It's Monday, late October, and my husband and I are driving around Mesa, Arizona, tracing the route our son Tony took the day before, during the eleven hours he went missing. From the back seat Tony directs us now along his nearly 30-mile course.
"Here! Here! I turned down this street!" he shouts at one unremarkable corner.
"How can you remember that?" I ask him. It is, after all, largely unfamiliar territory with nothing to distinguish it from a dozen other corners in the area.
"Because there's a purple fence down this way." His logic escapes me but, sure enough, three blocks further on we pass a startlingly purple fence.
Along the way, Tony's reference points are not the ones we would notice. Not the community college or the shopping mall. Not the street signs either, that he might have followed home if he had been able to make sense of them. Instead he steers us over his entire circuitous path by picking out the colors of the brushes in every car wash he passed, the sites of broken branches from yesterday's storms, the alleys where he cleared away unsightly trash and gathered empty cans to resell for pocket money. Tony's passions include cleaning up messes of every sort. Once, when a new acquaintance asked him what he did for a living he replied, "I'm an environmentalist."
Tony, who is 31 years old, doesn't occupy time and space in the same way we do. In his world, there is only now, which is both a place and a state of being. What he was thinking in yesterday's now we will never understand. But I want to think he was aware of being lost while he wandered all over Mesa. I hope he missed us, was looking for us. "Why did you turn down this street?" I ask about one unlikely residential neighborhood.
"Because I thought it might be where you lived," he says, and I let out a long sigh of something close to relief. At some point, at least, he was searching for us. Still, it's a strange construction: "where you lived." The phrase is unsettlingly disengaged since he has always lived with us too.
Though we spent the entire day searching for Tony, it was the police who finally found him, thanks to citizens responding to the public service announcements they sent out to the local news media. "Tony has autism and can answer basic questions but is confused easily. He will run if scared and does not like to be touched," it read. We don't usually speak or think in terms of labels like "autism," but in an emergency it's handy shorthand for lending immediacy to the message. The physical description made it easy to spot him: "He was last seen wearing a red sweatshirt with the words 'Got Poop?' printed on the front, as well as blue jeans and tennis shoes." The sweatshirt was a gift to Tony from a local pet clean-up company, in keeping with his interests in improving the environment. He was proud of it; who were we to feel humiliated? In the end it probably saved his life: How hard is it to miss a sweatshirt like that?
Finally, following Tony's directions, we reach the end of his convoluted tramp, the spot where the police found him and we came to retrieve him, wrap him in our arms, bring him home again. After all his miles of wandering he was found just blocks from where he left us, only a couple of miles from home. When we arrived he had been standing on the sidewalk beside the police car, grasping the handle of a grocery cart he'd found early in his journey. In it were the salvageables he'd picked up in the alleys: empty cans, a gallon milk carton half-full of water, a length of worn garden hose. He'd smiled shyly when he saw us. "Hi, parents!" he said, then clung hard to me when I embraced his exhausted, trembling body. Climbing into the car with difficulty he told us, "I bet my legs probably hate me." With the blessing of the police officers, we left the grocery cart and all its goodies right there on the street corner and headed home to the warm familiarity of showers and comfort food.
As with any trauma, we have all been changed. It was a revelation to hear Tony described in the newspapers and on-line as "a man." To me he is still our child. But of course he is a man, with the need for autonomy that every man has. How can I give him more of that? What decisions can we safely let him make? How to increase his maturity, even while respecting his limitations? I'd gotten into a rut of thinking, This is it—this is what he'll be like forever. But no one's life is static, not even Tony's. Especially not Tony's. We go on together, trying to make sense of each other, allowing one another to change and grow. Sometimes we do better than other times.
Today as we drive by, the cart is gone. Tony notes its absence without much sign of remorse. "Where were you going when the police found you?" I ask, prompting. I'm still longing for some indication that he'd missed us and wanted us.
"Not home," he says, and my heart sinks.
"Why not?" I hope I've managed to keep the devastation out of my voice.
"My legs couldn't go that far." True enough. As it turned out, his legs hated him even worse when he woke up in the morning, and he had to use a cane to hobble around the house.
But I'm still needy. "Then where were you going to go?" It was well after dark when he was found, and the night was unseasonably cold. He'd eaten nothing since an early breakfast.
"I was going to the police station," he said.
To ask for help to get home to us at last? I can't keep myself from trying once more: "What were you going to do there?"
Indeed. But he's so shy, so unwilling to approach or speak to anyone he doesn't know well. "What would you say to them when you got there?" That you were lost and missing your parents? That you wanted to go home to your family?
He regards me curiously, as though surprised that I could ask something so obvious. "That I found a stolen grocery cart," he says.