A Toast to New Orleans

by Jill Wilbur Smith

My husband, Gary, marvels that I recognize the anniversary dates of the death of my loved ones. When November 15, rolls around, the day my father’s heart gave out while he was hunting with his best friend, Gary is always mildly surprised that I want to recognize the day. On the anniversary of my father’s death, I often raise a toast to him with whomever I happen to be with on that day, whether they knew him or not.

Gary, Emily and Sarah on the Riverwalk in November 2004.

Gary, Emily and Sarah on the Riverwalk in November 2004.

But I’m finding it difficult to do the same for New Orleans on this 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it’s because New Orleans still exists. Unlike my father, who only lives now in my memory, New Orleans is still there, just altered. Although the wound of Katrina has healed with time, remembering it is painful. Every tweet and news story pokes at my scarred flesh until if spews fresh blood.

My dad had an infectious laugh.

My dad had an infectious laugh.

So I’m trying to think about why I remember my dad on the day he died. I don’t relive that moment when Gary hands me the phone in our Minnesota home, ashen face, mouthing the words “your dad died”. But rather I think about my father’s infectious laugh, replay our conversations around the kitchen table where he taught me by example what it means to be a generous human being, remember the look of love in his eyes the first time he held his granddaughters.

And so, that’s how I’ll try to live this day. I’ll not dwell on the image of the Superdome I watched endlessly from my home in Minnesota, my heart breaking for the displaced and frightened souls huddling on the bridge that connects it to the office tower where I once worked. I’ll remember instead that place on a brighter day, picture me sitting in the sun on a bench with a co-worker, enjoying the company and the sound of the city around us.

My in-laws' New Orleans home, before the flood.

My in-laws’ New Orleans home, before the flood.

I’ll erase from my mind the vision of my in-law’s home covered in water, the Google map image Gary came across days after the storm that showed the rooftop of his parents’ house bobbing in a neighborhood of water; the look of disbelief and shock on his face as he tried to choke back his tears. Instead, I’ll think of the Sunday dinners held there when we were newlyweds, how we brought Emily there to meet her grandparents, our visit only months before the storm for Thanksgiving when Sarah helped her Grammy organize her linen closet. I’ll try to forget Sarah three days after Katrina hits and the city is filling with water. How I was trapped in my bedroom in my suburban Minnesota home glued to the television with the drapes drawn, paralyzed by grief; the tap on my bedroom door and 9-year-old Sarah entering carrying a tray. How on the tray was a cup of hot coffee, a piece of toast with butter and jelly, and some wildflowers in a vase. “I know you’re sad, mommy,” she said. “I thought this might cheer you up.” I’ll remember instead how I turned off the TV and opened my arms to her, how her warm body snuggled into me as she reached up to wipe the tears from my cheek. I’ll think about how I reminded myself that my life hadn’t been damaged, that I was secure in my home with my children and husband.

My father-in-law playing the piano with Emily and Sarah.

My father-in-law playing the piano with Emily and Sarah.

I won’t think of my mother-in-law sitting in a hotel room in Northern Louisiana, watching the same footage I watched as the only place she’d ever known was washed away. I won’t recall my husband grieving for the loss of his hometown. At least I’ll try. Perhaps if we still lived in New Orleans the pain would be less. But I suspect not. I suspect that once a place is gone it’s gone for good. The new construction and cleared lots won’t ever return the city to the place we once loved. The magical place where we fell in love, got married and brought our beautiful daughter into the world.

My father-in-law, Sarah, my mother-in-law and Emily during our last visit to New Orleans before Katrina.

My father-in-law, Sarah, my mother-in-law and Emily during our last visit to New Orleans before Katrina.

And so as we mark this anniversary, I try to remember the good things that existed and still exist in New Orleans. The memories of the good times we had there can never be taken away. Only altered. Just like I’ll never again be able to sit across the table from my father and hear his booming laugh, we’ll never again visit the New Orleans we once loved. Instead, we’ll have to take comfort in the memories we made there. We’ll raise our glasses in toast to the city we loved.

Learning to Love Across the Divide

by Jill Smith

When Emily was born, I searched her face to find the familiar. Did she have my eyes? Was the shape of her nose like her father’s? As she grew, I monitored her behaviors as well, wanting her to like the same foods I liked, laugh at the movies that I thought were funny. I hoped that this beautiful child we had created would be like us, only better.

What I didn’t expect when I gazed into Emily’s face was that there would be something deep in her that I wouldn’t recognize. I couldn’t imagine that there might be an aspect of my child that was unfamiliar, that I wouldn’t understand.

I think it’s human nature to want our children to resemble us, for it to be obvious to others that they belong to us because they share familial traits. So what happens when they don’t? What happens when a child is born with a condition such as dwarfism, deafness, autism or transgender identity?

In Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, he offers guidance for how to understand and bridge this gap by asking us to consider the concept of vertical versus horizontal identities.

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“[M]ost children share at least some traits with their parents,” he writes. “These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. … Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity.”**

Autism, for me, is a horizontal identity. I confess that one of the biggest challenges of being Emily’s mother is accepting that she doesn’t experience the world the way I do. Learning to embrace that difference has also been one of my greatest joys.

Most parents, Solomon states, learn to “love across the divide” created by horizontal identities. Through habit and love a mother grows to accept the unfamiliar nature of her child as commonplace.

She also assumes a new identity as the parent of a child who has a horizontal condition. The mother then has a horizontal identity from her own family. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, but has rolled away. Often, these parents look to peer groups to acquire these new identifies.  That, for me, has been a challenge.

I don’t consider myself to be an activist. I’m not out to find a cure for autism or lobby our leaders for disability rights. It’s not often that I stand on my soapbox and rally against The Man. I rarely follow the latest research on the causes of autism or add my voice to either side of the ongoing debates about why autism rates are skyrocketing. I’ve never joined a support group for parents of children who have autism.

My focus has been much more introspective. I simply want my daughter to live a happy life.

Solomon says stories of families who have horizontal identities “point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family.” So I’ve been pondering my societal responsibility as the parent of someone on the autism spectrum. Do I have a moral obligation to share our experiences in the interest of improving the lives of generations to come? And if so, what do I want you to take away from my experience?

For me, it comes down to this.

I want you to accept and love my child with the same sense of wonder, compassion and awe that I do. I want this because it will make Emily’s life happier, but my desire is larger than that. I hope that if you can understand Emily by seeing her through my eyes, you’ll also have a deeper understanding of the next person you meet who has autism.

So I write to share how I’ve learned to love across the divide that separates me from my daughter. I don’t share our stories to elicit pity, but to help expand the definition of the human family. I write in the hopes that our stories might help others who encounter identity differences find a way to cross the horizontal divide as well.

**Solomon, Andrew (2012-11-13). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Kindle Locations 86-88 and 94-95). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Right for Change: The Tranformative Act of Writing

by Jill Wilbur Smith

Emily’s post about “failing faster” made me contemplate my own writing process. Or more accurately these days, my lack-of-writing process. I agree wholeheartedly that fear of failure is one of the things that keeps me from writing. But I also have a slightly different take on it.

For me, every act of writing is transformative. I’m a different person after a writing session than I was before I started. That’s especially true about writing creative nonfiction, memoir or this personal blog. But I also find it true when writing fiction.

IMG_2713The act of finding the right words to describe an emotion, recall in precise detail an event from my past, or create a character who comes alive on the page is exhausting. And some days it’s too much for me. In fact, many days it’s more than I can face.  [Just now, I stopped for a full 4 minutes to reflect on this, to prepare myself for change.]

Change is good. I understand that. I get it. It’s important. But it’s not necessarily something I want to do every day.

Imagine if you had to change your breakfast every day. Not necessarily in a big way, just a small change. But different every day. If you have cream cheese on your bagel on Monday, you have to choose a different topping on Tuesday. You might get cranky. You might not want to change. There will come a day when you crave the comfort of the cream cheese. But you can’t go back. And if you do, it won’t ever be quite the same again.

That’s how writing is for me. When I share a story about coming through a difficult time with Emily as a toddler, I forever cement in place that moment in time. If I’ve remembered something with less than perfect accuracy, I’ve in some way changed the event itself. And I’ve rearranged something in the very fiber of my being that makes me someone different than I was before.

I think that’s why I tend to write in bursts. I’ve tried to have the discipline to write every day as my enthusiastic daughter suggests. In fact, I finished a novel mostly by writing in 20-minute sessions every morning. But for the most part I write in bursts of hours or days on an essay or a piece of fiction.

I write when I’m ready for change. When I know I can handle a new me.

I also write when I need to change. I write when a painful event crushes me, threatens to annihilate me if I don’t push back, lift the beast off my back, wrestle it to the page and put together the words that give it shape and meaning and allow me to move on.

I write when I’m ready to be transformed from the fearful one to the one who knows she can handle anything.

“Put your mask on first, then help the child.”

By Jill Wilbur Smith

I hate seeing my daughters in pain. It’s possibly the most difficult aspect of being a mother. Seeing my children in pain and being unable to do anything to fix it. That’s the ultimate definition of helplessness for me. And for someone who craves order, who loves to always be in control, that’s excruciating.

When my children or husband are in difficult situations, I often jump in with both feet and try to redirect some of the pain towards myself. I try to absorb their pain, thinking it will ease their burden. Of course it rarely does. Then I feel helpless and in pain myself. And exhausted. And frustrated. And did I say helpless?

So I give up things that I would normally do for myself and devote all of my time and energy to them. Then I get resentful. Then I feel guilty. Then I’m exhausted. Which leads to helplessness. Wait. Did I already say that?

I’m going to try to stop doing that. I don’t know if I can. But I’m going to try.

I think about my own life. I can’t think of a single time in my life that I made it through a difficult situation because I let someone else claim my pain as their own. It doesn’t work that way. No one can really take away your pain. You have to simply feel bad until you don’t feel bad anymore.

Of course you can listen. You can make soup or offer a hot beverage. You can perform random acts of kindness. You can hold the tissue box and rub a back while the person in pain cries. But their pain will always be their pain. Not yours.

A few months ago, I saw a therapist. I told her it was because I didn’t want to feel left out. But really I just felt a little at a breaking point. I’ve tried to absorb so much of the pain of my family that I felt overburdened. She gave me some good advice.

“You know when you’re on an airplane,” she said, “and the flight attendants go through their safety spiel. They say ‘In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks deploy, be sure to put your mask on first before trying to assist others.’ That’s what you need to do. You need to make sure you’re wearing your own mask before you can help others.”

She’s right. I need to take care of myself so I can be there to care for others. I need to make sure the oxygen is flowing freely to my lungs so that I can be healthy and energized for those around me who need me.

For me, that means taking time to meet with friends. Making space in my day and in my home to write. Saying “no” when I don’t really feel like doing something that my spouse/daughter/friend/coworker asks me to do. Occasionally putting myself first. Taking deep breaths and making sure my heart is full before assisting others.

Happily Ever After Starts Here

By Jill Wilbur Smith

Last Labor Day weekend, we attended my niece’s wedding in Michigan. It was a beautiful affair, held in a barn on property that’s been in my brother-in-law’s family for generations.

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About three hours into the evening, my sister came up to me looking concerned. “Emily just got upset and said she was leaving,” she said. In the old days, I might have gotten upset myself and frantically looked for Emily to try to calm her down. But on this night I didn’t.

“She’ll be OK,” I told my sister. “I’ll check on her in a while. Don’t worry. Go enjoy your party.”

Then I got another drink and continued to mingle with family. About 30 minutes later, Emily emerged from the house. She had found a quiet corner in which to sit and recharge. She came back to the party happy and calm. I was glad that I hadn’t run after her.

I’m trying to put an appropriate amount of distance between my daughter and me. I don’t mean that I’m abandoning her. I’m simply working to let her find her way. Because I’ve learned that the way she navigates out of painful situations is rarely the way I would guide her.

That’s difficult for me. I always want to help. To soothe. To be the one to listen and make all of the bad feelings go away.  But that’s asking too much of myself. And expecting too much of her.

So, I’m trying to give Emily the space she needs. To understand that she doesn’t always enjoy being in a throng of people, even if those people are family. That the way she connects with others isn’t the way I connect with them. Her happy looks different than mine.

Earlier this summer we attended the wedding of one of my other nieces. It, too, was a joyful affair attended by almost every member of my extended family. I could have danced all night, raising my red solo cup in song and toasting the happy couple.

As much as Emily loves her cousin, the evening was too much for her. But unlike the year before, Emily didn’t get upset and disappear. Instead, she calmly said to me “I’ve had enough for tonight. I’m going to go wait in the car.” I gave her a hug and told her we weren’t ready to leave, but that we’d join her when we were.

I gave her the space she needed, but I didn’t sacrifice my own needs in the process. And it was OK. No drama. No stress. No guilt. Just two women defining happiness in their own terms and accepting their differences.

That might seem like a small thing, but for me it’s significant. It’s taken me a long time to accept that the things that make me happy aren’t always the same as the things that bring Emily joy. That reality used to make me sad. I felt that Emily was missing out on an important part of life. But I now recognize the fallacy of my belief. I’m beginning to accept that her happily ever after, although different than mine, will be happy. I confess that I still have my moments of longing, but it’s a start.

 

 

How I Sometimes Forget That My Life Includes Autism

by Jill Wilbur Smith

Sometimes I forget that I’m the parent of someone who has a disability. Call it denial. Call it hope.

On good days, it’s easy to believe that I’m unaffected by autism and depression. On good days, it’s easy to think that my world is just like everyone else’s. On good days, it’s easy to forget.

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Then a bad day comes along, as bad days are wont to do.

If the good days have been many, strung together in a brilliant and dazzling display of calm and joy, the bad days hit hard. Crashing down on me with an unexpected force. Taunting me. Don’t forget, they tease. Life isn’t meant to be easy.

Rationally, I know that bad days aren’t reserved for families who live with disability and depression. Bad days aren’t particular. They happen to everyone.

But in that irrational, emotional place inside of me, they feel vengeful.

I’ve had a lot of good days in the past two months. I need to remember that. My mother and sister joined us for Thanksgiving. I got a promotion at work. I had a joyful Christmas spent quietly with family. I celebrated New Year’s by kicking in the ass the dark times of the past 12 months, hopefully thinking a new year will mean no more bad days. Silly me.

Maybe that’s why I’m especially saddened by the day that occurs only 10 days into 2014. What makes it a bad day is a confluence of events that might not be troubling had they all happened separately.

I’ve had an especially busy day as I transition into a new job. I’ve mostly ignored text messages from Emily in the afternoon indicating that she’s struggling. I hope that by the time I get home the storm will have passed and we can have a quiet evening. I’m at the end of my emotional tether.

I walk into the house to find Emily’s bad mood hasn’t passed. In fact things have escalated into ugly confrontations between her and her father and sister. They, too, have had a less-than-stellar day.

So, in my already emotionally fragile state, I forget that I’m the parent of someone who has autism and depression. I forget that the angry young woman lashing out at me isn’t really condemning me. She’s fighting some unseen demon that I can only imagine.

“I just want peace,” I scream at her.

“I don’t want peace, I want justice!” she replies.

I’m too exhausted to pick up my sword and help her slay her beast, whatever it might be. I turn away. I go downstairs and drink a cocktail with my husband. I leave her to cry herself to sleep alone in her dark room.

For a few more hours I pretend that she’s just choosing to be obstinate and defiant. I make believe that there isn’t a chemical imbalance in her brain that has been adversely affected by the dark Minnesota winter. I ignore the injustice I feel knowing that Asperger’s makes it difficult for her express her sadness in a socially appropriate way.

Later, I crawl into bed and turn out the light. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I know that in the morning I will shed the mantle of denial. I will somehow find the right words to help her see through her depressive haze. I will have the strength to pick up my sword and continue to fight.

P.S. Many good days have followed since I wrote this post, with the occasional bad day thrown in to remind me of my special place in this world.

The Top 5 Reasons I’m Thankful To Be the Mom of an Aspie

By Jill Wilbur Smith

People sometimes ask me if I wish there were a cure for Asperger’s. It’s a tough question, and, for me, not one that has a yes or no answer.* Do I wish that I could magically eliminate Emily’s challenges? Of course. But I have the same wish for her neurotypical sister.  In some ways, wishing I could cure Emily’s autism is like wishing I could “cure” her blue eyes.

Emily has many gifts that I believe she wouldn’t possess if she weren’t on the autism spectrum. If she didn’t have Asperger’s, she wouldn’t be the uniquely talented person she is. If I weren’t her mom, I wouldn’t be the woman I am, either.

This season of Thanksgiving reminds me to take time to reflect on the wonderful things I’ve experienced as Emily’s mom. Here are five things that make me thankful for my beautiful Aspie.

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1. I’m thankful for the unique lens through which I get to view the world. Living with Emily, I’m often reminded that the way I experience life isn’t the same as the way others do. I’m grateful for the moments of clarity that illuminate those differences. Emily challenges me to expand my way of thinking. Some of the most rewarding experiences as a her parent have been those times when, instead of me pushing her to conform to social norms, she’s forced me to let go of my conventional way of thinking.

2. I’m thankful that Emily possesses a staggering intellect.

When Emily was 5, she told my sister, “Did you know that an elephant’s trunk can hold 10 quarts of water.”

“How do you know that, Emily?” her aunt asked.

Emily sighed and said, “Oh, Aunt Terri, I have a lot of knowledge.”

She, indeed, has a lot of knowledge. She fascinates me with the things she remembers and the insightful way she connects disparate facts. I truly believe that it positions her to be able to change the world.

3. I’m thankful for every moment of frustration I’ve experienced as Emily’s mom. Every time I’ve been exasperated that she couldn’t tie her shoes/ride a bike/pick up her toys/trick-or-treat/drive a car/join in a conversation, has helped me grow as a mother—and as a human being. I’ve come to understand that my frustration during these times pales in comparison to how frustrating life can be for her.

My co-workers often marvel at how calmly I manage office drama and challenging situations. “You’re so patient,” they say. I want to answer that I’m not patient, I’m accepting. Patience implies to me that I’m willing to wait for the other person to “come around,” to see things my way. What I hope Emily has taught me instead is to be empathetic.

4. I’m thankful for Emily’s amazing creative talent. At 9, Emily decided to play the piano. Within two years, she’d outgrown her piano teacher. She plays the euphonium with an unexpected tone and quality and more emotion than you would think possible from a large brass instrument. She has perfect pitch and a pure singing voice that often brings me to tears. She’s a great cook. And, at 22, she writes with a voice and in a style that I’m not sure I’ve achieved at more than twice her age.
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5. I’m thankful for how often I’m surprised by my quirky, nerdy, talented, beautiful girl. Life is always interesting with Emily. We sometimes face challenges that others might never encounter. But we also have many moments of great wonder and joy. I wouldn’t trade my life with Emily for anything in the world.

(*I know we’re lucky. Emily’s place on the spectrum is far from the most challenging. I’m grateful for that and I know that our experience isn’t that of others.)

 

Social Energy: A Marathon, not a Sprint

by Jill Wilbur Smith

I’m in a book club with a group of women with whom I might not otherwise socialize. It makes for interesting conversation about the books we read, and I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to know them all so well over the past few years. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

But, because these women aren’t my close friends, and because I only see most of them once every 6 to 8 weeks, it takes extra energy to attend the meetings. We meet on Friday night, not always my most vibrant time of the week.

The morning of the last time we met, I was having coffee with Emily and bemoaning the fact that I had book club that evening. It had been a long, trying week at work and I was psyching myself up for the night. I didn’t want to go. It felt like an obligation, not something fun.

“I like these women a lot,” I told Emily, “but I have to prepare myself to meet with them. It takes extra social energy to go to these meetings.”

Emily’s expression changed and she nodded her head. It hit me.

“I’ve just described every one of your social interactions, haven’t I?”

“Pretty much,” she said.

I’ve lived with Emily for 22 years, and this was the first time I really sensed what it must feel like for her to have Asperger’s.

I’ve been in other situations that require extra social energy: going to a party where there are people I’ve never met, teaching a workshop for the first time, interviewing someone about a difficult life experience. But these circumstances don’t occur every day.

For Emily, every day requires the type of stamina most of us only need occasionally. Even interacting with people she knows well can zap her social energy.

I’ve always known that Emily needs extra time alone to “decompress” as we call it. But now I have a little better understanding of why. Now I understand how exhausting it must be for her to go to work, meet with friends, take part in conversation around the dinner table.

When I’m faced with a difficult social interaction, I can usually take a deep breath, fix my resolve and sprint through the encounter. Emily, on the other hand, is running a social marathon. It requires constant training and conditioning.  And the resolve to just keep running, even when the finish line is nowhere in sight.

How Emily Beat the Unemployment Statistics

by Jill Wilbur Smith

Earlier this summer I came across a staggering statistic. According to many sources*, an estimated 83 percent of adults with Asperger’s are unemployed.

I stumbled across this information on the Internet a few days after Emily returned home from college. My initial reaction was panic. “Why didn’t I know this?!” I thought. “Why haven’t we been working on this for the past six years?”

I spent the next 24 hours in a funk, keeping this tidbit to myself while I processed what it could mean for our family. I found blog posts and websites that listed the best degrees for people with Asperger’s, most of which don’t recommend English or Political Science, Emily’s major and minor.

I walked around with a worry knot in the pit of my stomach imagining the worst.

Then I got real. My sensible husband helped pull me back from the brink of despair. “What about people with Asperger’s who have a college degree?” he asked. “And who’s the source for the unemployment data?” Good questions. I went back to the Internet.

That search uncovered…nothing. No statistics on how many people with Asperger’s graduate from college. In fact, I was unable to find the original source for the 83 percent statistic, although it appears on many blogs and websites.

So, I decided to ignore the online babel and do what I’ve always done with Emily. Follow my instincts and believe in my heart that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to. Remind myself that her disorder is classified as autism spectrum for a reason. No two people with Asperger’s are exactly the same.

What happened next surprised and overwhelmed me. Emily got a job. Within two months of graduating from college, she landed a full-time job.

I love the story of how she did it. Here’s how it happened.

At my suggestion, she decided to enroll with a temporary employment agency in the hopes of landing an office job while she searched for full-time work. (I offer this advice to anyone looking for a job. It’s served me well in my career.)

On a Monday, she met with an agency in downtown Minneapolis, submitted her resume and took the basic screening tests the agency requires.

On Tuesday, she called her references to see if she could continue to use them for her job search.

One of those calls was to a former Minnesota state representative on whose campaign she volunteered in 2008. He runs a family-owned insurance company near our home. And, he just happened to be looking for a customer service representative to replace someone who was leaving that week. He invited Emily to interview for the job.

On Wednesday, she interviewed.

She started the job on Friday.

Did Emily “beat the odds” of finding employment? Maybe. Or maybe the statistics on the Internet are outdated, untrue or have been misconstrued. Maybe projecting the future for my beautifully complex daughter has nothing to do with numbers, but only with our ongoing journey to explore the many iterations of life that lay before her.

 

*I found one reference to a 2001 study in the U.K., but not the study itself. If you know the original source for this unemployment data, I’d love to know about it!

When Hitting the Wall Is a Good Thing

by Jill Wilbur Smith

On a Friday night on the last day of May 2013, I walk into the house to find my husband, Gary, on the phone with Emily. “Can you talk to Emily,” he says holding the phone out for me. “She backed into a wall with the Avalon.”

For what seems like the first time in 22 years (but probably isn’t) I can’t talk to her. Not at that moment. My sense of disappointment and anger is too great. I’m ashamed to admit that. My daughter has had an accident with her car, and I’m too angry to talk to her about it.

It isn’t the first time we’ve received such a call. There was the Good Friday rear-end collision on Hennepin Avenue. The time she swiped an oncoming car in a snowstorm trying to avoid a pedestrian in the road. The incident when a hit-and-run driver clipped her rear bumper on I-94. And the series of calls that her battery was dead until we figured out that when she installed a friend’s bike rack to her car, she not only dented the trunk lid, but broke the mechanism inside that turned off the light. The light inside the trunk kept draining the battery.

IMG_5854My extreme disappointment on this night, however, is because it’s supposed to be an evening of celebration. She’s coming home from college after four years—with a diploma. A great achievement. And something I wasn’t always sure would happen.

For Emily, having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has meant that milestones neurotypical (NT) kids her age achieve aren’t always a given. But she has graduated from college in four years, something not many NT students achieve, let alone an Aspie like Emily. Granted, she’s had her challenges, but she’s graduated. And I selfishly want to celebrate her achievement, which I think of as mine, too.

So I hit the wall. I’ve held it together for months, coaxing her through her depression, helping her figure out how to withdraw from a bad living situation and finish her degree. This setback is one-too-many for me. Gary tells Emily I’ll call her back and hangs up the phone.

I pace around the house, take deep breaths, and brace myself to call her back. She doesn’t answer her phone. Or several text messages. My anger builds. Finally, she returns my call.

“Hi, mom. Sorry. I have my phone on vibrate and didn’t hear your call.” She’s calm. Not what I expect. She seems to be taking her situation in stride. A somewhat atypical reaction.

Through a series of phone calls and texts we come up with a plan. Correction. She comes up with a plan—one that involves her taking care of the situation on her own.

My anger has had an unexpected benefit. It’s prevented me from doing what I’ve done for most of her 22 years—swoop in and save her. She’ll work this out, staying with friends at least until Monday when a mechanic can look at the car.

On Saturday, I get a text from her. “In spite of all the hassle,” she writes, “it’s been pretty fun. One thing’s for sure. The day I finished college is one I’ll never forget!”

And neither will I. Although not for the reasons I’ve dreamed about. That’s my life with Emily. Always unexpected. Never typical. Sometimes it takes hitting a wall to remind me of that and to show me that unexpected doesn’t mean catastrophic. Just different.