By Scott LeRette
Author, The Unbreakable Boy: A Father’s Fear, A Son’s Courage, and A Story of Unconditional Love
This last August my son, Richard Austin, went to college. We’d always thought the empty nest would be so easy and so welcome—for Teresa, Logan, and me.
Living with Austin is more challenging than I can possibly explain here. For almost twenty years, every day in our house meant (pick one) a broken bone, a meltdown, a surprise trip to the ER, or the occasional police car in the driveway. Life with our son’s autism, plus an incredibly rare bone disease and his defective heart, were tailor-made for stitching together the crazy-quilt family we were meant to be.
Austin is now gone to college, and it’s almost like the house itself, along with everyone inside, is learning how to take measured, calm, deep breaths as stressed out heart rates shift downward and blood pressure abates. Even Stella, our French bulldog, seemed more relaxed, (not really). And even though our younger son is still in high school, our empty nest feeling is a testament to the power of our older son. Austin is, simply, a force of nature. On a good day, living with Auz is tough; on a bad day, it’s a nightmare.
I dreaded move-in day at Iowa School For the Deaf (Austin is also jointly enrolled in the Culinary Program at Iowa Western, four miles down the road). After everything we’ve been through with this brittle-boned, mended-heart, autistic kid, how in the world was he going to be able to leave home? How would he be “on his own” and survive with so many scary new unknowns?
All afternoon we helped him unpack and organize his dorm room. We filled his bookcase with his favorite snacks. We made sure he had everything he needed. And then came time to say goodbye.
As evening fell, I could see his physical posture and his attitude deflate. When it came time for us to leave, the tears began. “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go home with you, I don’t think I can do this” he cried.
I know most parents are nervous when their firstborn takes flight and goes off to college or moves out of the house for the first time. But we were terrified. Although on paper this had looked liked a great idea, I couldn’t help but think, deep in the back of my mind—Is he really going to be able to do this?
And I didn’t like the answers my mind kept stewing on. I knew deep down that after a day, or a week, or maybe even a month, we would be getting that phone call. “Please come and get Austin. He’s coming home.”
Two days before we left him at school, however, I did something that may have changed everything. I bought Austin a smart phone, his first. On our way home from the dorm, we received his first text message. He was just checking in and making sure the phone worked. Then another to say hello. And another to say goodbye. Finally, a Face Time call. He’d stopped crying and was a little calmer than when we left.
Then, one more text.
I’m tired. I am going to bed. Night.
We awoke the next morning to Teresa’s phone chiming. It was yet another text.
I love you mom. Please tell dad I love him too and Logan and please give Stella a kiss on the lip. She will remember my kisses. Good-bye. I have to go. Please, thank you and you’re welcome.
Each text soothed us a bit as we watched Austin settle in.
My first day was awesome and I now know I can handle it here. I woke up and no one had to help me.
Things at home were uncharacteristically calm, peaceful, almost serene.
I am not afraid anymore and I will call you every night and I know this is the place I am supposed to be.
It’s three months later, and how Austin calls ISD his home. Well, he did say it once. And I’ve come to realize something—when the nest empties, parenting is far from over. In fact, when they fly the coop, it may be just the beginning.
The three of us sit at home and it’s so different without Auz flying around the house. But it’s okay, because he is chasing his dream and he is actually learning how to be a chef! I had been so worried about what could go wrong that I never realized I was missing being over-the-moon with joy for Austin’s brave new journey.
He called the other day to tell me his culinary GPA is 95.6 percent. He said he thought it was pretty good, and they told him it was the best in the program. I was speechless.
“Dad, are you crying?” he said.
“I’m not crying,” I mumbled, taking a shaky breath.
I am grateful he is gone—gone chasing his dreams.
P.S. We are saving every text.
Read an excerpt from Scott LeRette’s new book, The Unbreakable Boy, here.