus to take out the trash and return to the house without being sidetracked by an impulse to hose the bird droppings off the top of the garbage can or sweep the neighbor’s drive?
Not quite ready for that one yet, but I plan to keep working on it, finding ways to help him succeed. To help him take charge and be free.
Working beside Tony as he tries his hand at cutting up the vegetables for dinner, he begins to tell me about an incident from his travels. He had ventured into a large shopping mall just a mile or so the other side of the warehouse from where we found him.
“A security guard stopped me,” he tells me.
I nod. No surprise there, considering he was maneuvering a cart full of trash through the pristine hallways. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Do you need some help?'”
An offer Tony had obviously turned down, but I ask anyway. “So, what did you tell him?”
“I told him no.”
I’m not sure if I want to know why, even if he could tell me. I marvel that the man hadn’t simply ordered him to leave. “Well, that was kind of him to ask,” I say.
“Yep.” Tony doesn’t look up, just slices with slow precision at the celery, popping every third piece into his mouth.
I take my time chopping a bell pepper and finally muster the courage to ask. “Tony, why didn’t you ask him to help you get home?”
His hands grow still and he meets my eyes. “Because,” he says, “I knew the way.”
Now it’s my turn. With every kid I’ve launched my role has changed, granting me back a portion of the freedom I knew before I ever became a mom. Because Tony and Dara are still at home, though, I haven’t made much use of it.
Tony has eloped before, but this time is different. This time it’s a declaration, announcing his independence, insisting on new latitude to live life his own way. I can help that impulse along by stepping back a bit, launching new interests of my own. Getting back to the weaving I love, carving out time to attend a history lecture, thinking seriously about writing an entire book, cooking some meals that suit my own palate and not just my kids’. Making time for my own interests is fraught with complications. Will my plans be toppled by Tony’s acting out? What to do with him when he’s crosswise with the world? It takes courage to step out, courage to let go. Unlike Tony, I don’t know the way. But maybe, with his help, I’ll find it.