Sunday afternoon at Ali’s. She’s parked at the foot of her bed and I’m propped against the headboard, two pillows in purple cases between me and the white iron frame. A purchase from IKEA. The bookshelves, too. But those don’t matter.
This matters: Ali has put down a deposit on a studio apartment for fall semester. The complex is called Campus Village, located on Auraria campus where Ali’s a student. She and Sarah visited while I was in Nepal, then made arrangements for me to see it in January. Ali and I strolled the long, wide hallways, visited the cyber cafe, saw the workout room, study lounge and cafeteria, and toured the two-bedroom model. It was winter break. The place was empty.
Ask Ali why she wants to leave the home renovated with her in mind and she will tell you this: I want to live by myself and I want to be on campus so I can do things on my own.
Children of all shapes and sizes want life on their own terms. By the time that first zit appears, it’s full steam ahead on their quest for independence. Emancipation is what we parents aim for, at least the ones I know. But throw in the ridiculous cost of a college education, the anemic job market and the private bedroom, free food, wifi and cell phone provided by dual-income, high-achieving, baby boomer parents and you’ve got between 25 and 40 percent of America’s millennials living at home. Make that 26-year-old a person who requires the assistance of another adult to get out of bed and the percentage of twenty-somethings living with their parents soars.
That my twenty-something possesses the confidence and the courage to want a room of her own under a roof other than mine thrills me. Beyond measure. But Sunday afternoon, plopped on Ali’s bed, my feelings on the subject of the apartment’s proximity to our house register somewhere between acceptance and panic.
“I’m in a push-pull about this Village thing,” I say, easing my way into what could be a delicate conversation. “You know that expression, right? Push-pull?” Ali pumps her forearm up and down. Yes. She’s staring at me now, wondering what’s coming, not at all convinced this push-pull thing is going in her favor.
“Well, you know,” I stammer, wishing I’d given this some forethought, “it’s that Mom thing. I mean, what if you need to pee and no one’s coming for an hour, then what? It’s not like you shoot me a text and, bingo, I show up two minutes later.”
In a flash her left hand goes to the talker. The knuckle of her pointer finger starts typing. You. Need. To. Let. Go. Of. That. She hits the Speak All command: “You need to let go of that.” Her eyes lock on mine. She’s smiling now. We both are. “Stop worrying,” she types, and shoots me another grin. “I’ll be fine.”
Wait, isn’t worry what mothers do, and don’t mothers of special needs kids get extra good at it? I’m talking about the worry that kicks in around the time your daughter gets her period, picks up steam when she graduates from high school and has you by the throat on her twenty-first birthday. What will the rest of her life look like, you wonder, and while we’re at it, what happens to her when you’re dead? That worry.
These days it isn’t what happens when I’m gone that’s messing with me. It’s Ali leaving the neighborhood. No more standing on our front porch knowing she’s in that house less than a hundred feet away, or whispering “goodnight, Cat” as I pause at the window on my way up to bed. No, we’re talking out of sight and a lot less parental control. What kind of special-needs mother agrees to those conditions?!
The kind who wants to help her kid create the life the kid wants even if that life holds fewer constraints and a big dose of trust. Years ago my kid wanted to move to Boston where her friends from Camp Jabberwocky lived. She was 14. Was she serious? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. I said no. But twenty minutes away, at 26? I said maybe, and then I said I needed to see this place.
So Ali arranged for us to take that tour in January. We went back a few weeks ago to see the ADA studio, the one she’s counting on inhabiting come August. A pleasant young man currently occupies the apartment. He made a special trip home between classes so we could see his place, arriving the same time we did. He and his girlfriend slide the sofa three feet in one direction and move a few chairs so Ali can get in the door. We inch our way into the living space with me in the lead, discreetly pushing the clothes and shoes and video games and empty food containers and I can’t even tell you what all out of our way, cutting a path through the debris. Ali drives into the bathroom where we spot the roll-in shower (big thumbs up). Strands of long black hair (girlfriend) and whiskers (the guy) float on the scum in the plugged sink. I shove the towels piled on the floor into a corner and Ali tests the turning radius of the room, proving to both of us that the bathroom would work. It takes everything in me to look beyond the grime and the clutter and imagine my daughter in this space. Russell, the Resident Life Manager and obvious mind reader, scans the room, then does his best to sound reassuring. “We do a deep cleaning after every student moves out, before the next one moves in,” he says. Deep cleaning, yeah right. I’ll be back with bleach.
The next day I send Russell an email, thanking him for the tour. Opening the door with a keycard could be an issue for Ali, I write. His reply arrives in less than 24 hours. He’d talked with the maintenance super who said they could install a keypad and, by the way, are there any other accommodations Ali requires? Nice. They want her.
I lick the frog on a Saturday afternoon and complete the paperwork. The young woman who gave Ali and me the tour in January is working the front desk when I walk in Monday morning with the lease and the first month’s rent. She’s a gorgeous African American student, perfect for the job, friendly and smart.
“Tell me I’m doing the right thing,” I say to her, pulling the lease out of a folder. How could she possibly answer that, I think to myself. How could she know what it’s like to let go of a child who took her first step at the age of five on the day she finally pushed the joystick and made her wheelchair move, who said her first word on a device that lit up like a Christmas tree when she pressed the icons.
“She’ll love it here,” the young woman says, and smiles. I remember then how she was with Ali during that tour. No talking down, no changing the tone of her voice or talking over Ali’s head like she wasn’t there. She waited while Ali typed. No rushing in to finish her thought. She treated Ali with dignity and I felt good just watching it.
I walk to the car, sit for a moment, staring at the courtyard, then wipe my wet cheeks. I decide to believe the young woman. Ali will love it here. A long sigh comes as I pull away from the curb, and with it, the sweet release of letting go. Again.