Independence. It’s what all of us parents want for our children with special needs.
The opportunity that STEPS provided for Braden this week was nothing short of wonderful. He, his teachers, and his peers set off for the beach town of Hua Hin on Monday to hang out in a house, and practice all of the life skills they have been learning since they began the program. For Braden’s part, I know he helped with the shopping, cleaning, and making pancakes. The teachers sent us updates throughout each day, showing what they were all up to and reassuring all of us parents that our kids were safe.
Here is what I saw in each photo…abundant joy. And here is what I felt while looking at them all…peace in my heart.
We all worry when we send our kids off to university or to pursue their lives after high school graduation. Once we start getting their calls and their pictures showing us their happiness, we start to relax a bit and feel like everything is going to be okay.
I can only imagine how parents feel when they send off the last of their children and become official “Empty Nesters.” You see, although Braden got to have this amazing two-night experience, chances are he will be living with us the rest of our lives, and although Mike and I made peace with that thought many years ago, the reality of it hit me on Wednesday.
But before I tell you about Wednesday, let me fill you in on what Mike and I did while Braden was gone for those three days and two nights.
Are you ready for this?
Not…much… at… all.
When Braden went on trips in the past, we tried to go to the city for a night, go out to a nice dinner, stay in a hotel, make it a special occasion. But the timing of this trip made that a bit tricky as it was a Monday-Wednesday during a school week, and we work full time. So we decided not to put that type of pressure on ourselves this time around and just “be.”
So Monday after school I worked out with my friend. The key difference between this and each and every other time I exercise is that there was absolutely no guilt. Usually, while I’m working out, I’m looking at my watch to make sure that I don’t take too much time away. While I do my work out after school, Mike is with Braden. Then, when I get home, we switch and Mike heads out for his workout. We have variations around this same theme throughout the week. We will all go to the swimming pool together. We used to be able to do laps while Braden swam, but lately, Braden has thrown his shoes into the nearby lake while we’re in the pool (don’t ask- we have no idea why) so one of us has had to sit out while the other swims, and vice versa.
When Braden is home we are “on.” Like when you have little kids in the house. You always need to know where they are and what they’re doing at all times.
Anyway, I think we watched This Is Us that evening. Mike blubbered throughout (haha, just kidding…that was me).
Tuesday was about the same. I stayed late at work with no guilt. Mike went to yoga.
This, my friends, must be what it can feel like to be Empty Nesters. One can simply do things when one wants (within limits, of course).
Wednesday: Mike went out with some friends for a happy hour. I went and got a massage…bliss!
Later, at about 6:00 p.m. Braden came home.
And gosh, this is when reality hit.
I was so happy to see him; so proud of the experience and fun he had just had. And yet I felt…well, I felt despair. This may seem terrible. In fact, when I read what I just wrote, I’m a bit ashamed. But, I started this blog so people could understand what life with a child with severe needs can be like, so I want to share my truth with others and hope I will not be judged too harshly.
We sat down to eat dinner together and tried to get Braden to tell us about his experience. He instead started perseverating on drinking water, pouring it down his shirt, and saying, “Water: it’s all gone,” over and over and over again. By the time Mike turned around to see two small tears dripping from my eyes, Braden had repeated that phrase at least 30 times.
Mike gave me a hug and said, “I know. I feel the same way.”
I continued to grieve for the rest of the night. I grieved for Braden…only being able to be truly independent of us for three days and two nights a year…I grieved for us (as selfish as it sounds), for not getting the opportunity to live life as empty nesters like our friends are living now…and I grieved for the shoes that went into the lake. I mean what did they ever do to deserve such an untimely demise?
At 6:00 a.m. Thursday, I woke Braden up. He yelled “No!” and threw the blanket over his head.
“Do you want to go see all your friends at STEPS today?” I asked.
Blankets flew off the bed as Braden hopped up. “Friends at STEPS!” he exclaimed with a huge grin on his face.
And just like that, we were back in it…back to our life and daily routines. I realized Braden loved work and his friends. And you know what? I smiled too.
In the end, as long as my kids are happy, I’m happy…whether I’m an Empty Nester or not.