The Free Ranger

My 19-year-old son did not graduate from high school last year with his peers. Instead we made the decision to keep him in the public school system until he is 21. Ben has a genetic disease called Familial Dysautonomia which affects his cognitive and physical abilities. College is not in his future and we thought it would be best to utilize the public school/county services as he begins the next phase of his life.

Contemplating this next chapter is so much harder than with my typical children. While they may have an inkling of what they want to do when they grow up, Ben truly has no idea. I don’t think he can visualize his future beyond the present and would probably be happy living at home for the rest of his life. So besides taking care of his physical health, which is no walk in the park, I now am responsible for imagining his future. Sometimes this feels like a crushing responsibility.

We were elated to arrange an “internship” at our local Jewish Community Center’s preschool where Ben will help in a classroom of 4-year-olds from 8am – 10:30am. The high school Transition Counselor travel-trained him to ride a public bus from the JCC to his high school for some afternoon classes. Ben has gone to camp at the JCC since he was 3-years-old so it is a safe, comfortable place for him.

It’s still a little terrifying. There is no nurse at work, like there is at school. We put together a plan so Ben can take care of his daily medicine and g-tube feeding before he leaves the JCC. If one of his health episodes arises while at work, we taught him how to handle the situation. This is a huge step in his self-care, heightening his body awareness and giving him the ability to take care of himself.

I have zero concern about Ben liking the work or his behavior in the preschool classroom. He is sweet and thinks the little kids are “adorable.” Ben gives me daily reports about what they did and what they had for snack. He said he helps the little kids with activities and clean up.

The bus ride definitely gave me pause but I was excited and fairly confident that Ben could do it. The travel trainer was a careful professional who thought of things that I had never really contemplated for Ben, much less my typical children.

She said, “Ben said that he has never discussed safety in the community with you.  Not sure if this was an accurate statement, but he seemed surprised that someone on the bus might want to take his cellphone, ask for money, appear to be drunk or on drugs, looks a bit sketchy, etc.  He was unsure how to respond when discussing ways to stay safe. Have you talked in detail with him about this?  What about if there is an emergency (such as weather related or a terrorist attack)?  Have you discussed a family emergency plan?”

Clearly I have failed as a mother. I have inadvertently sheltered Ben as I have been so focused on keeping him healthy and happy. I haven’t been completely negligent but my “safety” focus was on his personal space, i.e. “no one should touch your private parts, etc.” We have always handed Ben off to another responsible person or institution who was looking out for his well-being. This is a new level of “free-ranging” that we have not experienced with our most vulnerable child. I taught my other children many of these things but they also use their intuitive senses to pick up danger in the world around them. Rather than beat myself up, the teaching for Ben begins now – it’s not too late. He has learned to always sit near the bus driver who he can ask for help if needed. With his phone in his pocket, Ben has become aware of the people and places around him. Yes, he has a little fear but no more than a typical person. New things are exciting and a little scary.

But a family emergency plan? Does everyone have these? I don’t recall one from when I was growing up. I hadn’t really thought about how to instruct my kids in the event of a disaster or say, a nuclear attack. The only thing that comes to mind is something my smart aleck uncle told me when I was a teenager. We were sitting on my grandmother’s apartment balcony and I wondered aloud what would happen if the balcony snapped off the building and sent us plunging down.

“You know what you would do?” he asked me.

“Yes?” I asked, eager to hear his sage advice.

“You put your head between your knees and kiss your rear end goodbye,” he slyly said.

And that is all I could think of. I know, I know – I will tell my kids to find the nearest adult if their cell phones don’t work. Do we have to come up with a meeting place? Maybe I’m just too much of a fatalist to think these plans make much of a difference. Hopefully I have given my children the tools they need to be resourceful and strong.

Ben has successfully learned to take the 13 minute bus ride from work to school. He has an ID card, a bus pass and his backpack and is very proud of his achievement. It’s thrilling for me to watch him achieve this independence since he is unable to drive. His 16 year old brother is about to get his driver’s license but the bus riding brother makes me just as proud.

It’s scary sending children out into the world after keeping them safe when they are young. But there are many wonderful experiences to be had out there. Here’s to keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Oh, the places you’ll go Ben!

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Four Beautiful Words

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I just passed through another of life’s parenting milestones. My eldest child went to college, to the University of Maryland. It’s only 30 minutes away but once you’re on campus, you could be 30 hours away. I have no expectation that he will come home on weekends and told him I don’t really expect him to come home until Thanksgiving. We walked around the campus a bit after he was settled in his room, but I could tell he was ready for us to leave.

So we did.

It was strange to come home without him but we’re used to him not being around. He’s been away from home a lot and he has an active social life. He’s been slowly drifting away from us, which, as all the parenting manuals tells us, is what they are supposed to do. We are keenly aware of this being a rite of passage – both for our son and for ourselves. Are we really old enough to have a kid in college? We’re a little sad that this phase of being a parent to this child is over. But as a friend pointed out to us, we still have a deep bench at home with three other tweens and teens around to supervise.

Mostly we feel excited for him. Walking around campus reminded us of how awesome and fun college is. How could we feel anything but excitement? On the flip side, we’re reminded of how awesome and fun college is. How could we feel anything but terrified? It feels a little like tossing him out into the world, with a pat on the rear end, a wave of the hand, and a jolly “good luck to you son.” I know he’s smart enough to fend for himself and I trust the universe will be kind to him, or at least kind enough.

He was a little wistful when his high school friends started leaving to go out of state, thinking they would have a much more geographically diverse population of friends to pick from and more exotic college towns. I assured him that he would meet people from all over the country who come to Maryland, as well as people from places in Maryland that he’s never been to or even heard of.

When he called home after a few days, he said, “You were right Mom.”

Whoa, hold up. Did he just say I was right? I wasn’t prepared. I couldn’t ask him to say it again more slowly, could I? Where’s ESPN when you need it? She shoots she scores!!!

Certainly I will be wrong about lots of things I am asked to consult on in the future. It was such a gift to be right, at least about something, as he ventures out into the adult world. It was a little validation that some of the wisdom I tried to drop on him throughout his life may have occasionally penetrated his consciousness.

My work is done, for now. Yeah, right, until he needs cash. Then I’ll be right on the money.

Independence Day

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I am about to embark on another 8-day women’s trip to Israel. The purpose is to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities. Sounds great, right? No matter where you live, if you are a Jewish woman (or man – they offer men’s trips too) or are raising your children Jewish there may be a trip that you too can take – check out the website at http://www.jwrp.org and see for yourself.

What a treat to travel for 8 days on my own. Actually I will be with 11 other fabulous women from my local Jewish Community Center and we will be part of a larger group of 200 women from around the country and the world. I look forward to being able to think and act independently, without being someone’s wife, mother or daughter. I only have to follow the planned itinerary. I don’t have to worry about what my kids will or will not eat, if they’re tired or cranky. It’s a way to rediscover my own person-hood through a Jewish lens – what a novelty!

It’s a great time for me to go because two of my children are away at camp and two will be home in day camp. What a great way for my family to exercise their own independence, without big Mama running the show. Papa Bear will be in charge, in whom I have complete confidence. He will drive, shop for food, make the lunches, deal with the medication, go to the end-of-camp dance performance all while being way more fun than cranky old Mom.

One of the biggest gifts of leaving the kids with my husband, besides the obvious awesome trip experience, is that other than leaving one page of phone numbers and reminders, I do not have to leave detailed instructions. My hubby is engaged in all parts of our life so I don’t need to school him on what goes on around here while he’s at work. Okay, I do feel a teensy need to tell him that I will organize things to make it as easy for him as possible – after all, he will be working in between driving to and from camp.

“Really?” he said, “Do we have to do this dance where you try to convince me that it’s all going to be great fun? It is what it is. It will be fine. Go, lead your group, and have fun.”

Lesson learned. I will shut up and plan the best I can. He will deal with whatever comes up. He can help my daughter shop for whatever costumes she may need for her dance recital. He will rise each morning at 4:30 am to medicate our son with special needs, through his feeding tube, while he sleeps. He will write the children who are away at camp.

Let’s not forget the children’s independence here. When I tell some people my children will be at sleep-away camp all summer, I occasionally get a look of pity or horror – surely I must be an awful mother to send my children away. They love camp because they get to be their own person, independent of their parents. There is no one to nag them about how to act or what to wear. Sure, they have counselors but they care much less about the minutiae of life than a mother does.

Take for instance my fourteen-year-old son who left a week ago. I am loathe to look at the camp website to catch a glimpse of my precious child, but I briefly succumbed to peer pressure to take a peek. As expected, my son looked adorable and happy. It’s his fourth year and he asked to go for the whole summer – of course he’s happy. But does he have to wear that dorky camouflage hat that he pilfered from his brother? To make it worse, in my next email to him I felt the need to suggest that he not wear it all the time as it doesn’t really match any of his clothes and he looks super cute without it. I can’t believe I’m even admitting that I did that. Shame on me…leave the child to wear whatever he damn well pleases without me spying on him.

I told the children who will be home with their Dad that I care about three things, and in this order: the people in the house, the dog, and my potted outdoor plants. I trust them to help each other, feed the dog, and water the plants. Mostly they just need to take care of themselves. Yet another life lesson I’m imparting in my joyful absence.

So here’s to a happy independence day to all of you – in between barbecues and pool hopping, try and let a little personal freedom ring. I promise you’ll see fireworks.