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.