This is a story about my special needs son Trot turning 21. Not really, it’s a story about the anxiety I felt about him turning 21.
Birthdays are celebrations and a 21st birthday is certainly a milestone. But he’s not your typical young man turning 21. He’s a child that I’ve come to believe has needed me at every juncture, ready to go off into the unknown.
Is there sadness and fear about this? Yes. But in thinking about it and looking in the mirror, that sadness and fear is reflected more in me than in him, for sure.
Here’s where his journey goes now. He’s finishing the programs that our local school system has provided him for nearly two decades — at 21, you must exit the public school system. This has been a day I always knew would come; no longer having that daily structure that gave us such a predictable and productive routine.
I know this story is really about my fear of the unknown.
My wife Anne, on the other hand, is as optimistic and upbeat as she has ever been about Trot’s future. That’s the kind of person she is; she’s a woman of deep religious fate, with an indomitable sense of optimism that courses through her heart.
I’m not that person. I’m an overprotective dad — intrusive, worrisome, anxious and anguished at times.
So when that birthday cake with those 21 candles is put in front of Trot and his other special needs friends and he delights in blowing those candles out, he will be laughing as will they, but an era in our lives will have been extinguished. It will be in that moment that I will take a deep breath, with tears creeping into the very corners of my eyes, saying to myself, “If I love this young man, and I do, then this is the moment that I must begin letting go.”
Letting go does not mean forgetting or abandoning, heaven forbid. It means recognizing that Trot is no longer 2 years old, 12 years old, or even 18 years old. He’s 21 and though he does not have the mental ability and faculties of a typical 21 year old, he in his own way, it is clear, is so ready to embrace life.
I still must be a dad though and help my son chart his course. What that course will be we don’t know at this point. That adds to my anxiety. How independent can he become? What are his capabilities? How will he function without the day-to-day structure that the school system programs have provided? What will the coming decade and the decades beyond hold for my son as he grows further into adulthood and becomes a man in every sense of the word?
I watch Anne and I marvel; I would give anything to have that level and intensity of faith in my own life. Maybe it will come one day, but it has not yet happened.
As long as Anne and I are here, we will obviously love Trot with every inch and ounce of our being, but there will be times where we won’t be there physically. There will be times that we will just have to have faith that he is doing fine and all will be well. Prepare him, prepare him, prepare him, my brain screams to me. Protect him, protect him, protect him, my heart calls to me.
But this is the moment where I must bring those things into balance with the reality that this young man is about to embrace a new level of independence, and the additional reality that the time has come that I too must develop a new sense of independence and confidence.
I called him the other day on his cell phone. I wanted to check on him. “Dad,” he said with what I heard was a hint of impatience. “I can’t talk right now. I’ll call you back."