The traffic is not too bad. My husband drives. Our autistic son is excited, as he has never been to the courthouse before. I stare out the window, pondering the purpose of this day.
When we first discussed this choice with our son, we simply explained what it meant to turn 18. As the term ‘guardianship’ was too abstract for him, we helped him understand the process as needing to let a judge know that he would like his mom and dad to continue to take care of him and help him make decisions.
He quite simply says, “I want to live with you forever.”
As part of the process, evaluations were done through school. Although, logically I didn’t expect any significant changes from the battery of testing we did back in the third grade, longingly, I imagined improvement could be measured, recalibrated, and recorded on paper in ways that would match what we had witnessed experientially. A part of me needed formality to decide what we should do as his parents, now that he turned 18. I wanted to value his freedom of choice and individuality balanced with his need for protection and guidance in navigating what he had trouble understanding in life. Sitting at a meeting with teachers, therapists, and my husband, I couldn’t contain my tears, as his scores remained fairly unchanged. The results hit me harder than I expected, like impermeable blocks of concrete that felt more immutable at the age of 18 than they did at the age of eight. My husband quietly reached for my hand under the table.
A sheriff knocked on the door one evening around 10:00 p.m. to serve a notice of the scheduled guardianship proceeding. Our son later expressed disappointment to be sleeping through something that intriguing.
“A sheriff’s car in our driveway? Wow!”
On another day, the court sent a psychologist to the house to talk to our son. While he was sweet and expectant with her, he was also slightly perturbed when I turned off the fan sitting on the kitchen table in order to converse with less background noise.
“Why did you do that?”
He turned it back on. I let the psychologist know he likes to use the fan to dampen outside sounds like dogs barking. Later, he lingered in the laundry room as I talked to her; conversations outside his preferred topics are often confusing and uncomfortable to him. Eventually, he went to the basement, his voice loudly trailing upwards as he talked happily to himself about his favorite scenes from children’s TV shows.
In anticipation of the courthouse visit, our son shared his excitement with a teacher, now visiting him each week at home during the summer.
“I might get to see bad guys in handcuffs!”
His teacher replies, “Well, actually not all of them are bad guys.”
Our son’s eyebrows rise up. We have talked about concepts of good and bad, and the possibilities of good guys making bad mistakes; however, the nuanced shades of gray are sometimes harder for him to contemplate.
His teacher continues. “My dad’s a defense attorney. Do you know what that is?”
A simple explanation ensues, allowing our son to try and understand a view not so black and white. After hearing a story of being accused of stealing when you did not do it, our son says, “Oh, that would be bad!”
On the morning of our court day, I chat online with our daughter who is doing human rights work in Africa during her college summer break.
“He sees this day as an adventure. My feelings are right there at the surface, though.”
She pens a comforting reply. We leave our younger son, a rising junior spending his summer going to SAT prep classes, happily sleeping at home.
When we are nearing the courthouse, our oldest son stares out the car window at the tall buildings. After we park, we walk down bustling city sidewalks. He eyes a group of men queuing at a church.
“Oh my gosh, what a big line! What are they waiting for?”
I reply, “Well, they are homeless. They are lining up to get food.”
“Oh, that’s terrible! I feel so bad for them!”
We see a few other men sleeping on concrete church steps. Later at home we talk about volunteering there; he and his younger brother consider that would be nice to do together.
We reach the courthouse and cross the threshold.
As we walk through metal detectors, our son enthusiastically says, “It’s just like the airport!"
Our son wishes to explore his surroundings, so we ride up and down elevators and traverse myriad hallways. He stops by each new window to take in a different angled perspective, fascinated by the view of the world before him. Eventually, we come across a hall full of people and learn they are waiting to enter a courtroom to hear the story of how one young man shot another young man.
“How awful!” our son says. He moves along.
We then find a quiet, isolated area where we wait for our hearing. At one point, my husband is bear hugging our son and lightly tickling him. Long desolate rows of benches carry the sound of our son’s laughter and echoing, playful voice as he affectionately calls out, “Dad!”
The time arrives.
We sit on the back row of the courtroom on the end. Our son crosses his legs and turns his body askew, like enclosing himself in an invisible protective barrier between him and the crowd that has filled the rows.
Due to his anxiety over various noises, we weren’t sure how this day would play out. Sitting in crowds is something he shunned years ago when attendance at movie theatres and churches ceased. The words, “It’s too loud!” and our son panicking and fleeing public places became a recurring scene.
Yet, on this day, he sits calmly amongst the crowd, intrigued by the novelty before him. He carries a headset to drown out noises, but he never uses it. His overall demeanor conveys happiness and curiosity. Sitting on a courtroom bench next to our lovely son, I swell in pride.
None of us know exactly how the process will unfold. After a lot of ups and downs, we have gotten quite adept as a family navigating uncertainty with greater repose. Our son understands the judge to be a boss.
Trustingly, he says, “The judge will tell us what to do.”
In a pleasant surprise, the judge calls us first, and then dismisses all the spectators from the room. We carried the expectation that strangers would witness this seminal moment, just as many other intimacies had been up for display along the way. This moment of unexpected privacy and sensitivity is a welcome balm. The patter of footsteps and movement recedes off in the distance, and a moment of silence and stillness arrives.
Our son sits at his own table with his court appointed attorney. My husband and I sit to the other side of the room at our table. The judge asks one of us to step forward to be sworn in and answer questions. My eyes fill with tears. I gesture for my husband to approach the bench as he asks, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, you go. I’m sure.”
A bailiff swears my husband in. He answers questions about our son, but much is gathered from the reports, minimizing direct talking about sensitive topics. At one point, our son hears my husband state the suburb where we live.
Our son cheerfully calls out, “My house is 24 miles from here.”
There is a lifting of the heart in his spontaneity; all of us burst into smiles. Later, when I ask our son what he was thinking during this time, he says, “Oh, I was mostly daydreaming, Mom.”
My eyes gaze between my husband on the stand, and our son sitting at the other table with his attorney. As my husband is giving testimony, he is often looking my way, even winking and smiling at one point. When our son’s eyes meet mine, he gives me a big smile, too. Despite the space between us, I feel as if the three of us could not be more closely connected.
My mind suddenly fills with exclamations of joy I wish to spontaneously voice. “Do you all know how much our son has overcome to sit so calmly and happily in this room with us? Well, let me tell you all the ways he has surprised us and triumphed over numerous obstacles! Let me tell you all the ways I still imagine his life will positively unfold!” However, this is not a day for singing the song of our son as we have tried our best to do for 18 years. This is a day for present day realities to be simply and truthfully stated.
I once viewed this day as like walking through a door to a dreary room in which the only sound would be that of the door slam of separation from the rest of the world. In fact, for six months since my son’s 18th birthday, I simply could not move forward at all in making legal decisions. For doesn’t such a day signify an end to dreams? A day where potential and possibility are limited to depressing words on a legal document? A moment in time when songs of hope and praise are silenced?
My anticipatory thoughts about this day, although quite natural, had skewed the scales, though. In my analysis of this unfolding narrative, I overemphasized clinical and legal formalities, while underemphasizing love and relationship. Dreams are adjusted for all, no matter the details of individual journeys. Our son, like every 18-year-old, stands at the cusp of adulthood and stares out at the great unknown in search of happiness.
The judge concludes with terminology like “there is sufficient evidence.” I am called forward. Standing next to my husband, we raise our right hands in a final show of legal solidarity. The law, of course, cannot capture the song of the heart.
Later, when we get back home, his younger brother asks him, “So, how did it go today?”
He breaks into a big grin. “Oh, it was such a great day!” And through his eyes, I see.