This day was a long time coming. It all started back in May, at the end of the school year. On one of the last days of school, I picked Carrie up in the car rider line and instead of driving to go to the high school, I turned left out of the parking lot to head home.
“We’ll miss our sister,” Carrie said from the back seat. (No, she didn’t mean to imply I’d had enough of my teenage daughter’s angst and shipped her off to gypsies. She meant, “You’re forgetting to go pick up Ann.”)
“Ann stayed home. She didn’t have school today because she has all-As, so she didn’t have to take final exams. She’s at home.”
I tried not to laugh at the tone in Carrie’s voice. “Yes, she’s a big girl. She stayed home alone while I came to pick you up.”
(Pause) “I’m a big girl.”
(Pause filled with heart-stopping dread) “Yes. Yes, you are. But… wouldn’t you be scared if you were home all by yourself, and no one was there?”
“What would you do?”
“So, you want me to leave you home by yourself sometimes?”
“Well, maybe we’ll try that out…” I mumbled “someday when I’m dead” under my breath, but I’m afraid her sensitive autism ears picked up on that.
Of course, since school got out for the summer only a few days later, it quickly became a forgotten non-issue. The girls were home, I work from home, so no big thing. Right? RIGHT?
Wrong. Ann started majorette camp the last week of July, and on one of the many practice days when she was gone from sunup til sundown, I had to race to the gas station to fill up for our trip the next morning.
“I’m a big girl.”
(Oh crap. Not this. I’m not ready.) “Sure you are! You’re getting so tall!”
She didn’t buy it. She stared me down with a look that said, “You know what I’m talking about.”
“So, you want to stay here while I go to the gas station?”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Play iPad and watch my movie.”
“I see.” (More pausing…it’s become a thing in our house.) “Okay. Well, let’s get your iPad, and you show me that you know how to text me.”
STOP RIGHT HERE — You have to know two things. Carrie is almost 13, and the gas station is 1.1 miles from my house. That’s about to become really important. REALLY important.
Carrie got on the couch and showed me she could send me a text. I showed her how I could send her a text back. We texted back and forth several times. (I could have gone to the gas station, filled up, and drank an entire Coke by now, but that’s not the point.)
I’ll spare you the scene where I finally left the house. It involved a lot of “don’t get up off this couch,” “don’t open the door,” “you make sure you answer my texts,” etc.
I finally got in the car, sobbing in fear. I know she has to be able to do this, but I could barely think to get the key in the ignition. I finally did, started the car, backed up, and closed the garage door.
Then I texted her. From the driveway. You know, just to make sure she still remembered how to text.
I got the end of the driveway and was about to back into the street… and then I texted her. And waited for her to respond.
I texted six more times while traveling to the gas station, but don’t worry, I used Siri and spoke it into the phone. I was already shaking so hard I could barely think, so typing was the last thing anyone needed.
I got to the gas station, which is a really awesome family-owned place where they still pump your gas for you. There was an SUV at the pump that was almost done, and I pulled in behind it. I swear to you, the Camry behind me must have been sent by Satan, because not five seconds after I got in line, it pulled up behind me. I was stuck.
And the guy who owned the SUV in front of me and the guy pumping his gas had to have been long-lost cousins who’d been separated for years. They stood there talking while the car filled up… and talking… and talking… and talking after the car was filled and the hose was back in its holder… and talking… and talking…
And I couldn’t back up to get out of there.
I texted Carrie about ten more times while I waited, and finally I couldn’t handle it. I jumped out of the car, handed my keys to the guy who owns the gas station, gave him the cash, and yelled, “BRING MY CAR HOME TO ME BECAUSE I LEFT CARRIE HOME BY HERSELF!”
And then I took off running for home. In flip flops.
The flip flops got to be annoying after the first quarter-mile, so I took them off and kept going. Luckily, back in the day, I was a marathon runner so a mile shouldn’t have hurt too much. Unfortunately, that was many a year ago, so it hurt a lot.
I made it to my house and everything looked good from the outside. There were no flames shooting out of the roof, the doors weren’t standing wide open, the police weren’t there with a SWAT team… but that was just the outside. I raced up to the door and–realized my keys were with my car at the gas station.
“Carrie! It’s Mommy! Open the door!” Silence. “Carrie! Come on, honey, come open the door!” Silence. “Carrie! Look, it’s me!”
“I can’t get up. You said no.”
“Now I’m saying yes! Yes, you can get up now because I’m home! See? I’m home now!”
Carrie got up and came to the door and smiled. “I’m big! I stay home!”
“Yes, you did such a good job! But let Mommy in, I don’t have my keys.”
“You said no.”
“Yes, I did, and you’re a good girl for not opening the door! But now I’m home! You can open the door NOW because Mommy’s right here!”
She actually had to stand there and think that over. In my mind, I was already calculating how many hours I’d be on the porch until my husband got off work. She finally decided that Mom’s presence was able to override all previous instructions, and she moved to open the door.
And couldn’t do it. She couldn’t get the door unlocked. I was calling out instructions through the glass, but she kept turning it wrong or not far enough or whatever. Fortunately, my car came rolling up my driveway a few minutes later, followed by the owner’s wife in her car. I raced over to them and basically threw myself on their feet, apologizing. They were very understanding about my little freak-out, after the owner’s wife explained it all to him that is.
When I finally got the car inside and got in the house, I was ready for an emotional nap. Carrie came over to me, smiled, and said, “I’m a big girl.”
“Yes, you are!” I said, laughing. “Unfortunately, Mommy isn’t!”
It will be some time before I can try this again. It will also involve far more meticulous planning, like making sure the neighbors are home (and willing to sit at the end of their driveway to watch the house!) and making sure my husband’s about to get off work. I need to hide a spare key somewhere on the property, and probably install surveillance cameras…mounted on guard towers around my property if the homeowners’ association doesn’t object.
Basically, like I said, I’m not ready. I’ve spent almost thirteen years protecting her and keeping every single potential danger at bay, and I’m not ready to walk away from Carrie just yet. The weird thing is, ALL parents go through this, not just parents of autistic kids. It just feels magnified a million times when autism is a factor.