|It’s been two months since we dropped our only child off at a residential educational facility for individuals with autism. Nine-year-old Jonah’s old room is silent, empty. I take a scrub sponge and find the spots of sauce and ketchup left from food thrown by Jonah-Boo, up high and unnoticed before. I get the mop and wash the floor. I spray and wipe the fingerprints on all the windows. When Jonah lived here, a new spill or mess immediately followed the swipe of my paper towel, as if part of the process.
I used to judge the parents who ‘sent their kids away.’
The day we dropped him off and drove away was perhaps more agonizing for us than it was for him. At least that’s what everyone kept telling me. At least that’s what I needed to believe. The last glimpse of my boy’s shirt was the most difficult thing to see; the impulse to run after him was the most difficult thing to fight.
Honestly, the anticipation of Jonah’s leaving was by far the worst part for me.
Once he was there, I knew he’d get more comfortable and acclimated every day. He even talked to me on the phone the day after he’d been admitted; “I love you mommy,” he said. “I miss you.” I could hear a care worker in the background prompting him, but it was so good to hear his sweet little voice that I didn’t care. Jonah’s never been a phone kid and, at best, tolerates whatever you’re telling him for six seconds before handing off the receiver. It’s not like he can hold a conversation anyway. We’re just now celebrating the fact that he’s starting to say “yes” when he wants to answer in the affirmative, instead of merely parroting back what you’re offering him.
I miss him. I remember his hugs and kisses, his scent. I remember how his eyes lit up when he saw a train go by. I remember chasing him down a path in the woods and letting him throw woodchips and tiny pebbles into the air. Gleeful Jonah. Unable to bother anyone, and away from all the rules.
I have to remind myself of the bad things. We couldn’t help him on our own. He was going to hurt someone, or himself. Bad. He’d already kicked his leg through a glass window during a tantrum. Scratched and bitten and bruised Andy and me, over and over. Screamed in our ears. Broke our glasses repeatedly. Threw plates and spit soda, escaped from his car harness to attack us when either of us was driving alone with him. Shoved my mom’s TV over, smashing it to pieces. I have to remember.
The throwing-of-his-dinners undid any manner of order in the kitchen. In one enraged moment Jonah could cause at least an hour of clean-up . And so there are still ceiling spots and wall splats. Behind the radiator in his room is an unreachable collection of magnetic letters and colored straws. I don’t even want to know what’s under the fridge.
Nowadays when I clean, I figure whatever I am cleaning will pretty much stay that way. But sometimes it feels like erasing my boy, and I find myself wanting to leave the stains and spots alone. When I was doing yard work yesterday, I found a tiny shard of jagged glass. I knew immediately it was from last summer, when Jonah had that first terrible tantrum and kicked his bare leg through the double-paned window and got an ambulance ride to the hospital and a small scar on his leg for his trouble. Then for some reason I wanted it, that piece of glass. I can’t explain why. I took it inside and placed it almost reverently in a jewelry box on my dresser.
Sometimes I want to be Jonah’s mother – his caregiver – again, so much, I hate this new state of “geographical childlessness.” I don’t have another youngster on which to focus mother-love.
In a lot of ways, of course, life in the house is blessedly calmer. Now I can actually light a candle if I want; it can even sit for hours on a table. I can cook - chopping, mixing, baking, and sitting down, taking my time to eat. I can take two hour naps on Sunday. I can brew coffee and leave the machine alone instead of carefully unplugging and placing it on top of the fridge, out of Jonah’s reach. I can take down all the things that we’d moved higher and higher as he got older, taller, and more destructive.
Sometimes, though, something shifts inside my head - and as if in a nightmare, I’ve left my son somewhere but can’t remember where and can’t find him, no matter where I look or for how long. He’s just gone.
I didn’t anticipate the change this would have on my life, beyond the awareness that I’d miss him a lot. I didn’t think about the fact that I wouldn’t even have parenting in common with other parents anymore. And yet I am still his mama, far away and sending love with all my heart to him across the distance. It’s very surreal.
I know I’ll always be his mother, even when I can’t be with him, and I visit him as much as I can, but something is always whispering to me, asking questions I can’t answer. Is he truly happy there? Will they love him? When I visit Jonah, I hug him tight, inhale him deeply…soak him in. I cry when it’s time to go, and at first I felt nauseatingly guilty leaving him behind. It still hurts, but I believe we’ve done the right thing for our son.
Now we get to see what’s possible.