My wife Anne and I just got back from taking a vacation near Maryville, Tenn. Maryville is about five hours from Birmingham.
Where we stayed was a very relaxing environment. The hotel is kind of a resort but it is actually a farm. The town has unique shops, and great hiking, which, in my opinion, is about as good as it gets. It is hilly and beautiful. There’s horseback riding and a first-class spa. Nobody gets in your way, but everyone who works there is ready to help at a moment’s notice. The food is like eating at Birmingham’s finest restaurants every single meal.
Anne and I were there for four days. It was my nirvana — the minute I got there I felt totally relaxed and connected with Anne. During my time there, I found myself disconnecting from concerns about my special needs son Trot and other pressures in general.
Anne and I had time together that was so good, so nice — really connecting in a way that we haven’t since we became parents. Like many long-time married couples, we tend to fight a little too much; on our vacation, we had an agreement and kept to it — no bickering, no arguments. I could focus on Anne, and what it was that attracted me to her in the first place. It rekindled my love for her, only more deeply, now that we were together alone celebrating 25 years of marriage.
The biggest difference though was for the first time since he was an infant we didn’t have our special needs son Trot with us. Nor were we really worried about him. He’s now 20 and we have been encouraged by the specialists who work with our family to begin leaving him by himself more often. This paves the way for him to become more independent. In fact, they had even scolded us a little bit because we hadn’t been doing enough of that and, with him being our only child, probably have been too protective.
Of course, we just didn’t take off and head out on our vacation. We hired someone who had worked with him through the Exceptional Foundation to stay at the house, keep an eye on things, make his meals, provide structure for him and to just hang out together. He was happy and we were happy. And perhaps for the first time ever, I got a glimpse of how life might be going forward.
Driving up to Tennessee, we were a little apprehensive. I felt bad that we weren’t taking Trot with us and I worried he might think that we were abandoning him. But, it turned out my fears were unfounded. We called the woman staying with him a few times to check in and she said he was having a ball. He was actually glad we left. My hunch is he could sense that he, too, was moving into a new phase of his life — a phase where we really trusted him and were going to give him more independence.
In preparing for our trip, I had reached a point where I realized that I had to be a little “selfish” with my own life. I made a conscious decision not to think about Trot — I knew he was being taken care of — and I was able to do it! I felt good and it was the best thing in the world. It was a liberation — for the first time in a long time I was able to push everything aside and focus on Anne and me.
So, what I learned, as a dad who has been devoted to a special needs son daily, almost every minute for 20 years, is that it’s okay — and needed — to remove yourself for a little while and put yourself first. With special needs kids, I believe at some point in some way you have to cut the cord — whatever cord cutting means in the particular circumstance.
Is this different than when parents go away and leave a typical child behind for the first time? I suppose not. But the difference is that this was my child, this is my life and for me, and Anne, this was crossing an important bridge. But as we concluded our getaway and began the journey home, what really occurred to me was that Trot was the one crossing the most important bridge.
And, I made a vow to myself that it would be okay to do it again, that it would be important to do it again and that we would do it again. Not only for Anne and me, but for Trot.