Monday, March 25, 2013

A mile in my shoes

When I close my eyes to go to sleep, all I can see is my baby, trapped in freezing cold mud up to his chest, scared, and crying. And I wonder what he was thinking.

He’s fine now. Back to normal a day later, definitely a little more clingy and snuggly than usual. But he can’t tell me what he is thinking or feeling, because he is autistic and mostly non-verbal. I can’t know what scars are in his head or his heart, but I can imagine, and it leaves me feeling like the wind has been knocked out of me.

Kaden is 9 years old. He’s a determined little dude, and he always has been. When he wants to do something, he will figure out a way to do it. And on Saturday, I guess he wanted to take a trip into the wetlands behind our house.

I had just arrived in New York City by train to spend the night with some college girlfriends when I got the call from my kids’ babysitter. Kaden was missing. They’d been playing in our fenced-in backyard, and our sitter had run inside to check on my older son and use the restroom. She was inside for about 2 minutes. When she returned, Kaden was gone.

Kaden plays in the backyard by himself all the time. It is completely fenced in, with three different exit gates that are usually kept locked. Every now and again, he has managed to escape out of one of the front gates, but he’s never gone far and we’ve found him quickly. He usually just wants to play in the front yard. Sometimes he will even come back into the house through another door.

I will also mention here that he has escaped out the front door and the garage before, usually when we are in the bathroom. He is quick and he is sneaky when he wants to do something that he knows he shouldn’t do. And as I said before, he is determined. But he has never tried to escape out the back gate towards the woods or into the wetlands.

We trust our sitter implicitly. She is a young adult woman who has worked with us for years and accompanied us on vacations. She loves our boys fiercely and is very protective of them. She is attentive, caring, and understands the challenges of caring for an autistic child. My boys love her, and she is amazingly patient and calm.

So when she called me in New York, I didn’t panic at first. I told her to check the house carefully, including closets, as well as the immediate surrounding areas in our neighborhood. I reassured her that he never goes far.

At first, I didn’t think about the back gate. I forgot the landscapers had cleared the area behind the fence earlier in the week. I forgot that I had never checked to see if that gate was locked after the landscapers left. Kaden has never shown any interest in going into those woods behind our house.

When she didn’t find him immediately, panic started to set in. I instructed her to call 911. I felt helpless, sitting 2 hours away, unable to search, unable to do anything but pray and cry and wait with one of my girlfriends, who did her best to keep me calm.

My husband Chris headed home from work to join the police in their search. He is the one who heard Kaden’s yells first, who found his shoes in the mud, who alerted the officers to my baby’s location. He was in touch with me constantly, keeping me posted on what was happening with the rescue. He was the one who sent me the photo of Kaden sitting in the bathtub, covered in mud. He was the one who tried to keep me as calm as possible, not telling me just how scary it was, not sharing the details of the real peril of the situation. Not telling me at first that Kaden was naked when they found him, despite being fully clothed and in a coat when he was in the back yard.

Chris told me to stay put in New York. He told me there was nothing I could do, that Kaden was fine. They took him by ambulance to the ER, where he was treated for mild hypothermia. His temperature rose quickly and he was released without much medical intervention. Chris kept me updated with frequent calls, texts, and photos, telling me each time to stay where I was. So I did, though with some hesitation.

I kick myself now for not coming home right away. Not that I could have done anything, or that my return would have changed the outcome in any way. But it would have made me feel better, maybe? Would I feel less overcome with guilt and worry and sadness today if I’d immediately hopped on the next train home? I can’t say now.

But this is a feel-good story with a happy ending, so the media is all over it. We had news vans camped out in front of our house all day yesterday. We chose not to speak to reporters immediately, but to first talk to the police and discuss with them how to best publicly express our extreme gratitude for their quick response and heroic efforts.

But in this high tech age, news gets out quickly and everyone has an opinion. In the past 24 hours I’ve read comments from strangers who have called for us to be investigated for negligence and called us “dumbass parents”. One of our neighbors released our child’s name to the press without our permission.

I would ask that anyone who would like to criticize first take a few moments to understand what it is like to parent or care for an autistic child, a child who cannot express his needs, wants, or emotions the way a typical 9 year old can. I would ask that you spend the day with my son, who looks like a typical 9-year old, but functions more like a preschooler and requires near-constant vigilance. I ask that you understand that my son has managed to get past almost every safety measure we’ve employed, and often waits until we are in the bathroom to attempt to escape. I ask you to consider that we are all human, and every one of us makes mistakes, despite our best efforts to be good parents.

If you would first walk a mile in my shoes, you may then criticize all you want. I may not hear you. I’m going to be thanking God, my son’s guardian angels, my husband, and the police and emergency responders for bringing my son home safely to us.