Just Visiting

Alex came home for Thanksgiving from his new residential school. On that Tuesday I sat in the parking lot where I was to meet his van and wondered what he’d be like coming home for the first time since going to the school. Would he vault with joy at seeing me? Shake his head and say No! No! over the long weekend as time loomed to leave home again and head back to school?

He sure didn’t vault out of the van and bound into my arms that gray morning. He loped out with a beard on his chin and an iPad in his hand. Alex has a beard! He looks like a cross between Bob Denver in “Dobie Gillis” and Mr. Spock on the evil Enterprise. The beard probably weighs more than he did at birth.

“Welcome home, Alex! Welcome home!”

“Elevator,” he said. “iPad. Pret-zuls!” As I pulled into traffic with Alex a suddenly strange weight in the back seat, I wondered how we’d preserve the progress his feeding therapist had made away from junk food. But the five days passed well. When he first got home he did try to bury his emptied suitcase in the back of Jill’s closet.

Did he understand how long he was, and wasn’t, home for? He seemed to.

“Back to school in three days, Alex, back to camp. I mean school camp.”

Back to school in two days, Alex. Back to school tomorrow. “Tomorrow Davy,” he replies. Who’s Davy?

On our last morning, I took him out to buy a plastic animal (sort of becoming a ritual) and as we walked down the street when he did a double take at Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalk. “Christmas,” Alex said. “Christmas tree! Back to school.”

He went back. Our house got quiet again, half an empty nest. Over the following two weeks, before our first bona fide visit to his school, we called on a few evenings. They told us that Alex asked for us. Hope it wasn’t his way of saying, “When the hell are they coming to see me!?”

Tonight Jill dials; I’ll speak to him afterward. “Hello, Alex,” I hear her say. “Are you enjoying school? What are you having for dinner? Are you enjoying school?” When I get on the phone he says nothing; I ask the same questions about dinner and enjoyment, tell him we’re going to see him soon.

Then his residence manager gets on and tells me that Alex was about to hang up.

“You know Alex,” Jill says. “Not much for talking on the phone.”

Visits will be the last hurdle in this experiment, when we come to see Alex at his school but he doesn’t come home with us. We’ll start out in the morning without him and return home in the evening without him. We will pop in on someone who has no real idea that we’re coming. Will he plead or throw a fit? He hasn’t once in this whole process, but will he now?

When we arrive he’s at the kitchen table of his residence house, spooning applesauce, with a sandwich in front of him. A sandwich! A few years back, when we tried a sandwich he handed it right back to us and shook his head.

Alex looks up from over his plate and drinks us in, seems to slowly realize that his day is about to take a new direction. “We’re here to visit, Alex. We’ve come to visit you.” I put my arms around him and he presses quickly against my shoulder. He doesn’t seem to want to hug me as much as when he was younger. Is he pissed? Is he just typically 16? A little of both?

Alex hasn’t attended this school long; though the nearby countryside looks beautiful, tons of nature in prime ski country, but it’s just beasty cold today. Joined by Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob, Jill, Ned, Alex and I hit a nearby diner for lunch.

“Elevator?” Alex asks at the table.

“No, Alex. This is just a school visit.”

“A school visit,” he says. “School visit. Grandpa?”

“No. Aunt Julie and Uncle Rob came this time. Grandpa will come soon.”

“Grandpa wilca soon. Chicken? Chicken and French fries?” Chicken fingers aren’t on his diet; the school works hard to tie nutrition to health and social development. Alex doesn’t need long to realize that his feeding therapist isn’t in this diner. Jill pulls out a day planner and soon over the fries is showing Alex the coming month.

“We’ll be back to see you in two weeks,” I hear her say.

We eat. Alex sits pretty well – at Christmas he even ate pizza by the slice and pasta off a fork, so we sure don’t want to get too far from a feeding therapist. He gets up to bob and weave a little when the check comes. On the way out, Aunt Julie hands me the local parenting giveaway from the pile by the payphone and says, “Maybe this’ll show us something to do around here besides Walmart.”

Diner and shopping seem light enough fare on this first outing, like melon and seltzer on a hot day. We head to Walmart. In the store I watch Alex and Ned disappear with a cart: Ned pushes, Alex weaves alongside, two young men off to ravage retail. My boys used to bolt for the toy department – which Alex still does before we leave; I shell out $10 for a WWF plastic figure that he swiftly names “grandpa.” I find the cart later, seemingly abandoned in not in toys but in men’s wear and brimming with T shirts, pants and three boxes of shoes. Ned picked out a lot of this stuff for himself and for Alex. Some cool looks, too.

Alex I find nearby, collapsed in a beanbag chair in the center of an aisle. “I found the chair,” Ned says. “He liked it when he sat in it and I pushed him around.”

We bring Alex back to school; it reaches that time of day when I begin to calculate how much evening the two-hour drive home will leave. A residents’ and counsellors’ meeting is beginning in Alex’s house. Alex has been delighted to see us but doesn’t seem like the kid of six months ago. “See ya later,” he says, all of 16 and waving to us before turning to his residence manager, putting his face right up the man and saying, “Christmas tree!”

Jeff Stimpson

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