It’s all in the attitude for this tall, dark, and autistic fellow, a rangy six-footer with a sexy five o’clock shadow—and the mind of a good-natured adolescent. But my twenty-one year old son David is desperate to tackle life on his own terms even when it means getting kicked around a bit.
Next Stop is a candid portrait of a differently-abled young man poised at the entry to adulthood. Weaving bittersweet and humorous anecdotes from David’s life as the youngest of three testosterone-soaked brothers, Next Stop recounts the complex relationship between an autistic adult child and his family as he steps out into the real world alone for the first time. Rendered without sentimentality, the story is grounded in the personal narrative of a mother’s perpetually tested hope. Hardwired to protect him, letting go turns out to be harder for me than for my son.
David’s intellectual disability is a kind of exuberance; one way it reveals itself is his swinging an imaginary baseball bat whenever he’s really happy. The impulse reflects an open innocence that’s way too friendly when it comes to strangers. Downtown, when a homeless man asks him for change, David opens his wallet and says, “How much?”
Linked by observations from David’s quirky but practical take on the world, stories filled with humor and poignancy flow one after another.With the difficulty he has in conveying his thoughts, things twist and turn in often whimsical, heart-wrenching, and even dangerous ways. On a childhood visit to his 88-year old grandmother’s, the retired no-nonsense Special Ed teacher shows her adolescent grandson how to drive her old Buick, then is lulled to sleep in the passenger seat as David quietly chauffeurs her all over town.
Through his high school years, David walks the familiar halls —a sort of mascot for theatrical hugs from his peers—but the phone never rings for him at home. Things take an alarming turn when, on his own a thousand miles from home, David finds himself the unsuspecting passenger in a stranger’s car headed for the Florida Everglades. Later, at age 20, when he takes his first solo Metro ride, we watch from behind a raised newspaper as the doors bang close and David disappears into a dark tunnel of risky prospects. When the doors open next, his life has been changed forever by a newly acquired sense of freedom.
As the prospect of becoming real empty nesters gleams in the near future for us, David’s parents, there are candid snapshots of our long, affectionate, but frequently Dave-interrupted marriage:
“In the morning Bruce comes into the kitchen, sniffing and circling like an old dog. He lifts me off the floor and, hip joints protesting, I wrap my legs around his waist. He says Kiss me like you mean it and I peck him on his neck, his jaw, then land a wet one on his mouth. At that moment, David walks in, unshaven and blurry-eyed, opens the fridge and stares in. Bruce drops me onto my feet and grabs his heart, libido zapped. “Well, then,” he says, “Coffee?”
Parents of special needs adult children will relate to the utter fatigue of raising the different child and the world of expensive therapies and persistent evaluations which inevitably lead them to prickly finger-pointing between the sheets. When David dubs his doctors “professional strangers,” it becomes clear there is no magic pill to fix him. As we discover along the way, none of this really matters. David, like any child, simply is, so we, like all parents, learn to just take it from there and move forward.
Besides providing a little-known window onto the complexities of what it takes to love a special needs adult child, Next Stop makes it clear that David will not escape the pummeling of ignorance or malice in this world, but he will experience it on his own terms and he will know his victories in ways mysterious to the rest of us. Blending straight family dynamics like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club with the everyday pitfalls of loving the different child as in Beth Kephart’s A Slant of Sun, this hope-giving memoir will reassure other families in similar situations that they are, if nothing else, not alone.