And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
You would think, since I’m a writer, that I wouldn’t be amazed at the power of a single word. Words should be my everyday, my cup of coffee in the morning, my latte in the afternoon. Really good, but familiar. Yet one word can wallop us upside the head sometimes. And for me recently, that word was HOME.
Olivia’s been off to college now since last August. We see her often – she comes home every other weekend to work, and even on the weekends she doesn’t work, she tends to come home to see the boyfriend. Not us, donchaknow. But the boyfriend. I talk to her every day via Facebook Messenger or text.
But it’s still been a difficult transition. She’s my fourth child, and the last to leave. My oldest daughter lives in Louisiana now. My two sons are still in Waukesha, but lead busy lives and so they aren’t cups of coffee anymore. And now Olivia. Olivia is the cup of coffee that has rattled my world for nineteen years. Almost twenty, if you consider the time she spent in utero, my 40-year old body stunned by her sudden presence. And now, her presence is usually elsewhere.
I’ve adapted. When she returns to school, I straighten her room, smooth her bedspread, close her dresser drawers, tuck in her desk chair. When night falls, I turn on the reading lamp in the corner. When I go to bed, I turn it off. I’ve had to learn to sit on my hands when she’s had difficulty, watching as she deals with it herself, because to the legal world, she is an adult. There’s a show on Netflix called Atypical, featuring a young man on the autism spectrum. When he goes to college, his mother says to another mother, “It’s like I’ve become illegal.” I feel every bit as illegal as she does. I didn’t feel that with the other three…but with this child, I do.
Still, life has settled into a kid-in-college routine. But then something started happening. She began to refer to school and her dorm room as home.
I Googled the definition of the word. It said, “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” Interestingly, the example they gave was, “I was nineteen when I left home and went to college.”
Home is where we fought battles to establish communication with a child who was predicted to be nonverbal. Olivia began to memorize scripts from television shows and she’d throw lines at us in desperation, trying to express what she wanted, and we just didn’t understand, though we tried. Oh, the temper tantrums. Home is where we dreamed for our daughter, and when she suddenly began to speak, and to speak in complex, complete sentences with the vocabulary of an adult, she began to dream with us. Home is where we said, “You can!” and she said, “I will!” Home is where I held her when she went through her first boyfriend break-up, dealt with best friends who turned into bullies, when she learned that she is autistic and she lived in fear that she would wake up one day and find herself at the bottom of the spectrum. Home is where we have cheered and applauded everything, from potty-training to learning how to chew to tolerating the feel of denim against her skin to being a 4.0 student to expressing herself with music and writing and art.
This is home. Her father is home. I am home.
She began sending me messages, saying, “I’ll do it later, when I’m home,” or “I’ll text you when I get home from classes.” I gritted my teeth, but I handled it. I’m illegal now, after all. But then last weekend, she was home, here, and I reminded her of something that she needed to bring back with her, and she said, “Oh, you’re right, I should bring that home with me.”
Her voice, saying that, was what got to me, I think. Not black texted words on a screen. But her voice.
She was in her room. I was in the hallway, walking away to return to my office to get some work done. I spun on my heels. “This is home!” I cried. “This is home!”
“What?” she called from her room.
“This is home! That’s school!”
“Oh, Mama!” She ran from her room, down the hall, and wrapped me in a hug.
Olivia’s done this thing, when she hugs me, since she was in elementary school and tiny. She stands on her toes, trying to make herself taller. At one point, she would stand on her toes and smack her hard skull into my chin, and so I learned to tilt my head away. Then her toes made her as tall as I am. Then she was as tall as I am and her toes made her taller. Now she starts out taller, and her toes make her taller still. I’ve had to grow used to no longer being able to rest my cheek against the top of any of my children’s heads. I now rest my head on Olivia’s shoulder.
When Olivia raises up on her toes, it’s tradition for me to say, as all one word, “Getoffayourtoes!” And she giggles while I attempt to yank her flat-footed. It’s pretty near impossible now.
So she hugged me. “Oh, Mama,” she said. And then those toes raised her up.
“Getoffayourtoes!” I said. “And this is home. THIS is.”
And she giggled.
There was that sound. Olivia’s giggling was one of the first indicators we had that we could communicate. We would laugh and Olivia would laugh with us, looking directly into our faces, and we’d rock together in hilarity. Or she would laugh at something and we’d join in and there we were again. Connection. If we could connect, we could communicate. And if we could communicate, she would succeed. We did. She has.
She giggled. And then she lowered herself down flat-footed. “Okay, Mama,” she said, and went back to her room. And I relaxed.
But damned if she didn’t message me on Facebook, “I’m home!” when she got back to the dorm on Sunday night. And then she sent me a laughing emoji.
I could hear the giggle from here.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.