Sad, And As Happy As Can Be

There come moments in time when we must let go.  They never are easy.  Oftentimes, we find them perplexing — even jarring. Yet, they are natural rites of passage, as much a part of life as the seasons changing, but they can still come at you in a way that catches you off guard.

This all came riveting home to me this past summer as my wife and I drove our special needs son — our only child — to the University of Alabama where he had been accepted into a new program called Crossing Points.  This was a new program for young adults with special needs to help them begin crossing the bridge to independence.

I was crossing a bridge as well — to my own new level of independence.

As my wife Anne, my son Trotter Jr., and I drove the 60 miles or so from our Birmingham home to Tuscaloosa that morning, to enroll him in this program, the sun was shining.  On the outside, that is.  Inside of me, there was a turbulence, almost as if a darkening thunderstorm was pounding against my soul.

“I must be strong.  I must be strong,” I heard my inner voice telling me — in fact, almost shouting to me — as Anne and Trotter, both in the back seat, occupied themselves:  Anne, reading a magazine, and Trotter, a 20-year-old with the intellectual abilities of a seven year old, nonetheless maneuvering his iPad, happy as can be. 

My mind flashed back to the day his acceptance letter arrived.  It didn’t come by email, it came the old-fashioned way — that envelope in the mailbox, just like we got college acceptance letters in my day, because the University wanted to make it something special for these new students and their families; something to be celebrated.

I kept driving and thinking. The letter had come only a few weeks ago.  “We don’t have a whole lot of time to get ready!” I remember Anne saying.  We didn’t; however, on the drive down to Tuscaloosa I realized that we did have a lot of time to get ready — for we both had been preparing subconsciously for this moment ever since Trotter Jr., as a small boy, was diagnosed with an assortment of syndromes that would severely inhibit his intellectual and emotional growth.

We knew this time would come. Now it was upon us! Anne and I had investigated options for our son's future. We knew what they were. And Crossing Points, we felt by far, was the best choice for Trotter Jr. at this point in his life.

The signs for Tuscaloosa were approaching.  I had grown up in Tuscaloosa and, in fact, had gone to the University of Alabama.  So on one hand, these signs were not new.  But this time it was like going to a whole new place — an unfamiliar one — one that I had never been to before.  Uncharted territory emotionally; the place where, for the first time ever, we would be leaving our son to the care of others, nearly all of whom we had never met.

We arrived on campus.  The building housing the program was new; I had never seen it.  I also saw something else I had never seen.  University students were there, to welcome Trotter and the other special needs kids, reaching out to them with enthusiasm, energy and dedication.  I realized that my beloved son, of whom I had become so protective, was about to be woven into a larger tapestry of love, with people and peers, experts and educators, there to envelop him.

Anne was happy and excited.  I was content, even tranquil.  On the drive down, Trotter Jr., as he often does, seemed oblivious even though Anne and I had explained this new program to him over and over.  Still, I don’t think he knew that we would be leaving him in Tuscaloosa for most of the summer, for two four-week sessions.  

Was he sad? Was he unnerved? I don’t know.  What I do know is that from the very moment we arrived, Trotter Jr. had a smile on his face, one that brightened as he was swept up in the excitement and welcoming warmth of Crossing Points on that sunny opening day.

What would come, I couldn’t predict.  What was clear, however, was the relief I felt.  There was orientation, settling him in, then saying our goodbyes.  Driving back to Birmingham, I thought about what a friend had told me:  “Even if he weren’t a special needs child, you would still be anxious — and a little sad — with him going off by himself for the first time.  This is a profound rite of passage; and these are the very feelings that all parents have.”

These were the words I pondered on the drive back to Birmingham.  I was a sad father, happy as can be.