Rescue

Blue was not a fan of spiders, but ever since I’d read our boy Charlotte’s Web, Eliot adored them. He’d seen me rescue countless spiders from the house using a magazine and a glass, and halfway through his twenty-fourth year he performed his own rescue.

“Charlotte,” I heard him say, “You belong outside. No, don’t bite.”

“Did you just carry a spider outside with your bare hand?” I asked.

“Yah,” he said.

I couldn’t imagine doing that myself, yet spiders were hardly Eliot’s greatest challenge. I wondered as much as he did about the logistics of the life he was about to launch on his own. But food writer Ruth Reichl said,“ I truly believe that the only things worth doing are the things that scare you.”

“When something terrifies me,” she said, “I know it’s important.”    

Two and half months after we signed the lease, Imagine Supported Living took over the job of filling in Eliot’s team, and he was able to move into his studio. The weekend he moved, he reminded me and Blue of all his jobs we’d be taking over for him.

“You’re going to have to be Recycling Man,” he told me. 

He held up his companion George, who’d lost all his stuffing. His arm was falling out of the tunic that was supposed to be holding him together. 

“If you can’t sew George,” he said, “We can just say goodbye.”

“Do you want me to try?” I asked, and he said yes. 

“We could get a new George,” Blue said, but that was beside the point. I was pretty sure Little Man, who lived in San Diego, had no legs. 

I poked George’s arm back into the sleeve of his tunic and sewed it in place. I knew the move-in was complete when Eliot tucked George and Penguin in the bed and a six-pack of beer in the fridge.  

“You can cry now,” he said, which I already had.

Moving the music equipment and the clothes, you can purge the belongings but not the spirit of the one who leaves. The one who cheered up whenever he wore the color red, the one who put Soulwise on the speaker when I needed music to clean by, the one who shook his booty in moments of victory. 

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Manning Up

In March of a year that had brought three solid months of rain and snow to California, P G & E put in a new power pole outside our house. We had no internet, our landline was no longer a landline since it was connected to the internet, and Eliot’s and my cell phones were dead by afternoon. Change in routine is hard for people on the spectrum, but through it all Eliot maintained his composure. I did what I’d been doing for months to decompress: retreated upstairs in the afternoon to read and take a nap on the floor.

At 5:30 when I realized we weren’t going to have electricity in time to make dinner, I made Eliot walk to our neighborhood watering hole. He ran across the busiest streets. He ordered a burger, and I ordered a Guiness and an Imperial Stout for us to share. It was his first time tasting Stout. When we got home he played his acoustic guitar by candlelight, then went to bed. 

We were all asleep when the lights came on. It was like emerging from months of rain into blinding sunlight.

By then Eliot was taking the bus regularly with Cissi to Trader Joe’s to buy his own lunches. He came home with stacks of premade salads and armloads of potato chips. We food stockpilers are always prepared for Armageddon. Except that by the weekend he would have mowed through the provisions and it would be time for him to take the bus to Trader Joe’s with his dad. 

When the rage built up, he got off the couch and took himself for a walk around the block. One morning when a prospective new respite buddy texted at the last minute that he wasn’t coming, Eliot said, “I’m just going to man up and have some chips and dip.”

When I arranged for him to visit the farm where special needs adults raised micro greens for a paycheck, he told me the chicken coop was a deal breaker. At the Homeless Garden Project where he’d seemed so happy, he had to spread wood chips in the chicken coop. “It was all over my shoe,” he said.

If despair threatened to take over, we talked about not dwelling on the mistakes that landed us where we were. “We all have shame,” I told him. “But you’re not the same person you were. You’re a man now.”

Calling up one of his favorite expressions, he said, “I’m moving on. You can’t go back forward.” 

With his Imagine buddy Michael, he started taking the bus downtown to our favorite guitar store, where a new teacher helped him dust off the many songs he’d learned with Dale. What had been the closed-off cave of his room was now a guitar studio with music spilling from an open door.  

After a long search with his Section 8 voucher, we’d found him a studio in a quiet neighborhood blocks from the beach and just two miles from the house where CALI would be setting up shop. I started building a team of people I hoped would segue into his Supported Living, and over a period of weeks Eliot would begin shopping and cooking at his apartment, until he was used to his whole team and could move into his studio full-time. 

“Slowly planning,” he said, “We’re taking over the world.”

After moving in the furniture and supplies, Eliot asked if we could plant a garden off the little deck that ran down the side of his studio. We brought over a shovel, gopher baskets, and flowering plants. He dug the hole, dropped the plants into their baskets, and filled in the soil. He wouldn’t have to water them often, I told him, since they were drought-tolerant and the ground was saturated. A wet winter followed by a flowering spring sounded promising.

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Clarity





Five weeks into a 40-milligram dose of Prozac, the thoughtful, cheerful, funny Eliot was back. The medication gave him access to all of the tools we’d helped him develop to deal with his anxiety. Or as Eliot put it, “I’m myself in a good way!”


He emerged from his bear-cave of a room, where he’d hidden for months, and said he’d learned from a video on YouTube that you couldn’t get between a mama bear and her cub, and that bears covered twenty-five miles an hour. He started going for walks around the block not because we made him but because he wanted to.


“I walk twenty-five miles an hour,” he told me.


With his dad he went to Trader Joe’s on the bus, swam laps at the pool, and ate at a restaurant, all in one day. Because for all the agencies that assisted with his well-being, for all the people who knew him by name and called out a friendly hello, there were few who understood him, whom he trusted to help him. Blue was one and Cissi was another.


With Cissi he took the Metro up to the university and rode around the loop just because it was “nice and quiet.” When I thanked him for being peaceful and considerate he said, “You’re welcome. You deserve it.”


He was ready to move into his Section 8 apartment, but it had to be the right one, somewhere quiet that was also close to his people, stores, and the bus lines.


After he and Cissi created a profile for him on Craigslist, he told me, “You could always email Craig to get it started.”


“We need to find a way to win it!” he said.


“Sometimes,” he said, “I feel ungrateful because of my sad heart. And I don’t blame myself.”


“But I’m okay,” he added, “Waiting for my apartment.”

“You know why?” I asked.


“Why?”


“Because you’re starting to live your life, and it feels good.”


“It feels so good,” he said.


As always, he was happy to see me go so he could have man time with his dad, and I escaped for a few days of skiing with my prayerful, adventurous friend Kim. With no new snow we raced down the groomer runs, then changed course when we saw the snow soften on a bump run. I’d loved moguls ever since I’d learned in college that the way to take them was right over the top, not around as most people did, carving icy crevices.


“This is awful,” Kim said on the bumps, “But I kind of like it.”


Then the storm we’d anticipated came in as rain, and the colder one following was projected to bring feet of snow and high winds that would close the summit. I felt the pull of my guys back home. Knowing I couldn’t stay and trying to find a window to drive home caused my anxiety to skyrocket, as it had in the snow the year before.


During my morning stretch I wondered what had happened to the carefree, independent person I was back when I’d learned to ski those bumps. Then I had a revelation: Dependent and strong was the way to be.


That’s when I decided to check out early, and Kim, who’d considered staying, bailed with me. Which meant I had company for the snowy summit. When sleet stuck to the wipers and the road in front of me faded, she turned the Defrost on high and instantly the wipers cleared. I hadn’t thought to do that on my icy drive the winter before, and I’d never contemplated the meaning of the word defrost. Clarity.


Kim was the same friend who, the last time I’d ever used chains, removed my tire to get at the cable I’d put on backwards. But ever since she’d switched to four-wheel drive she was forever helping other people with their chains.


When we made it off of the summit we high-fived. And when I got home I poured the contents of my hydration pack into a water bottle so I could keep the mountains with me a little longer.

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A Chinese Coin

It is not uncommon for a young person to be independent, to be on a trajectory toward success, and for the momentum to stop. For the generation that came of age with social media and the great Pacific garbage patch, anxiety plays a big part. Eliot might have seen or heard something on the bus, and once he stopped setting foot in the world each morning, those fears spiraled into depression. It was as if life were his guitar teacher, who could pick up any instrument and fire off a riff, and it was easier to fail than strive for stardom.

The hardest part for Eliot was coming home to get well. Even though we were looking for a subsidized apartment –for which he had earned a voucher after nearly a decade on the waitlist– and even though he would always be part of the CALI Project, CALI was where he’d become independent and found his second family, and missing CALI only made him sadder. He didn’t like returning to a house where I’d packed every room in boxes to make space for the remodel. For a while locks on the doors were once again the only way we could safely coexist in the house.

A good day was one where Eliot went for a walk two times around the block. Shaving was an accomplishment, his hair grew longer and longer, and his guitars collected dust in a corner. He hid in his man-cave of a room from the painters and the contractors, all of whom were understanding. Every day George the floor guy asked Eliot if he wanted to walk around the block with him and his two Chihuahuas. Eliot kept saying no until finally he said yes. When the floors were done, George left him a Chinese coin he’d found on a solo dog walk.

On a visit home Carly encountered the same upheaval. “Life is scary,” she told her brother, “But it’s also fun.”

In her room George had laid hardwood flooring over the brown-painted boards, and I’d placed a queen-sized bed where her childhood bed had been, the same one where we’d moved her from the crib before Eliot was born. Her first assigned night in the little bed she’d climbed back in the crib, rolled up in her blanket, and fallen asleep.  And on her visit home she briefly considered sleeping on her childhood bed in the family room before sinking into the comfort of the new queen.

They weren’t the conditions under which we had begun the renovations, yet it was only upon Eliot’s unexpected return that any residual anger or resentment I had melted away. I blew a fuse plenty of times, but the overriding principal was patience and kindness. There was simply no other way.

He still had to get up every morning, take a shower, and do his chores, but beyond that any motivation had to come from him. Our expectations were what had gotten him this far, and now only letting go of our expectations would keep him moving forward. The one thing we didn’t let go of was our faith in who he was.

We fell back on the research we’d done with Dr. Traver and put him on the Prozac that had helped before. And we started to see signs of life. Cissi came over in a lacrosse helmet to shave his head. Shaving his head was a weight off, like Frodo shedding his orc-shield, his helmet, and his heavy belt on the road to Mordor.

“Sam did likewise, and put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him…

‘Do you remember that bit of rabbit, Mr. Frodo?’ he said. ‘And our place under the warm bank in Captain Faramir’s country, the day I saw an oliphaunt?’

‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,’ said Frodo. ‘At least I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire…'”

Soon after their unburdening, Frodo got rid of the ring and turning back toward the Shire, stopped to see his friend Bilbo, who had grown old and spent his days in Rivendell dozing by the fire. Bilbo holding court from his chair reminded me of my father at ninety-seven. Dad never lost the ability to ask questions, even if they were the same questions whose answers he’d forgotten. Every morning he got dressed and sat in his chair by the fireplace, napping until one of his children or friends came to visit. Being an attorney, he would draw out his visitors, probing for news of the outside world, and in those last months I was not the only one of my siblings to read aloud to him from The New York Times.

When he asked about the ring and Frodo told him it was gone, Bilbo said,

“That’s what you went for, wasn’t it: to get rid of it? But it is all so confusing, for such a lot of other things seem to have got mixed up with it: Aragorn’s affairs…and caves and towers and golden trees, and goodness knows what besides.

“I evidently came back by much too straight a road from my trip. Anyway it’s too late now; and I really think it’s much more comfortable to sit here and hear about it all…” Bilbo said before dropping off for another nap.

For Frodo the stop to see his old friend was as important as the journey to Sauron, and while my siblings and I hadn’t always been taught that growing up, by the time Mom reached ninety we knew it to be true, that nothing was more important than being with them. Such is the truth of family and friends. I may spend the day happily by myself, but nothing lifts my spirits like running into a friend in the ocean lineup, at the grocery store, or one lane over at the pool. So Eliot, if you’re reading this, do not forget what saves us from day to day, what holds us together is our community, our CALIs and Georges, the parents who are there for us, our family.

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Carly giving her Baba a kiss at at a family holiday

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Paper Map

When Carly and Eliot were little, messes in the house were a healthy part of the flurry of life. Once they moved out, the layer of dust and dirt that had accumulated on the sills of their rooms were ghosts I needed to wipe away in order to occupy my newfound freedom.

Carly came home for a visit, and I offered to help her clean out her room, the high school graduation cards, dresses that had never made it out of her closet, the trucker caps from years of surf contests. When we were finished we put some surf trophies and signed baseballs back on the shelves and propped a couple of favorite photos on the desk, and I filled up the van with a dresser, books for the library, and clothes to donate. But we kept the stuffed animal her Baba had given her, a wind-up ballerina that played the theme from the Nutcracker.

Standing in her room after she left for San Diego, I picked up the ballerina and it let out a few last notes. I thought of my mother dressed in a skirt and jacket, always with a colorful necklace, taking one or two grandchildren to The Nutcracker in San Francisco each December, not stopping until all of them had seen it. I could hear the waltz of stringed instruments and answering flutes filling the Memorial Opera House. Long before, my mother had seen each of her six children off to college, and when the last one was gone it was the sound of her piano that filled an empty house.

It was not something she talked about, but I needed to, once Eliot added a fifth night of independence and was home for just part of a weekend. Having watched Carly move away, he was motivated, and I took it as a good sign, even if I missed having a Sherpa to carry the groceries.

At the start of summer Blue and I went to Huntington to help open the cabin, and Eliot asked us to “send him some love.” Those were his words for a postcard.

“It’s going to be in the thirties at night,” I told him.

I was sad to say goodbye but he wasn’t. “Have a good time freezing,” he said as he went out the door.

Blue and I picked out a postcard of a mama bear and her cub crossing a creek. I knew that like the cub, no matter how independent he was feeling, he still needed guidance. There was the time he went out to dinner with Carly and wore his raincoat with the hood up, thirty-six hours after it had stopped raining. Or the times he missed some spots shaving and went to work with half a mustache.

After I read all of the Harry Potter books aloud to Eliot, I’d read him The Hobbit, and he’d dictated a sixteen-page report, with pictures he’d drawn of the ring and the sword. My favorite drawing was of Gandalf, a triangle hat perched on a head with a triangle gown. It was when I started The Lord of the Rings that he’d entered the adrenaline-fueled period that we survived only with a lot of planning and unwavering support from The Bay School.

“You have to stop reading that book,” Blue had told me, and I knew he was right. An adolescent boy would take desperate measures to get away from his mother’s voice, as would a young man.

Once he and Carly were mostly gone, I got used to the space and the freedom. I planned a backpacking trip with my friend Patty. She and I had hiked out of the Southern Sierra’s Florence Lake, and this time we were hiking out of Edison. My first trip had been to the Desolation Wilderness, solo with Buddy when he was just a pup, and this would be my sixth and last sleeping on the hard ground.

Outdoor clothes were lighter than they’d been before, so we dropped some weight there, and although I wasn’t about to invest in a new lightweight pack, the old heavy one  balanced perfectly the load on my hips. The Pacific Crest Trail was full of young people hiking the entire length from Mexico to Canada, with their ultra-light sleeping pads, pocket-sized water filters, and a hunger for what felt like a boundless wilderness.

When Patty and I got back I picked up the copy of The Lord of the Rings I’d put down when Eliot was seventeen, and once again found myself identifying with Frodo as he shouldered his pack and journeyed away from the Shire. Waking up with a tree-root digging into his back, he thought of the feather bed he had left behind. But then he watched the sunrise, and he and his companions filled their water bottles from a flowing stream.

“The day’s march promised to be warm and tiring work. After some miles, however, the road ceased to roll up and down; it climbed to the top of a steep bank in a weary zig-zagging sort of way, and then prepared to go down for the last time. In front of them they saw the lower lands dotted with small clumps of trees that melted away in the distance to a brown woodland haze.”

His companion Sam’s “round eyes were wide open – for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.”

With the few safety nets that existed once families exited special education, there were times when it felt as if Blue and I were trudging blindly toward Mordor, and like Sam and Frodo, we had to to turn north and west when our destination was southeast. My pack felt heavy with the work of referrals and wait-lists, heavier than those of the Pacific Crest through-hikers. They were mapping their courses with their phones, but I liked my paper map with its distant peaks, its topo rings spreading outward. And as Eliot stood looking over the trees that melted away in the distance, I kept my map close, like the glittering shirt of mail Frodo wore under his clothes.

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Miracle March

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I’d pulled over too close to the side of the road, which was nearly impossible to see, and was stuck. Driving alone to South Lake Tahoe, I’d hit snow at 3000 feet, and at 5000 feet the road was covered in an icy layer. Ice accumulated on my windshield and wipers, and I’d pulled over to scrape it off.
When all four wheels started spinning, I turned off the engine and dug out around them, but was still stuck. I flagged down a young man and his girlfriend in a four-wheel drive truck, and they pushed me out.
At 6000 feet Highway Patrol was escorting a line of cars going down the mountain. I was exhausted, but knew if I didn’t keep driving, highway 50 might close before I made it to South Shore. I arrived safely at the massive Heavenly resort a couple of hours behind schedule, and bought a lift ticket, planning to catch up with my friend Lance who knew the mountain. But once I made it to the Nevada side my phone died, and I knew better than to look for him in a blizzard. As it turned out, he and his friends ended up in a creek bed and spent two hours hiking out.
I stuck with one lift, making repeated trips down a tree-filled run. Watching a mom on the hill with a child between her skis filled me with longing, not because I wanted to go back in time, but because without that reality I was adrift. Eliot was transitioning to full independence, and I was feeling sad the way I had when Carly left for college. When the transition ramped up so did his anxiety, and alone on the mountain, mine did too.
Midafternoon I started worrying about the trek back to the California side. The signs were confusing, and when I asked, one person pointed to a trail deserted and devoid of tracks. Panicked and a little weepy, I thought, “If I go that way, I’ll never get out and I’ll never be found.”
After a second run up the chairlift I did find the California trail, and eventually, the steep Gunbarrel run that dropped to the parking lot and my car. Miracle March was delivering atypically dry snow to the Sierra, and I spent the next two days skiing deep powder with friends. On the last morning I landed a little hard coming out of a chute, one of my skis popped off, and I slid six feet past it.

I wondered if in snow that deep and vertical I could make it back up to my ski. I heard my friend Kim shouting from a stand of trees below, and called her cell phone to tell her it was going to take me a while.
“We’re not leaving you,” she said.
I turned myself around so my ski was on the bottom. Poles sinking in deep powder, I pushed up with the ski, using my knee instead of the sinking boot. As I inched closer I spotted something sticking out of the snow. It was a rock, but I knew my ski was right below it. I brushed away snow with a pole, and when I got close enough, dug in and found my ski. Minutes later I skied down to the trees where Kim was waiting.
What I took away from that weekend was that even the most independent of us find our abilities being tested, and on the mountain I was learning the same lessons as my grown children.
Like Eliot, who when his aunt Jeffery sent each of her nieces and nephews a Christmas check, bought a new bike to replace the one he’d outgrown. It had a rack and bags for groceries, and came with a huge red bow he refused to cut off. His first trip back from Safeway he rode with the bow on the handlebar and a twelve-pack of beer on the rack.
He stuck to a single beer each night, which he figured into his budget both at home and at the CALI Project. Once he texted Cissi from the liquor store to tell her he’d used his money for beer and needed more for lunch.
Budgeting was hard, especially at the hot food bar where he was charged by the weight. When he overloaded and the customer behind him offered to make up the difference, he said, “I’m a man. I can pay for my own food.”
And if how fast he could swipe a twenty out of my hand was any indication, Eliot was learning the value of money.
I knew we had come full circle when he attended a winter dance at Vintage Faith, our church from his infanthood to adolescence. I helped him dress in good pants, and as he reached around to pull the belt through the loop he usually missed he said, “I have to go, I’m on a mission.”
When he got home and I asked which girl he’d liked the best, he said, “All of them.”
One morning he was bugging me so badly I sent him out forty-five minutes before his bus came. He didn’t seem to mind. “The early bird catches the worm,” he said.
Then it started pouring and I worried he was getting soaked. But when I passed the bus stop on the way to the grocery store, he was standing dry under his umbrella, flashing me the look Blue had long before named Dr. Evil.
Four years after the county granted me and Blue conservatorship, the court reporter returned to our house to see how Eliot was doing. When she reminded him he could vote, I asked if he remembered whom he’d voted for in the last election.
“Donald Trump,” he said, which wasn’t true. There was a pause and he added, “Uh, Lincoln.”
While Eliot was transitioning to independence, Carly had moved back from the North Shore of Oahu and settled in San Diego, where she was working her dream job as an organic inspector and reviewer. Not having the Pacific between us made her feel closer. One morning as she was driving up to collect the last of her stuff, I went for a surf, and passing Cowell’s Beach saw a line of waves. On the first wave where not a single person paddled was a dolphin, skimming and leaping, offshore spray fanning behind it. A greeting for my girl, who on the balcony of her apartment in Encinitas had placed two pots. One sprouted lettuce and one tomatos, for both the timelessness and the newness of our endeavors.

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Brown Bowl

When Mom and Dad moved from the house where they raised six children, she gave me her giant mixing bowl, which I remembered her using around the holidays. Turkey stuffing comes to mind, but by the time I thought to ask if she used it for baking it was too late. “There are still things,” she said once, “I wish I could tell my mother.”

Every year after she handed it down, I pulled out the bowl when I doubled and tripled her recipes for the Christmas cookies I gave to neighbors and teachers. It was thick glazed ceramic the exact color of the ginger molasses cookies, cinnamon-speckled brown, I mixed in it. Made even heavier by pounds of dough, the bowl cracked early on when I set in on the counter, and the first Christmas after she died it broke. Like sifting through the memories that surfaced, stirred, and receded, I scraped out the batter from two halves of bowl with a rubber spatula, and rolled the dough in parchment paper, to freeze and pull out for baking in the days before Christmas.

Of the three kinds of cookies our mother made, at least two of them came from her mother Irene. The third kind, called The World’s Best, was named for its irresistible combination of butter and sugar, coconut and pecans, crushed corn flakes and salt. Written for me by our mother on a three-by-five card, the recipe was blurred by years of spills, marked with my notes and asterisks. That T that looked like a tablespoon, I’d noted, was actually a teaspoon.

Conversely, the three-by-five card for the chewy cookies that tasted like gingerbread was my handwriting but unmistakably our mother’s recipe. She’d listed the spices as “ginger, cloves, etc.” The “etc.” I knew was cinnamon, but if there were only one more spice after the cloves, why not name it?

The answer rests with Irene, whose penchant for sweeping the carpets she laid over the Tahoe campsite where she took our mother in the 1930’s, she passed down to our mother and me, along with the abbreviated manner. Although it probably reached back farther than the generations whose economy of words fell on my ears, what we were left with was an abbreviation, first for the word cinnamon, then for the word etcetera. I can hear my mother say it, “And so forth, and so on.”

In our mother’s recipe for gingerbread on which those cookies were based, the cinnamon was listed, along with the rest of the ingredients. But the instructions were limited, and read in their entirety:

Last of all, 2 eggs well beaten.

Shallow pan, 350 ˚

That’s where the watching must have come in. Our height the same as the rim of the brown bowl, my sisters and I would have seen her mix the wet ingredients first, and would have known to do the same when we made gingerbread ourselves. A mental note added to a written recipe. Etcetera and so forth and so on.

The Christmas after Mom died, I unwrapped the birdhouse ornament with the sparkled roof hanging by a piece of twine, which she’d also handed down, along with a miniature pair of mittens and a painted nutcracker. Hugh Martin’s words rang through the house:

Through the years we all will be together

If the fates allow

Hang a shining star upon the highest bough

She never liked those mittens, but I did, and I took a tearful pause as I hung them on the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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