In this galaxy there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in the universe, three million galaxies like this. And in all that, and perhaps more...only one of each of us.
-Dr. McCoy, Star Trek
I’m sitting in a crowded government office waiting for my number to be called.
My autistic 18-year-old son and husband sit outside in the car, listening to music to pass the time. “We have to drive to an office, and you just need to come in very quickly to sign a form. This is a program that offers support to help you.” My son smiles nonchalantly, “Oh okay.” He doesn’t have a concept of what legal adulthood means, of the value of money, of delayed milestones. He’s happily unaware. Frequent texting back and forth with my husband ensues to hazard a guess on our place in the queue.
My husband is logical about the whole process. “Our son is the same boy the day before he turned 18 and the day after he turned 18. Frankly, I see an upside in all this.”
I am caught up in the significance of my oldest son turning 18, in expectations, in milestones, in my dreams for all my children, in how to best honor my son’s individuality and self-advocacy balanced with protecting his vulnerabilities, and in societal definitions of what it means to be an adult.
So, on his 18th birthday, his 6, 570th day on this earth, he is legally declared an adult.
This milestone requires action on his parents’ parts, mere mortals that we are. While certainly not the case for all autistic adults, as countless autistic individuals continue to college and fruitful careers, my autistic son’s path has led us to these doors on this day. There are many decisions we must make in regards to searching out community and government programs for adult services, deciding what is needed and what is not. While I’ve researched and gathered all the necessary information, I’ve lingered at that fork in the road, feeling immobilized at times by my own emotional pain and indecision, unable to move my feet forward into action. The frontier of adulthood--what it means for my son, what it means as my husband and I make decisions on his behalf that we hope lovingly serve him best--is a process of constant reflection as our decisions carry great emotional and practical weight. I want to do right by my son.
While sitting in the crowd, I ponder the swirling stories of those around me. I hear the accent of a hard-core Southerner. I’m sure some might consider being a Southerner as a true disadvantage in life; I should know, as I am one. I wonder if he brought any backwoods moonshine? I could use a shot. While I’m an expert in deciphering Southern twang, I also hear foreign languages, words I do not understand. I see the lines of hard roads etched deeply into solemn faces. I hear a father talk about his son’s schizophrenia. I see a woman laboriously drag herself on a walker, wheezing for her next breath. The cynic in me scans the room for would be scammers, as if I could somehow divine this by looking around. I feel a bit of judgment. I feel a bit of anger.
I shouldn’t have to be here.
Suddenly, I become aware of a new visitor to this government office, one that brings a surprising break to the melancholic emotions I feel. In fact, he brings a laugh.
No, I didn’t suddenly qualify for my own fast pass application for adult services based on a diagnosis of hearing voices from Star Trek tell me the secrets of the universe. Sulu, played by George Takei, was talking through the TV monitor in a commercial. Apparently, George found a gig late in life being a spokesperson for a government agency. Wearing his Sulu costume and standing in the Starship Enterprise, he beams with a huge smile and gives a thumbs-up, saying what a breeze it is to apply for services.
The ludicrousness of Sulu jolts me into awareness.
I shouldn’t have to be here?
It’s funny how I always find a way to question life’s perceived injustices, especially in my very small, personal world. Is that the best use of my finite time? I’ve never really questioned why I was born in a democratic country and never had to walk through a war zone or fight for freedom as my father, grandfather, uncle, and countless generations of people have been called to do. I’ve never questioned if my appearance or socioeconomic status or intellectual capacities made it easier to find more opportunities in life. I never questioned how I’ve never lacked for a family and social support system that provided life affirming love and guidance, especially during the hardest of times. I’ve never questioned that I was given the ability to conceive not one, but three children and that for nearly two decades I’ve had the pleasure of motherhood’s sweeping, enriching experiences.
I think the biggest question I should ask myself is not why do I have to be here at this government office, but why I imagine I shouldn’t?
Like any parent, I want numerous doors opened for my child, opportunities afforded him that better my own. Isn’t that part of the parental dream? We can say this should be about my son, but when a child is vulnerable, and I have to make decisions on his behalf, then it is about me too. So rather than deny or bury my sadness surrounding the decisions before me, I honor those feelings as natural and valid, knowing that in doing so, I will find strength to continue to be the mother my child needs. Our stop at this government office on this day is simply one moment among a multitude of meaningful moments; we are where we need to be. Life is filled with pathways we don’t always understand but that doesn’t preclude finding happiness and meaning on those divergent pathways.
During this time, my daughter calls me, not knowing where I am. “I got accepted! I’m studying abroad in London this fall!” The juxtaposition of these events—at a government office for one child, academic study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world for another--could not feel more surreal. Each experience is beyond any imaginings I initially had as a mother. Looking back, each pregnancy with my three children always stirred as I felt the miracle of life unfold within, followed by all the intimacies and joys of motherhood like when I first held each baby to my breast and felt an intimate connection that required no words, when I stroked a baby’s head and discovered a new meaning of softness, when I smelled a baby smell so sweet I thought I just might bask in that heavenly scent all day long, when I marveled in the miracle of life itself, in the wiggle of toes, in the grasp of tiny fingers holding my own, in the fluttering of delicate eyelashes, in the beating of a heart next to my own, in the coo and breath against the cradle of my neck, in the burst of love within my being like no other love I had ever known before. I like to remind myself of my earliest mothering moments because they were so pure and uncomplicated. My focus was on one thing only: the miracle of an individual life, full of purpose and originality, in all its variations and colors and temperaments and circumstances and unknowns, unfolding in loving communion and bonds of attachment, born of love and a divine spark.
Our number is called. I text my husband. I meet our son at the front door as he is wearing headphones to block out unpleasant sounds. We walk to a desk as he cheerfully greets the representative, taking his headphones off so he can hear her instructions. “Sign here.” “Is that it?” he says. “Yep, that’s it.” “Okay, bye Mom!” He doesn’t walk, but runs through the crowded office of people out the door to his dad waiting in the car. The vision of him running in such a carefree fashion, untethered to societal concerns through that crowded office towards the exit, fills me with a range of emotions that includes pride, which I cannot do justice with words, other than to simply say how much I love my son. He is happy. He is free. He defines his life in simple, here and now joys. “Mom, I composed a new song on Garage Band; let me play it for you! Mom, listen to the birds singing! Mom, let’s walk the trail by the lake and look for geese! Mom, look at those flowers! Mom, I hear the train coming! Mom, I love you!” We are blessed and transformed by his presence, by his unique and lovely humanity.
And so, like we all do, we boldly go forward, not knowing what adventures await, but knowing that life is ongoing, always full of possibility and hope.
Second star to the right...and straight on 'til morning.
-James Kirk, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, quoting Sir James Barry (Peter Pan).