It was an icy cold morning in our northern California community. I tapped lightly on my son Andy’s door to wake him for an early morning flight back to the East Coast, where he is a freshman in college. During his three week winter break, my husband and I were struck by how little time he needed to spend with us, and though he was perfectly pleasant and amiable, he was always in a hurry to be anywhere but home.
“Have you had a meaningful conversation with him?” I asked my husband after a week and a half, “I sure haven’t.”
“No,” he sighed, “but he’s thrown me a few lines.”
Paranoid that we had gone wrong somewhere along the way, we polled our friends in similar circumstances, and they assured us that his behavior was normal.
“Join the club,” they laughed, so we relaxed and made ourselves available for conversation and meals, and were grateful for the scraps that came our way.
Before I could gulp a cup of coffee before our trip to the airport, Andy stepped out fully dressed, packed and ready to go. The night before, he had printed out his boarding pass and arranged for a ride from JFK Airport back to school in Connecticut.
It was quite a different scene one week ago, when Andy’s 20-year-old brother Matthew, who is autistic, prepared for his trip back to Pennsylvania, where he attends a special school.
“Mom,” he had said the night before his trip, “I need to tell you something very important. Listen carefully. You need to wake me up early so I can make pancakes before we go to the airport.”
His flight was at 7:10.
“Of course,” I said. It was an outrageous request, but one I anticipated. Travel days were hard for Matthew, and sticking to his routine would increase the odds of it being a successful one. So we were up at 4:15, setting his place at the table and warming the griddle. Matthew is high functioning but socially inept, and it’s necessary for him to fly with a helper. Today, he would be flying back to school with a young woman who worked at his school. She had flown him home and had been touring California in between.
While Matthew is home, he is very particular about how he wants to spend his days. He is obsessed with garden work- mowing, blowing and edging with precision, and when he is not doing it himself, he studies other garden crews in our neighborhood and around town. They all know him and are kind to him, as are the neighbors they work for.
After three or four days, finally tiring of our garden, Matthew announced that he was ready to hang out with his friends. The problem is, he has no friends.
“You can go to the movies with me and my friends,” Andy offered, but Matthew refused.
“I have my own friends,” he said, and proceeded to call people who were kind to him from five years ago during his first and only year in public high school.
He called them over and over and over. Their mothers took most of the calls, and I’m sure, wondered why I didn’t put a stop to his obsessive behavior.
“Matthew,” I said, “calling once or twice is fine, but if you keep calling, that’s bothering, and you’ll make people angry.” I told him that when I was his age, a guy I liked called me too much and it drove me away.
“But did you still think he was nice?” Matthew asked, his lip quivering.
Before I could answer, the sound of a lawnmower around the corner and the promise of a friendly garden crew distracted him, and he was off with a grin. I could exhale, but remained on edge until delivering him into the hands of his travel companion for his flight back to school.
When I drove Andy to the airport one week later, I expected our ride to be a quiet one-neither Andy nor I are morning talkers, but the combination of cold air and my son’s exhilaration to return to school electrified us, and we chattered away. It was great. Just as we were approaching the terminal, Andy asked me if I had heard Matthew speak Spanish.
“No. He speaks Spanish?”
“He pretends to speak Spanish,” Andy said with a smile, “when he hangs out with some of the garden crews. They think it’s hilarious.”
Andy jumped out of the car, dragging his huge duffle bag behind him.
“I love you, Mom. Thanks for everything. And don’t worry so much about Matthew. He’ll find his way”
Andy walked into the airport, and I drove away, conscious that my 18-year-old son had just thrown me a line.
And I grabbed it gratefully.