A few years ago, a Washington mother and her son set out to navigate the region’s Metro system, to learn and memorize its colors, stations and connections.
That mission was about more than curiosity. It now serves as the backbone of a coming book that tracks the parenting travails of the mother and her “differently-abled” son as they try to navigate not just the Metro but also the frustrating years after a child ages out of special-needs support typically provided in schools.
Learning the Metro, for the son David, was intended to be the first step toward learning to live an independent life. It was also a mission for a mother who, like so many mothers of autistic children (see the earlier post today about this subject), had spent years overseeing his care and was now learning to let go.
Glen Finland, the mother, wrote of the journey in the Washington Post Magazine in 2009.
She went on to develop the piece into the full-length book “Next Stop”. It will be released by Amy Einhorn Books on March 29. Next week, I’ll post a Q&A with Glen about the book and her family’s experiences. Let me know if you have questions for her.
First, here’s an excerpt from “Next Stop”:
The next morning found us back on the train, studying the maps of the city. Maps are everywhere you look inside the Metro, and David loves maps. Especially ones that tell him: You Are Here.
It’s actually quite hard to get lost on the Metro, but somehow I had done it again. I didn’t realize it until we climbed out of the underground to surface in the morning bustle and stir of Judiciary Square.
“I thought you’d like to see what’s above ground here, David.” As I spoke, he stared at my mouth, not my eyes, most likely missing the facial cues that might alert him to the snow job I was giving him. But with David, nothing is ever exactly what it seems.
“You got us lost again, didn’t you, Mom.”
We turned around and headed back down into the station. At the fare gate, David inserted his Metro card and passed easily through the turnstile. I stuck my card in, too, but it spit right out with a little digital alert that said Add fare.
David and I were now separated by the turnstile in the pushiness of rush hour.
“Dave, stay right where you are,” I said. “I’ve got to put more money on my farecard. Back in a sec.”
The line at the farecard machine stood six deep. I fumbled around in my bag for my wallet. A dollar bill and four quarters. Yeah, that should do it. I looked back over my shoulder to gesture to David to be patient — and he was gone. Vanished. I raced over to the turnstile and pushed against it, straining to pick him out of the crowd.
The stationmaster appeared at my side. “Ma’am, you can’t get in without a farecard.”
“But my kid’s gone ahead of me. You gotta let me in.”
“How old is he?” asked the guard, a middle-aged black guy with bushy gray eyebrows.
“Twenty-one, but . . .”
His concern transformed into a scoff. “Ma’am,” he said, hiking up his pants, “you can’t get in without a farecard.”
“My boy doesn’t know where he’s going. I’ve got to get to him.”
The stationmaster shook his head. “Sir. My son is autistic.” The man looked at me with a blank expression. “He’s, he’s …” Ah, damn. How do you explain the cognitive buckshot of autism in the time it takes a child to disappear? With each second stealing David further away, I had no choice. I resorted to the shortcut word that everybody knows. It was the wrong word, a throwaway word, but it meant something and was the only word that could get me what I needed right now. And that was David. With my conscience shrieking, Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! I looked into the stationmaster’s eyes and said, “My son is retarded. You have to let me go find him.”
“Tell me his name,” said the guard. “I’ll make an announcement over the PA system.”
“See, that’s just it. He’d never pay attention to a stranger’s voice — only my voice. Please …”
The guard took my elbow and led me to his kiosk. He reached through a window, pressed a button, and withdrew a microphone. “Make it short,” he said, holding the mic up to my face. “Tell him to return to the fare gate.”
I leaned toward the mic and an enormous voice I didn’t recognize jumped out of my throat. “David, it’s Mom,” I said. “Come back to the fare gate.”
The words quivered and, still holding the mic to my mouth, the stationmaster said, “One more time.”
“Come back, David. Come back to where you started.”
This time the words flew over the crowded train platforms and ricocheted off the steel rails. Disregarded by most commuters, they were plain enough to grab one young man’s attention, wherever he’d gotten to.
And then he was there. Undamaged and unconcerned. “Hey, Mom” was all he had to say. There was nothing for me to do but to shake it off and get back on the train.
The stationmaster approached us and handed me something: a pocket map of the Metro system. “Just in case your mother gets lost again,” he said to David. Then he keyed open the fare gate and, with the gentlest shoulder pat, eased me through.”