I’m making dinner when my teenage son walks into the kitchen. “You’re never going to be a grandmother, you know,” he says, apropos of nothing. Then he walks back out.
I know better than to follow him. Instead, I go back to browning hamburger meat for sauce, wincing as drops of grease land on my wrist. I turn off the small kitchen TV, which seems to report only bad news lately, and consider my son’s declaration. Kids are loud and messy and unpredictable, all things he hates. And he shouldn’t have children. He’ll never have a job that will fully support himself, let alone a family.
My son is not trying to be hurtful. He deals in facts. I’m glad he knows what’s best for him. I try to focus on that.
At dinner we talk about what kind of car he’s going to get when he starts to drive. We can’t afford a new car—I’ve spent every dime on special diets and therapies and camps—and I can’t imagine that he’s ever going to drive, since his inattentiveness makes it difficult for him to cross the street safely. But I go along with the conversation because his teachers and therapists tell me to say “not now” instead of never. They call it optimism. I think it’s closer to betrayal, but I’m tired of being the one who breaks his heart.
Cars have been my son’s passion since he was a toddler. When he was younger, we’d drive from dealership to dealership collecting brochures, which he pored over, telling me about each model and color and whether they were two-door or four-door. I must have bought a thousand pretend cars.
“When I drive, I can do errands for you,” he says now.
“Well, that sounds good.”
“I can travel highways you hate to go on.”
“Even better,” I say.
“Because I’ll always love you most.”
I smile, but think: Don’t.
I turned forty the spring before my son was born. There wouldn’t be another child. I‘d almost waited too long as it was; conceived him through anonymous donor insemination after years of relationships that never gained much traction, although I was married once, briefly. So when my baby didn’t seem to care whether or not I was around, it felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth. He missed every milestone; picked up diagnoses: low muscle tone, global developmental delays, and later, autism. Time and therapy got him walking (at two) and talking (at three), and the movement and the words slowly brought him closer to me. He’d toddle over and say, “Happy See You,” sounding uncomfortably like the racist caricature of a Japanese general in some old World War II movie. By his preschool years, he could fall asleep only if I was curled up at the bottom of his bed.
Now it’s, “Come on in for hug, Mom” and talking about his favorite cars, restaurants, or music for as many hours as I can tolerate. He’ll mention trips he wants us to take with no regard for money, or the fact that I won’t always be his companion and can’t promise who will be. His two aunts are older than me. He has no father, no siblings, only cousins, whose bond with him is fragile, held together by brief conversations during holiday visits.
I know we need to widen our field and definition of love. To accept whatever form that love takes, however many times people cycle in and out of my son’s life. I want him to have friends, of course, though that’s never been easy for him, and adults to whom he can turn for help. But also, romantic love if he wants it, although the statistics are grim. According to one study, only 32.1 percent of people with autism have partners, and only nine percent are married. And that’s mostly people with Asperger’s, a milder form of autism than my son has. What about those who struggle to communicate; have outbursts; need help making change or understanding a train schedule? What are the odds for them?
Not long after my son’s no-Grandma comment, we get together with a classmate of his, a lovely girl with Down syndrome, and her mother, with whom I am friendly. For a while their teachers were trying to fix the two of them up—pushing them to go bowling or to the movies. But my son has no romantic interest in her, or she in him. I wasn’t going to let him participate in some kabuki theater version of dating: the cute boy and the cute girl playing boyfriend and girlfriend to make the grownups feel better. Look at how far they’ve come. Look how much we’ve accomplished.
Although, as they sit across from each other at our neighborhood coffee shop an hour outside New York City, they do look like they are on an awkward first date, or perhaps a long-married couple sitting in companionable silence. The girl does kiss me on the hand when we first walk in.
“How courtly,” I say.
Her mom and I keep glancing over at our kids as we chat. I try to nudge my son along by giving him questions he can ask his friend, and he picks a few, but neither seem to care about the answers.
“We try our best,” the mom says, shrugging. “We do what we can.”
There is a certain world-weariness in her voice, which I relate to, even if our circumstances are vastly different. This woman and her husband are well off, while I have little in the way of material possessions to leave my son. I’ve worked from home for much of his life because my boy still can’t stay alone for more than an hour. He gets anxious, will call and call if I’m not home within a fifteen-minute window of when I promised to return.
I worry that by being here for him now, I’ve jeopardized his future. He doesn’t have a trust fund or a wealthy relative. His sole inheritance is a mother who loves him fiercely and who has done her best to prepare him for a life without her.
A few months after the coffee date, my son and I are invited to the girl’s sweet sixteen party at a nearby country club. A jacket and tie are not required, but he grouses a bit about having to wear a button-down shirt. I have no idea what to wear, because I rarely go out, and when I do the dress code leans more toward fleece than formal wear.
My son walks into the sweet sixteen party like he owns the place. He’s shy behind the swagger, but he knows many of the people who were invited, including the special education teachers and therapists who have worked with our kids for years. I hug the physical therapist who got my son walking all those years ago.
“Can you believe how quickly time has gone by?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I can’t.”
It is a joyous night. Once the DJ starts playing the kids start dancing, only stopping to eat dinner and go wild at a make-your-own-sundae bar. It is loose, free, intermittently rhythmic dancing. My son’s moves are mostly disco with a little hora and running mixed in. He is having a blast and wants nothing to do with me, which is good for both of us. He gets to be with his friends, and I get to listen to other moms share their stories, although it’s hard to hear with the dance floor just half a room away.
In the middle of the party, the birthday girl gets up and starts singing the Star-Spangled Banner. There are a couple of puzzled looks, but then we all sing along. That’s a beauty in this community: a more fluid vision of what makes sense and a willingness to live in a very specific moment. I’m proud I’ve helped my son become part of this world.
Near the end of the night, I ask him to pose for a picture with the birthday girl. He doesn’t like having his picture taken. When he allows it, his smile is forced and his eyes bug out in an attempt to keep them open. But in this picture, he’s beaming and has his arm around the girl’s shoulder, while she reaches for his hand. It’s not a romantic picture, despite the oohs and ahhs of everyone who sees it. It’s more like he’s found a kindred spirit.
I’m here, he seems to be saying. I’ll be here after you’re gone. I’ll be OK.