Just over two weeks ago, my almost 23 year-old son Caleb went to live in a residential home about 40 minutes away. We are both still wandering in Neverland, a little dazed, still unsure of the landscape, still questioning what the future holds in her hidden hands.
I write this for anyone who has endured this or will endure this challenge, because it is unlike any other.
When I took Sophie to her college dorm in 2013, my mom, Sophie and I lugged all of her belongings up three flights of stairs in 95 degree heat. We had planned so well that the room was pretty much together in an hour. I then hugged Sophie, hard, told her how proud I was of her and how much I loved her and we left.
Sophie later told me that at the time she felt a bit taken aback, as she watched other parents stay all day, then take their kids out for dinner while she trekked to the cafeteria for her first meal, feeling a little shaky and alone.
I cried for about a month, missing the funny, sweet, helpful soul that Sophie is. The house felt empty, as though it too missed the breath of her. I now am enamored of the wife, PhD student and young woman she is. College shaped her and she blossomed through the experience.
Six years later, she now tells me that my leaving her was one of the greatest gifts I ever gave her because she realized right away that everything was on her. Overnight, she became one of the most self-reliant people I’ve ever known.
The day before we were to move Caleb to his new home, I Face Timed Sophie and her husband Al, whom Caleb adores. We told him that he was a big boy, and just like his sister and brother-in-law before him, he was now old enough to go to college. This was the best analogy we could conjure. His reaction was a gut-punch.
Caleb speaks in somewhat broken English. He communicates his wants and needs in as few words as possible. On this day, he said, word-for-word, while crying and lunging into my lap: “I don’t want to go to college. I love you, Mom. I want to take care of you.”
Stress has taken an awful toll on my body. My 18 health conditions are what secured Caleb’s placement. Maybe he knows of these. Maybe he thought he could care for me. But he doesn’t know that some of these conditions could be fatal and he needs to establish his own life in case I’m not here.
I maintain my relative sanity by not anticipating the future. I could never have envisioned this reaction and it left me crying and shaking, which I would do a lot in the next few weeks.
I use special needs picture-exchange software (Boardmaker) to explain changes or trips to Caleb. I made him one for this, showing that he would live in his new house, I would stay in mine, my boyfriend would stay in his, his dad and his wife would stay at theirs and that Sophie and Al would stay at theirs. I didn’t want him to feel he was being kicked out or replaced. This picture board calmed him a bit.
Over the next 45 minutes, Sophie and Al told Caleb how much fun he would have, that he would have new friends and that he could still go to the day program he adores. They told him he would have a new room and that we would all still see him.
Typical of Caleb’s incredibly strong and sweet soul, he finally said, “I like college. Sophie, Al, Mom come tomorrow?” We all said yes and he seemed happy.
We wanted his room to be fully finished the first time he saw it. My sweet father had already sent a painter to transform the room into a color called Blissful Blue, a favorite of Caleb’s. I had already mounted light and heat-blocking navy blue curtains with silver stars. I had a ceiling fan installed to keep the room cool. I had purchased all new Toy Story 4 bedding and made a super soft headboard for him to lean against.
After he left for his day program, I picked up the U-Haul and Sophie and Al drove three hours to come help me. Over the next four hours, ninja Sophie and Al packed up as much as they could of Caleb’s favorite things. I can’t remember what I did but these two worked with a synchronicity that astounded me. I am always awed by the strength of their marriage, in every situation.
They followed my U-Haul to Caleb’s new house but I had to leave immediately to go back and meet his bus. In the short time it took me to drive home and return Caleb to his new house, Sophie and Al had completely emptied the U-Haul and set up Caleb’s room. The book shelves were stacked, the tall DVD shelf was completely organized, and the TV and DVD hooked up and ready to go. When I arrived, we put up Toy Story 4 decals everywhere, including an incredibly large one that looks like a window with the characters coming through, a gift from sweet family members.
When Caleb saw the room for the first time, he said, “Wow!” He touched all of his familiar books, toys, the baby dolls he loves. He looked in the closet and saw his clothes hanging neatly. He touched the new bedding and marveled at the window decal above his bed.
As soon as it was all done, I reflected on how I had left Sophie at college. I remembered the slicing in my heart as I said goodbye to that child and I steeled myself for another slicing as I turned to Caleb. I knew this one would hurt even more.
I knew I had to leave. I knew dragging it out would only hurt us both. But as I looked at his still-baby hands and the chubby cheeks on his still-childlike face, our life together ran through my vision, pictures on old-fashioned film reels.
Caleb is the child for whom I almost died in childbirth. He was born at midnight and they wouldn’t bring him to me because he was blue, but they wouldn’t tell me that. I wouldn’t sleep until I had held him, nursed him. Our pediatrician came in, right after the nurse handed me my beautiful baby at 11 AM. He told me something was wrong with his heart, but they didn’t know what. Right behind him came EMTs, rolling a mobile crib to take him 2 ½ hours away.
That night came a call from a cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, informing me that not only did Caleb have two heart defects that needed immediate surgery, but he believed, and was later proven right, that Caleb had DiGeorge Syndrome, now called 22Q Deletion Syndrome. I held the phone away from me, like this must be a sick joke, but he kept talking, telling me all the things that could go wrong for Caleb.
Caleb is the 4 day-old baby for whom I prayed through open-heart surgery. I stayed in a chair next to his crib for three weeks, doing immeasurable harm to myself and never healing properly from his C-section. I never regretted it.
Caleb is the child who would have 55 doctor visits a year, with specialists I didn’t even know existed. For the first two years of his life, he was really sick for two weeks of every month. He would get 105 degree fevers and then have seizures wherein he turned blue as his body tried to bring down the temperature. He needed another heart surgery at four months because he grew scar tissue from the open-heart.
Caleb, due to balance and coordination issues that would never fully develop, broke his wrist on one playground and his femur on another. When he falls, he doesn’t have the instinct to break a fall with his hands. He fell directly on his face several times, leaving angry red scratches from cement or mulch. He once fell on a wet floor at a restaurant, knocking the braces right off of his teeth.
He’s afraid of fireworks and dogs. He hates when the power goes out. He hates when anyone cries, I think because he recognizes pain and doesn’t want anyone to suffer. When he’s about to cry, he pinches the bridge of his nose, as if trying to stop it.
So saying goodbye to this child was infinitely more difficult than leaving Sophie at college, where she had a world of wonderful things to explore. Saying goodbye to Caleb meant leaving him in the care of strangers, in the company of three other male residents with special needs.
I kissed this giant boy and hugged him, getting to the U-Haul before he could see me cry. I tried not to picture him studying his room. I tried not to picture his confusion. I tried not to picture what he was thinking, because I never really know anyway.
A week after the move, I picked him up for some doctor appointments. He seemed happy, but he smelled different. His hair wasn’t combed the way I do. He had a mustache that I jokingly call half-way to Tom Selleck. Quick aside, I went right to Wal-Mart, bought an electric razor and shaved him in the parking lot. I’m so used to people staring at Caleb that this didn’t bother either of us one bit.
I posted a picture from that day on Facebook and a dear friend from high school messaged me with words from her own 80 year-old mother, who is taking care of her disabled son: “My mom said to remind you that no one will ever take care of Caleb as well as you do, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking care of him.”
I take enormous peace from this statement. But it’s still something I will have to work hard to accept.
Last night I met some friends at our favorite bar. I recently learned that I knew one of the darling bartenders as a child. Her brother was a good friend of Caleb’s in preschool. Though I see her frequently, I hadn’t seen him since about 2000. Last night, he came to visit his sister. He’s a grown man, with a beard and a backwards baseball hat, enjoying a drink at a bar. As soon as I recognized who he was, I had to leave.
Seeing that young man there reminded me of all that Caleb is not and never will be. Seeing him made me realize the chasm between him and Caleb, who as young boys weren’t all that different. Seeing him made my heart sink for the millionth time in Caleb’s life, a reminder that something went horribly wrong when I carried that sweet baby in my body. I had to leave because my poor friends have seen me cry way too many times in the past two weeks.
I went home to my empty house and didn’t feel home. I am now a mother with no children at home and I don’t quite know who that makes me.
Caleb goes up and down with his emotions—sometimes he wants to move back home in 2024 (the length of college, as my intelligent friends figured out) but he has now moved it up to 2020. Sometimes he likes it at his new home, sometimes he doesn’t, but he hasn’t said anything alarming. I’ve spoken with the staff about his hygiene. I will still keep taking him to doctor appointments and next month we will have a party for his birthday.
The most painful part is that Caleb and I are still in Neverland, just not together. I feel like he is on one side of the island and I’m on the other. Every instinct in me tells me to go to him, to bring him home and lavish him with the love and care I’ve always given him. But I feel a metaphorical hand on my chest telling me to wait, to give Caleb a chance to blossom like Sophie did.
I pray constantly that he may know I did this out of love, when I’m sure it doesn’t feel like that for him now.
So I sit on the shore, staring at the mountain range between us, listening for the slightest sound that he needs me. I hope my Peter Pan is finding his footing and learning to thrive and that he will only occasionally listen for me.
Then I will know it’s time for me to leave Neverland.
Photo credit: otherland-larp.fandom.com