Next week’s milestone: Sonny’s first birthday away from home.  Dave and I plan to visit him at the U for a little celebration.

I’d planned to get Sonny a birthday card today.  I wanted it to be something special, so I head for the Hallmark store for a good selection.  Sonny likes funny cards that we’ve annotated further, and I also needed to get a card for him from Capone.  It’s the end of a warm September, and today is one of the first days that feels like fall.  Crisp air, tinges of color on the leaves, a benevolent blue sky.  It’s almost exactly nineteen years ago today when Sonny was due.  We had everything ready at home.  I had my fancy cell phone (it weighed only a couple of pounds!) ready to call Dave’s office or, if necessary, Dave’s beeper.  Every morning I woke up trying to figure out if this twinge or that was labor.  The late-September due date passed.  We were venturing perilously close to my own early-October birthday.  My father and brother have the same birthday, in February, and I knew that could suck.  My brother, especially, objected to years of two-for-one cakes, parties, and presents.  Two days before my birthday, the twinges became the real thing.  After almost 24 hours of labor, I begged my obstetrician to get the baby out of me, already.  “Push!” she snapped.  After a bunch more pushing and an emergency C section, I had my bouncing baby boy with a birthday the day before mine and a glorious prospect of the Octobers to come, all with two cakes, two sets of presents, two parties!

Sonny usually picks his cake.  Nothing fancy, just something from the grocery store.   Usually a smallish gold cake; the important thing is the frosting, which Sonny likes to be plentiful and colorful, and the candles.  After age eight, we switched to the candles that are formed into numbers rather than the little thin ones that have to be counted out and stuck all over the cake.  (Candles for Sonny’s cakes only–Sonny and Dave know better than to put number candles on MY cake, which in any case is not birthday cake, but cheesecake.)  There’s a Shaw’s supermarket in the same strip mall as the Hallmark store, but I wouldn’t want to shop for a cake without Sonny.  Plus his dorm room doesn’t have a fridge.  Cake this year will be by the piece, no candles.

I haven’t figured out presents yet.  Sonny used to give us lists.  We didn’t necessarily get everything on the lists, but almost always a couple of the most important things.   The strip mall has a toy store right next to the Hallmark store.  It’s one of those hoity-toity ones with a train table, lots of wood and puppets and games and projects that are supposed to make kids smarter while they play (with not a Barbie to be found).   I pass it, a bit wistful for the days when we could buy another few feet of track and a couple of Thomas trains and know we’d gotten something he’d love.    There’s nothing in the strip mall that appeals to the Sonny of today.  No Newbury Comics or Barnes and Noble or even a Game Stop.

I get to the Hallmark store to find a padlock on the door and a sign about the store hiring now.   The lights are on.  There are two people in there.  They act as though I am invisible.   I remind myself that there’s no hurry.  I have a week.  Still, I’m fuming a bit as I drive home.  The fall wind blows a little colder.

For the past few years, Sonny’s birthday has coincided with football games and rehearsals and concerts.  Autumn’s a busy time for everybody.  Usually the birthday party has been the three of us having cake and opening presents, plus a special excursion for Sonny and a friend or two on the next convenient weekend.  I don’t mind these small-scale parties.  (Some of us are still recovering from Sonny’s biggest party ever, a 2005 event for 12 kids, most on the spectrum, plus their parents, plus their siblings, at Plaster Funtime.  That was in a different strip mall, and I sincerely hope they’ve managed to scrub down the walls in the Party Room by now).

This year will be low key to fit Sonny’s grown-up vibe.  We’ll give Sonny his presents and cards, Sonny will give me my present, and then we’ll all order cake.  Two-for-one, and I’m looking forward to it, so very much.

Check, Please!

Sonny and I continue our exploration of the chain restaurants near the U.   Most recently we went to Friday’s.  Sonny had his usual bacon cheeseburger, no garnishes or condiments, American cheese, cooked medium, with fries and a Diet Coke.  He was approving of the fact that this Friday’s has not detchotchefied, as so many other Fridays have lately.  We were seated in the Elvis section, festooned with the kind of vinyl records  and old menus and posters and fuzzy Vegas dice that Sonny enjoys to contemplate while he eats.  As I suspect most of these mementos began their journey to the restaurant wall in a warehouse rather than in an attic, I’m less appreciative.  (I was happy when our local Friday’s switched to bare walls with a few paintings; Sonny, with his love for a crowded visual field, was not.)  Our food arrived promptly and still hot.  The kitchen had left off the condiments and garnishes.   We had a nice conversation about Sonny’s activities at the U and mine in the Nest, and the waitress came around to clear the plates and ask if we needed anything doggy bagged.  Finally came the check.  “No rush,” said the waitress, as she slipped the check presenter (just barely) on Sonny’s half of the table.

I felt a rush of pure happiness.  “Do you realize what just happened?” I asked.

“We got the check,” said Sonny.

“No.  You got the check!  For the first time ever!”

Sonny’s face fell.  He’d just told me that after buying his books, he had about $90 in his checking account.

“Don’t worry,” I said, grabbing the check and my wallet.  “You don’t have to pay the check. It’s just the first time it’s been offered to you.”

We’re a family that loves to eat out; going to a restaurant on Friday night is practically a tradition.  Whether it’s the three of us or just two of us, Sonny’s always been the kid at the table.   Even once he grew a half-inch taller than his father.

One thing that was important to us when Sonny was younger was figuring out how to take him out in public, and restaurant meals were one of our key teaching tools.  The lessons were not always successful.   Some of our restaurant excursions ended early in the car, and we went home, several of us crying, rather than disturb the other diners.   Many restaurant trips showed how literally autistic children can take social cues.  “Hi, I’m Ron, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight,” an unsuspecting waiter would say.   “Hi, I’m Sonny,  and this is Mama and Daddy,” Sonny would reply.  Dave would put his hand over his eyes.  “And here are Ticklepuss (fingers of one hand bunched into a beak) and Tickle Monster (fingers of the other hand splayed as if holding an imaginary grapefruit).”   Then Tickle Monster would say “wah wah wah.”   Ticklepuss would say, “He says hello.”    Ticklepuss and Tickle Monster were originally my creations.  Ticklepuss (I called her Mrs. Ticklepuss) was female and spoke with a sort of Australian accent.  Tickle Monster was male and spoke only in wahss and rawrs; Ticklepuss often translated for him, even when his meaning was clear.  Once the waiter was gone, Mama and Daddy would explain, once again, that all Sonny needed to say was what food he wanted.

Over the years the tickle puppets gave way to books.  Sonny took three books in the car, two of those books got to come into restaurants.  Dave and I would talk; Sonny would mostly read and talk a little bit.  Then he brought the books in with him, but they stayed unopened on the table.  It’s only been over about the past year and a half that Sonny gave up books in restaurants altogether for conversations with us.

I wondered, as I paid the Friday’s check, if what’s changed isn’t just Sonny, but me, too.   I have been pulling back on that (maternal?) (controlling?) (impatient?) tendency to interpret or explain what Sonny wants, to waitstaff or anyone else.   At least I do so when I remember, and when I can manage the impulse to control.   I bunched my fingers together like Mrs. Ticklepuss to pull the bills from my wallet and stuck them in the check presenter.  “All set?” asked the waitress.  “All set,” said Sonny, and we left.

I’ve Got Algorithm

It’s almost touching how the machines in my life try to take care of me.  I can’t get in the car without my phone making a guess about where I might be going and how long it will take to get there.  Got in the car this morning and my phone told me how long it would take to get to the grocery store–good guess, Siri!  LinkedIn sends me lists of jobs for which I might want to apply:  Project Coordinator at a big pharmaceuticals company!  Enrollment Processor for a big computer company!   Executive Assistant for a big government agency!  LinkedIn is convinced I want to be a tiny cog in a big machine.  My phone is better at this than LinkedIn, which is not LInkedIn’s fault.  I never filled out much of my LinkedIn profile, while my phone gets to use real-life, real-time data, but my last LInkedIn email sparked the idea that maybe Google could help with a project to explore new activities and interests.

Dave says there’s nothing like a Google search to find out how unoriginal your questions and ideas are.  I was counting on that as I typed in “what should I do with my life?”  That search led to a bunch of career counseling sites.  I already know what I like to do, career-wise (teach and play music).   I tried “What hobby should I do?” and hit the jackpot: site after site of personality quizzes.

I’m a sucker for internet quizzes.  I love to find out which Buffy the Vampire Slayer character I most resemble, what six words describe me, whether I’m autistic (borderline, no surprises there) or a psychopath (nope) or a genius (also nope), what city I should have been born in, etc.   An internet quiz is one of my favorite ways to put off practicing for another five minutes.

I clicked from quiz to quiz.   Most algorithms tried to be helpful, although one sniffed “Your results were not clear” and rather dismissively suggested I take up orienteering or ceramics.  Most of the recommendations fell into the general creative category: sketching, painting, journaling, scrapbooking, writing, sewing, singing.  Some were exercise-related, like hiking, tennis, and ballroom dancing.   One quiz spit out a single directive: “you should write a novel.”

I imagine myself in a field, daubing at a canvas, paint smudged on my clothes.  Successfully avoiding Dave’s toes as we waltz.   Posing at the top of a mountain trail.   Making a delicious meal for Sonny’s first weekend home from college.  Typing “The End” on a manuscript.  All of the images have some appeal; why am I so reluctant to choose among them?  It’s not a right or wrong thing, and I know it doesn’t have to be the absolute best.  I can change my mind.  But I don’t feel ready to commit, yet.   Before I decide, I’ll just take five minutes and see how many of these common 21 words I’ve been mispronouncing…


So today I was contemplating possible next steps.  Dave was at the office; that’s going to be our new normal.  For most of Sonny’s childhood, Dave has had jobs where he could telecommute, so we’ve often been hanging out in the house together.  But Sonny’s move to college has coincided with Dave’s shiny new job, which requires him to be in the office, five days a week.  My friend M. says that’s possibly a good thing, or Dave and I could start getting on each other’s nerves.  Um, more than we already do.   The Nest is noticeably quieter.  Disconnecting from daily kid-wrangling and a husband on scene, I’m processing, ready to move on.  But to what?    Work will fill some of it.  Sonny’s tuition bills aren’t going to magically pay themselves.  I’m sending out resumes, scheduling auditions, networking.  But what to do with the rest?

I spent a frustrating half hour trying to come up with a list.  Try every Mexican restaurant on the South Shore…learn French…sign up for a ballet class…write that novel…learn finally to operate the waffle iron we got for a wedding present, 20 years ago…join a Scrabble club…go to a movie not based on superheroes and comics…run a 5K…

None of my choices seemed quite the thing.   I tore up the list and navigated to a job listings site–and then the most wonderful thing happened:  Sonny emailed me with a problem.  A schedule snafu.  Hurrah!  Fall suddenly felt familiar.

Like clockwork, every September since about 2003 has started with Sonny signed up for the wrong course, or with two activities scheduled for the same time, etc., and that was the sign for me to rev up the helicopter!  I would email and cc like a boss!   Of course that’s not counting the Hi, New Teacher-I’m-Sonny’s-mom emails (I scheduled those for sometime during the second full week of classes), the IEP implementation emails, the homework question emails, the thanks for your patience emails, the teacher conferences.   I’m not exactly proud to classify myself as a helicopter mom, but I don’t apologize for it.  With a kid who’s autistic, helicopter seems to be the starting point.

I called Sonny immediately.  His voice was lower, the way it gets when he’s upset, and my stomach clenched at the sound.   I got the details of the situation, the name of the professor in charge, whose email was already in my contacts list.  And even as my fingers itched and twitched to get typing, I told Sonny…to handle this problem himself.    (I did give him instructions and reassurance.  I gave him steps to take: talk to the professor, buy the textbook, write an email to his adviser, put the new class into his planner.  I promised him he was going to feel more in control, if not exactly better.)

Then I worried for the next hour and a half.  Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and texted Sonny.  “I hope things went okay.  How do you feel?”  “Better,” he texted back.   And that was that.

The helicopter stayed on the pad.   Tomorrow I tackle the list again.



Not Australia

This morning I drove Dave’s Mazda down two wide, windy highways to the U for a breakfast date with Sonny.   It’s just a short visit with the intention of reassuring one or the both of us that everything’s going okay.

It’s been a curious week.  Quiet here.  Capone has taken to bed–Sonny’s bed.  Capone’s orange stripes blend surprisingly well with the yellow blanket we put there in lieu of the bedspread now in residence at Sonny’s U dorm room.  The cat comes into my bedroom sometimes, and I throw the little mouse toy around for him to chase, and Capone makes a couple of feints at it, but he loses interest quickly and leaves.   Dave’s in the office for most of the week, and I’m just getting started with my music students for the fall, so there’s a lot of silence.   When I practice, it feels louder, more raucous than usual.  That’s helpful for some pieces.  My vocal group is doing a sea chanty, “South Australia,” and raucous works for that piece.   Heave away you ruler kings, Heave away, Haul away, Heave away, you’ll hear me sing, We’re bound for South Australia!  Ideal for when I’m sloshing dishes in the waves of my kitchen sink.

(Digression: Not all of “South Australia” is fast and bumptious.  There’s a slow part in the middle of my group’s arrangement that doesn’t help in doing household chores even a little bit.   There ain’t but one thing grieves my mind (heave away), to leave my dear wife and child behind, we’re bound for South Australia.  Yet in the first line, the narrator says he was born in South Australia.  So is the grief that he’s coming, or going?  My recommendation, if you are trying to houseclean to this tune, is to skip this verse and go straight to the next chorus.)


I had been rather unreasonably nervous that I wouldn’t recognize Sonny, but he looked almost the same.  Maybe he stood just a tiny bit straighter.  We went to Friendly’s.  Sonny was wearing one of his beloved black graphic tees and khaki shorts, and he was as hungry as ever.  He ordered a breakfast bacon sandwich and apple juice and began to tell me about his new friends, who like to play video games, about his classes, about going to the mall.   I picked at my pancakes and gave him some walking-around money.

We agreed that it’s a sad that his roommate hasn’t shown up, quite the mystery, in fact.  Sonny said one of his friends is in a triple by himself, but admitted that his RA has told him that a roommate will appear at some point.   He doesn’t seem lonely, which is good, but I worry for him all the same and hope he gets a roommate soon.

We get back to the U and deliver a few odds and ends to Sonny’s room.  With the exception of an unmade bed, it’s as neat as I remember from last week, nearly as orderly as a ship’s cabin.  More “South Australia” lyrics run through my head.  (When we lolloped round Cape Horn, wish to God you’d never been born.  What a lovely word lolloped is.  It means bouncing or bounding.)

Afterwards we drove for a while, exploring and talking.  Around the U there’s a route with a bunch of big box stores, gas stations, and strip malls, but mostly farm country.  Not as green as it might be, given the drought we’re in, but not Australian outback dry.   My son is an hour away, not on the other side of the world.  By the time we were tired of scenery and had turned back, we had settled on a list of three things that Sonny should do in the next few days.  Then it was time for me to drop him at the dorm and lollop home.

About halfway there, the thunderstorms we’d been promised on the morning news dumped a bunch of water onto the highway.  I turned the windshield wipers on high.




The Freshman 15

Sonny’s been away for three days now.   For our first solo morning in the Nest, Dave and I cleaned the fridge and went grocery shopping.  Now that our walking food evaporation system is on the campus meal plan, we figured we would get going in a slightly more nutritious direction.  With Sonny’s strong taste/texture preferences, love of routine, and school schedule,  we had settled into a drab rotation of about six different types of meals, many out of boxes, that could hit the table at around 5:30 every evening.

“So…what do you want to be eating this week?” I asked Dave as we entered Stop-N-Shop.

“I’m not sure,” he said.  “Except no apples.  I don’t like apples.”

“Not even Macouns?”  I had been searching out Macoun apples every fall for the past six years.  Dave’s work buddy Howard had turned him on to them.

“Nope.  I never finish an apple now.  Applesauce is okay, though.”

Sonny likes apples.  Golden Delicious are his favorite.  We talked a lot lately about how he’s going to have to be smart about his portions and what he eats and drinks on the campus dining plan, and how he should not be living on bacon cheeseburgers alone.  “You don’t want The Freshman 15,” I warned him.  Sonny agreed, although I still suspected that he was going to eat more bacon cheeseburgers than he would report to me.

Stop-N-Shop was freezing, so Dave and I may have rushed through it faster than necessary.  Still, I thought we were going to come out with a bunch of produce and new kinds of meats and some crazy starches.  We did get asparagus and steak, and bananas instead of apples, now going a little brown and spotty in the fruit bowl–and then pretty much everything that I used to get when I was shopping for the three of us.  Plus an extra bag of chips and some cookies and ice cream.

I look into my nice, clean, organized fridge, filled with the same old stuff, and try to imagine it bursting instead with quinoa and salmon and greens and herbs.  I think, this new phase is going to take some work.  I grab a cookie to enjoy while I look up new recipes.  The Freshman 15, if I’m not careful, is going to settle around my own hips.


Empty Nesters, Officially

Today was D Day  (Drop-off Day!),  so we drove down to the U.  There were cheerful, energetic students who whipped Sonny’s things out of our car, loaded them into wheeled tubs, checked us in, gave Sonny his key, and got him and his belongings into his dorm room within the space of about 20 minutes.  Different from my day.  My belongings fit into seven cardboard boxes, which my father and I drove from Virginia to Illinois, culminating in my first (so far only) speeding ticket, the boxes stuck in a room at my future dorm while I spent a week at marching band camp.  My father and I schlepped all of the boxes ourselves.

Sonny’s been preparing for this day for a couple of weeks.  He made a list of what he thought he needed to take–filling more than seven cardboard boxes’ worth of space–and had me and Dave check it.  His packing started a week ago.

We got Sonny settled into his room and then went shopping for the little things we’d forgotten.  A trash can, desk lamp, light bulbs, extension cords.  It’s not fatal if we realize we’ve forgotten even more, since Sonny’s U is less than an hour away and I’m planning to visit every couple of weeks for his first semester.

It’s hard to figure out how to be the parent of an autistic college student, how much helicoptering I need to be doing.  Sonny’s done a good job getting himself set up.  He’s found a part-time job at the library, he’s connected with the assistance center already, and he’s lived in a dorm before, albeit only for two weeks at camp.  I’m nervous, but trying to stand back.  It’s not so easy.

After lunch we dropped off Sonny at his dorm.  He wanted us to hug him; we did.  He asked for us to send pictures of Capone looking cute.  We promised to try to look out for them.  Then we drove back.  I had expected to tear up on the way home, but I didn’t.  Still processing.  The emotional crackup actually happened to Dave.  This afternoon he went on a straightening up orgy, taking all of Sonny’s things that were still in the common spaces of the house and putting them out of sight, into Sonny’s room or the basement.

Sonny does tend to spread out, and he’s not super neat.  Any space where he cools his jets–the couch in the family room, the basement–quickly becomes strewn with books and drawings and objets and printouts and papers filled with notes about his projects, written closely in pencil.   He shoves his clothes into his dresser drawers.  I cornered Dave in Sonny’s bedroom, where he was working at a pile of T-shirts that hadn’t made it to the U, turning them from a tumbled mess into compact cloth squares.   Whap!  one sleeve turned over the back.  Whap!  the other sleeve turned.  Whap! The shirt folded into thirds and placed onto the pile.

I managed to lure Dave out of Sonny’s room after he’d rearranged a couple of drawers.  Sonny’s coming home at Thanksgiving and winter break; he’ll need to be able to find his stuff.  For right now, seeing Sonny’s stuff all over annoys Dave and at the same time makes him miss Sonny.  I know that the missing Sonny is going to hit me hard at some point.  I’ll need Dave to talk me down at that point, before I start wallpapering the living room with Sonny’s baby pictures.