It’s a solid six hour drive from our house in Huntington, WV to The Potomac Center in Romney. Mapquest claims it is only a five hour jaunt, but the computer estimation doesn’t take into account that the mountainous, snake-like roadway of Route 50 can only be traveled at thirty-five miles an hour tops, instead of the posted fifty-five.
I’ve tried to make it in five hours, but only at the expense of premature balding tires, a white knuckled wife and a back seat full of regurgitated breakfast cereal.
Still, we make the best of it for the entire family, turning the long and sometimes arduous trip into a regularly scheduled expedition. It is a journey that we have grown accustomed to.
We generally leave home early in the morning and arrive at Romney in the late afternoon. I have discovered over the past year that the more precise the schedule of events, the more stable Jake’s personality remains. Routine is his most effective medication. Perhaps this is what has made the Potomac Center so successful for my son.
His day begins at the same time each morning. A strict program is followed from breakfast to bedtime including specific occasions for hygiene, going to the bathroom, school studies, quiet time and snack time. Since he always knows what is next, he is seldom stricken by the anxiety of unfamiliar transition.
Jake’s therapeutic reaction to this controlled atmosphere is the main reason we are willing to allow him to reside six hours away from our home. For the first time in a long time he is at peace. He is happy. He is progressing instead of regressing. He is accomplishing things at The Potomac Center that we never thought he would be able to accomplish. To remove him from this structured environment would mean starting all over again with potentially devastating consequences to his way of life.
Still we know the day will come when he must move. The Potomac Center is an adolescent facility. When Jake turns 18, they will begin the process of transitioning him into an adult facility (hopefully closer to our home). In the meantime, we make the trip to Romney as often as we can.
Arriving at our destination, we park in the parking lot and do the 7th inning stretch before following the sidewalk that leads to the “A-house” residence where Jake lives. We can always see him waiting for us in the large picture window of the commons room—his face pressed up against the glass, creating a small patch of fog on the cold pane—waiting and watching for us to appear.
As we approach the building, Jake spots us on the sidewalk and begins his dance of celebration—jumping up and down while vocalizing a long, loud and monotone victorious screech. We recognize this sound as the sound of Jake’s happiness—it is inviting and invigorating, and it always makes us smile.
The entrance to the residence swings open and his charismatic presence fills the doorway. As he runs to greet us, his crooked legs swing underneath his body like two drunken men competing in a three-legged race. I am always amazed at how well and how fast they carry him, even as each step appears to be his last.
I step out in front of Kim and the other kids to absorb the initial impact of his onslaught of joy. It is a great duty and delight to both protect my family from the oncoming charge while receiving for myself the full brunt of Jake’s love and excitement. He runs into my arms and I lift him off of the ground, spinning him around while squeezing him tightly to my chest. He smells clean and familiar.
We exchange a flurry of kisses and I set him back on the ground easing him into the continuing blissful reunion with the rest of his family. The first few minute of our visit always remind me of the climax to Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, and the anticipation of heaven becomes a little sweeter with each and every trip to Romney.
The visit itself is always true to the same schedule. We pack the entire family into the Suburban and make the thirty minute drive from the Potomac Center to Moorefield, the nearest town with a McDonalds, movie theater and a Walmart—three essentials for life with Jake.
Once in Moorefield we invade the local McDonalds for Jake’s favorite 10-piece chicken nuggets and fries. It’s here where we really get to sit down with our son and spend time inspecting, examining and observing all the changes he has undergone since our last visit.
His copper colored hair is thick and one of the counselors at the Center has trimmed his long sideburns into “chops”. I run may hand over his face and feel the stubble from his spotty beard.
“You shaving now boy?” I gently tease him.
He laughs and nods his head as he contently stuffs french fries into his mouth. The strict diet at the Potomac Center has Jake lean, muscular and famished. He takes delightful advantage of the junk food opportunity before him.
After lunch, we generally head to the movie theater to catch the latest kid-flick. Movies have always been a soothing mechanism for Jake. The movie for today is “Nanny McFee Returns”. It is an entertaining story for the kids, but Kim and I both became sensitive to how Jake was processing the overall theme of the drama, specifically the ending.
In the final scene of the movie, the long lost father—missing in action from war and falsely reported as killed—returns home to the joyful surprise of his wife and children. It was a wonderful reunion and a very moving portrait with a heavenly paralell. As the credits rolled Jake began to applaud, but he cried as we left the movie theater. I often wonder what scenes are being played out in his mysterious, silent mind.
After the movie we always head to Walmart and let Jake do some shopping for some new DVD videos and Jelly Belly jelly beans. He proudly and recklessly pushes the shopping cart through the store vocalizing loud excitement as he rolls. People stop, stare and get out of his way. Jake doesn’t care; he’s on a mission and he knows exactly where to go. We all laugh with a hint of jealousy at his bold, irresponsible freedom to be content with himself.
This is Jake’s time and my other children, even my five-year-old daughter, is ever so gracious to make sure he is lavished with love, affection and attention. I’m not sure if the saying is accurate that “absence make the heart grow fonder” but I do know that absence makes the heart more sensitive to the brevity of life and the importance of time together—times like these.
After a few hours in the bliss of a completed and reunited family, we head back to the Potomac Center—back to Jake’s security and the schedule that he has grown so accustomed to. Already he is feeling the creeping distress of being out of sync as it approaches dinner time and his evening routine.
The trip back to the Center is usually very quiet as Kim is contemplating the approaching dread of leaving her son once again and I am focused on the impending comfort of my soon-to-be heartbroken wife. This is the part of Jake’s visit that reaches into our soul and wrings out the rationale that tells us we are doing the right things for the right reasons. It often feels like a hard punch to the chest.
We exit the Suburban and walk quietly as a family back down the sidewalk that leads to Jake’s dorm. The other kids make trivial, nervous conversation in an attempt to divert the impending emotions of their despondent parents. After walking into the commons area of the building we exchange hugs and kisses doing our best to hold back the contagious emotion of the moment. Then Jake points to the door and signs, “It’s time for you to go.”
This one adamant phrase from his non-verbal vocabulary lets us know that this is his place, and as much as he loves us and wants to be with us, he has a routine to get back into—a routine that makes him feel safe and normal.
We are somewhat comforted by Jakes display of independence. It helps us to believe that we have done the right thing—the best thing—for our son.
As we exit the building and walk back down the sidewalk towards the parking lot, just out of sight of the big picture window, Kim falls into my arms and weeps openly. I silently motion for the kids to continue walking and I pull her close.
My reassurance always follows the same script, “He is happy. He’s doing so well! He needs us to leave him here. The Lord will take care of him. It’s going to be alright.” But my attempts of comfort are no match for the empty arms of a grieving mother. And so I hold her, as she cries.
I suppose it could be argued (and I have been guilty myself of this thought) that a 12 hour round trip drive through winding mountain roads, followed by an additional 60 minute round trip to the nearest town just to eat chicken nuggets, watch a movie and shop for jelly beans, is hardly worth the effort of spending three hours with someone you can’t even have a conversation with and then leaving with a broken heart.
But Jake would probably disagree.
On the long drive home the daylight fades to dusk and the resilience of youth surrenders its strength as the kids fall asleep in the back seat. I take Kim’s hand and squeeze it tightly in a declaration of assurance and protection. We drive west as the sun sets in a pink sky, highlighting the painted leaves of the Appalachian canvas—a reassuring “Amen” to all our silent prayers.