Peggy (driving by local art studio): Oh, look, you can see them preparing for the next class. Those classes can be fun. It will be like being in Mrs. Ruestmann’s class again for you.
Sam (absolutely deadpan): I’m bad at art.
Some dreams aren’t nightmares, but they leave you feeling unsettled in the morning. For me, the best remedy is to get them out of my head and move on. Recently, we discovered that works for Sam, too.
Like his mother, Sam is not really a morning person, although I’m not sure what a morning person is. We both feel fine when we’ve had enough sleep. However, we don’t feel like we’ve had enough sleep if we have to wake up before first light, even when we go to bed early.
Sam rarely talks about his dreams, unless they are nightmares. But he struggled and complained about that “morning funk” this fall, so a few weeks back, I asked him if he’d had a bad dream and what it was about.
He said it wasn’t really a bad dream, but he didn’t like it. He dreamt he was driving and that, in his dream, when it came time to stop, he somehow wasn’t able to move his foot from the gas pedal to the brake. He worried it could happen in real life.
I didn’t want to tell him it would never happen, because it’s important to tell the people you love the truth. And the truth is, just before a wreck, you are keenly aware how fast things are happening in front of you and how your car isn’t doing what you wish it would.
So I told him I had my own version of that dream, a recurring one. In my dream I am riding in the back seat of a car, careening somewhere fast, when I look up and realize that no one is driving. From the back seat, I struggle first to get my hands on the steering wheel, and then try to get up front to get to the pedals, but I never seem to make it.
Sam laughed and said my dream was really funny. I told him that the reason my dream was funny was because it was both relatable and ridiculous. I asked him if it made him think about his dream differently, and he said, yes, it made his dream kind of funny, too.
Then I asked whether he thought the dreams could be a metaphor for something.
And this is where I am so very, very grateful for Sally Fogarty and the other teachers who were on Sam’s special education team when he was in middle and high school. Sally announced at one of the annual planning meetings that Sam’s speech had come along enough that he would pass the usual tests meant to detect deficiencies. But, she added, we all knew that Sam’s language skills still needed work. She suggested that she administer another diagnostic test and develop a plan that would help him with more abstract language skills–analogies, idioms, metaphors and the like.
A few years later, Sam and I happened to be driving into Fort Worth and a billboard in Spanish caught our eyes. I read the billboard and understood the words, but I didn’t understand what the billboard was saying. I asked Sam, who was also studying Spanish, if he understood the billboard, because I couldn’t. And he said, “Well, that’s because it’s an idiom.” And then he told me what it meant. That was 15 years ago, and it still makes me tear up.
Sam agreed dream driving could just be the general way we feel about how our life is going, and maybe we don’t need to worry that we can’t always steer, and honestly, we don’t want to stop.
Sam has had a lot of car trouble lately. He has been driving a 2001 Toyota Corolla that he bought used 10 years ago.
This little car’s early life was in Corpus Christi, which probably means some hard miles in salt air. (We made sure it wasn’t ever flooded before we bought it.) The plastic parts have gotten so brittle, it’s just a matter of time.
Our first big tap on the shoulder was on the way to State Special Olympics a month ago. We blew a tire. Now, that’s no big deal, as long as you can keep your wits about you as you put that little donut of a wheel on your car along the highway in a strange city long after dark. But after we got two new front tires at the tire shop, the car wouldn’t start. For whatever reason, the bushing to the shifter cable broke while the car was up on the rack. We may have hobbled to the tire shop, but we had to be towed to the dealer for that repair.
On Friday, we got another big tap on the shoulder when Sam headed out to work. Turn the key and nothing, nada, zilch. He’d already changed the battery in January. From the problem in Bryan, I knew it wasn’t the shifter cable. And from my own truck’s problem last month, I knew it wasn’t the starter.
Since we would have had to pay for a tow, it was worth the gamble on replacing the ignition switch. Sam inherited his father’s talent for fixing things and, for whatever reason, I’m a fair troubleshooter. It took a few hours, but we knew we’d identified the problem when we compared the old and new switches. The old one had the telltale signs of an electrical short. And one of its three plastic brackets had broken off, likely setting off the slow chain reaction that jostled its way into oblivion.
I have been coaching Sam for months about planning to buy a new, or new-to-him, vehicle. Some of the plastic parts he’s had to replace on the car don’t have anything to do with its overall reliability, but many others do.
People without reliable transportation risk losing their jobs. Our local transit authority, DCTA, stunningly, has zero bus service to Denton’s industrial park where Sam and thousands of other Denton residents work.
I do not know why this is, but I’ll put that on my to-do list at work. (I’m a reporter for the Denton Record-Chronicle.)
Sam is reluctant to retire his car yet, and I can respect that. It still runs well overall. He hasn’t had a repair that’s cost as much as a new car payment.
After Sam finished replacing the ignition switch, the car cranked its Toyota self. He got a big grin on his face. For about $75 he bought himself more time.
“Because you know, nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material.” – Garrison Keillor.
I learned about stage fright at age 10. I had been taking piano lessons for a year. My memories of that first spring recital are a little foggy, except, just before I sat down to play, I saw my dad slip in the door of the recital hall (someone wheeled a spinet piano into the school cafeteria). And I played my song without stopping.
That’s a victory when you are 10 years old.
After the recital was over, I went home with my dad. I tried to eat dinner, but instead I vomited and went to bed.
I loved playing the piano, though, so I kept up with my lessons. I didn’t play again in public for about five years. When it was time, my new piano teacher was clever. (I didn’t tell Mr. Kaehr about my stage fright. But he apparently knew and he knew how to prepare me.) He had me work up Ernesto Lecuona’s Malaguena – so fun and flashy – to play during the honor society banquet. When I was done, the crowd’s reaction told me that they didn’t expect what they’d just heard. That was incredibly affirming, enough for me to perform, and recover from performing, vomit-free, for several years.
When I headed to college, I majored in music. I could get through the performance of a single solo on a departmental recital all right, but putting together an entire solo recital was another matter. I could channel that adrenaline for 10 minutes, but not an hour or more. After one recital I couldn’t even make it through the reception afterward. Went home, vomited and slept all weekend.
I’ve never thought of myself as a risk-taker, especially compared to my late husband. To Mark’s credit, however, he thought through things. In his mind, he wasn’t taking risks. He was fearless in persevering and adapting. I tried not to be afraid of opportunities, or leaning in when problems showed up.
For example, we recognized we couldn’t get help for Sam if we were shrinking violets. We spoke up, we stood fast, we made plain that we expected delivery of the help he needed. Neither of us would take credit for what Sam has accomplished. However, we would have admitted to sweet-talking, cajoling, persuading, wheedling, and outright pushing the people around him when and where necessary. (And, I’m sure, where others in his life might have said wasn’t necessary.) I learned to channel that swirling adrenaline for the length of special education team meetings.
After Mark died, there was no hedging. All bets were off.
Still, I didn’t recognize being in small claims court this week as an indoor edition of Outward Bound until it was over.
A friend, who’s a lawyer, told me that what I’d just done many lawyers in town have not done: argue my case in front of a jury.
When the jury was out, I did confess to the bailiff that the experience was terrifying.
Sad to say, in the Texas justice system, there apparently is nothing in between refusing an insurance company’s first offer to settle your case and finding yourself in front of a jury — unless you just want to up and say ‘never mind.’
My insurance company investigated and determined I wasn’t liable. But the truck is so old, I only carry liability. I was on my own with the other guy’s insurance. And, as Mark would say, “just to make this really interesting,” this company has a poor reputation with many people.
Including me. I’d gone to the mattresses once before with this company.
I refused their first offer, which was totally inadequate. They never budged. When I sued in small claims, I expected mediation or arbitration. I hoped for another offer.
Nope. Nothing. Nada.
Their response to my petition was to ask for a jury trial. I think I was supposed to run from the room at some point, but that just never occurred to me.
I was sticking up for myself and my family.
I lost the argument before I could ever start. The insurance company’s attorney called for a pre-trial conference with the judge to make sure I couldn’t tell the jury much of anything at all.
I felt bad for those people. What a waste of their time. They had no idea.
The whole ordeal lasted two hours. It was a terrific education into the Texas justice system that I won’t soon forget.
And, when I finally got home that day, I didn’t vomit.
Michael woke me today and insisted I run with him. “It’ll be the last time,” he said.
It’s a funny way to celebrate a launching, but that’s what it was. Last year was tough for him. He had started his adult life after graduating TCU in 2013 and then had to move back home last January. I got a front row seat watching what our economy is doing to the 20-somethings. At the end of one of his worst days, I found myself offering a most grown-up salve to his wounds, pointing to the barstool in the kitchen and pouring him a generous shot of Old No. 7.
In the past year that he’s lived here with Sam and me, we often ran together. His normal pace is crazy faster than mine, but he said slowing down to run with me strengthened other muscles. True or not, it was still a nice thing to say and do — slowing a 7:00 mile to run your mom’s 10:00+
I resisted temptation to grab the camera and document the day (this photo is from one of his good days earlier this year), remembering back to Paige’s first day of kindergarten. She was the youngest, but she was feisty and she couldn’t wait to prove she was big like her brothers. When it was her turn to hop out of the car and head to her classroom for the first day of school, she did it with confidence and determination. Who was I to turn into a blubbering idiot about all my babies gone to school and ruin her first day being big for real?
So I just watched her from behind the wheel of the old Dodge Caravan and marveled at the moment.
It was icy cold today, but it was a little like that hot August day 30 years ago I drove my un-air conditioned car across the Nevada desert to Sacramento to start my grown-up life: Michael, being big for real.
Sam and I re-homed the tractor today, one of many steps away from the farm and toward life in town.
He drove the tractor as I followed him in the pickup, loaded up with nearly all the tractor accoutrements Mark had acquired over the years, down Frenchtown Road for the last time.
Mark taught Sam to drive the tractor when he was a teen. He wanted Sam to learn to drive a car and figured this was a good way to see how he’d manage. Better to mow down a few trees or knick a fence or two in the relative safety of your Texas-sized front yard in that journey of self-discovery.
Mark was right. Sam could do it. When he pulled the tractor up under the carport this afternoon and parked it perfectly, Susan exclaimed, “Wow, Sam, you’re a professional!”
Sam wasn’t going to tolerate any tears from me, so I blinked them back behind my sunglasses.
“I made it!” he beamed.
Peggy (noting the rush-hour traffic in the opposite lane): Glad we aren’t going south right now.
Sam: Which can also mean things in your life couldn’t be worse.
Yesterday Michael drove us to East Texas to visit Aunt Regina. After years of driving the kids to all their extra-curriculars and these past few years of going solo on so many things, it’s really nice to sit back in a comfy, air-conditioned seat, doze off from time to time, and let someone else deal with the traffic.
That was the case last month, too, when two of my sisters took turns at the wheel of the rental car as we visited the Florida Keys for almost a week. Although, with that being on my bucket list and all, I didn’t do any dozing off.
During the drive home from East Texas, I remembered how hard Mark and I worked to keep the kids entertained on long trips. We were always far from family, whether in New York, California or Texas, and rarely had enough money to fly. As a young boy, too, Sam was a terrible traveler. In the early years, we didn’t even try. We’d load the kids up dressed in their pajamas at about 8 p.m. and drive all night, taking turns in 3-hour shifts at the wheel.
That was exhausting. Mark often did the lion’s share. I figure that’s how he knew he could spend his summers driving long-haul truck routes. To recover, he often spent the next day (as in the first day of that family vacation) sleeping.
When the kids got a little older, we brought movies along. We bought a little tv with the video player built in and used a DC adapter to run it off the cigarette lighter.
The kids didn’t want to watch movies all the time. They liked playing old-school car games, too. The alphabet game, the license plate game, travel bingo, Mad Libs. One year, I made a copy of a Texas road map and taped it to the ceiling of the van so they could follow the route along and check off towns as we passed them.
The kids would see more towns than were on the map, so they made their own checklists one year, too.
There are a lot of towns in the Texas Panhandle.
I never thought about it as any more than trying to help them be comfortable and save Mark and me a few gray hairs from the trips. Our road trips were pleasant enough for as long as they were.
Yesterday, though, I came to understand that those long rides and little games taught the kids a valuable lesson about confronting boredom in meaningful ways, and about being observant.
Probably something to keep in mind before you ply your kids with electronics. That is, unless you can find e-versions of those games that make them look out the window and work together from time to time.
Sam (in a stage whisper): Michael doesn’t have to drive a stick anymore.
If I ever doubted that no good deed goes unpunished, the lesson was reinforced today.
Michael had a job interview and asked to borrow the truck, since the air conditioning is out in his car.
(This is February, you say. This is Texas, I tell you.)
So out of his routine was he, that when he returned to the truck after the interview, he realized he locked the key inside. He called to ask whether there was a hide-a-key.
(No, son, a hide-a-key is something parents make their kids do with their own car.)
He didn’t want to pay for a locksmith if Sam could come with a spare. There was time. Sam loaded directions in the GPS on his phone and headed out.
Sam is not a fan of I-35. E or W. He took State Highway 114 and headed south on Precinct Line Road to where Michael was, in North Richland Hills. That was probably a mistake. Maybe U.S. Highway 377 would have been better. He got lost somewhere in Keller — so lost that he pulled over and called police to get help. They came and gave him directions.
Sam made it to the parking lot where Michael was waiting and the two of them were supposed to follow each other to I-820, where they would part ways at I-35W.
I thought all was well and then Michael called me again.
“I lost him,” he said.
Every parent of a child with autism knows this terror. And now his brother was learning it, too. Michael recounted as much of the situation as he could, starting with the moment he realized Sam was heading down State Highway 183 the wrong way, and I was at a loss of what to suggest next.
Sam had turned his phone off to save battery life. That worried us both. Not only was he not communicating with us, we knew “Siri” wasn’t giving him directions home.
“Call the police. Make a report,” I told him. “We can’t do this. We need the village.”
A co-worker (one of several that talked me off the ledge today) offered to take me home and Shahla provided a bit of support via text. Meanwhile, Michael was making a report with the police. I so hoped that Sam would be parked in the driveway when I got home, but he wasn’t.
I put an alert on Facebook and started to regroup. I would take Michael’s car and meet him and the police in North Richland Hills where they were making a missing persons report. (Because Sam has autism, it would have gone out immediately.)
And then Sam came down the driveway. I called Michael. The police shredded the missing persons report Michael had just signed.
It took awhile for the emotions to settle and the conversation to begin. Sam knew he had separated from Michael and had been going the wrong way down the highway. But he remembered the directions Michael gave and when he was sure things weren’t looking right, he turned around and went the other way. He stopped at a medical center to get directions, too, and then he headed home.
(So, Tim Ruggiero, not only pizza places, but also medical centers are good places to get directions, we learned today.)
We gave ourselves a list of things to do, like Michael joining AAA, and Sam putting GPS in his car with a “home” button, and me putting a hide-a-key on the truck, so that all our good deeds trying to help each other out don’t get so punishing.
And, a big shout-out to all of the mid-cities’ finest. You got to know autism today and you did well.