By then it was winter, the streets lined with plowed mounds of snow. While Michael was at work, I often drove around with my children with no destination in mind: the baby asleep, Ezra observing the falling flakes from his car seat, and me stricken with anxieties he couldn’t even begin to understand.
Michael was drifting, too. Evenings we stared at one another, wordless, like our son so often was. What were we doing here?
An Oregon friend e-mailed in late winter to tell me about a new school in North Portland meant specifically for autistic children, where students were free to learn in their own way. On the School of Autism’s website I found photos of children playing in a tub of beans, finger painting, dancing. I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to have too many expectations—we were so used to disappointment. We had reached as far as Massachusetts to try to feel normal, but was it possible that Ezra’s best home was in Portland after all?
When summer came, we loaded up and drove back West. In the final few hours of the trip, we stopped at a campground in the Columbia River Gorge. Ezra and Griffin, by now eighteen months old, crouched together to investigate the purple petals of a nightshade flower. “See dat? See dat, Ezra? Flower!” said Griffin. But Ezra, a month shy of four, just observed silently.
The campground was quiet except for the distant whir of traffic on I-84. I closed my eyes and inhaled the familiar scent of wet Douglas fir. A decade earlier, I had finished my MFA at the University of Oregon and camped solo in these woods, determined in that angst-ridden, twentysomething way to discover who I was. Funny, I now thought, that anything before motherhood had ever seemed difficult.
I had spent the last few years worried that my family wasn’t normal, but now, watching my boys marvel at a simple Oregon wildflower, I realized that whatever had happened thus far—and whatever lay ahead—was my family’s version of normal.
Later in the summer, Ezra started at the new school. On his first day, he moved hesitantly through the room; he expected to be reprimanded, but he never was. One day, I went to pick him up and found him laughing with another boy. They were yelling out to each other the words on a computer screen and then collapsing in giggles on the floor. No school is perfect, of course, but this one turned out to be a place where Ezra could, as promised, learn in his own way.
As he moved through his year in yet another new place, I learned to love walking hand in hand with him through the city, taking him into cafés. And as I let go of who I thought we were supposed to be, Ezra and me, that fantasy child who once haunted me began to fade away.