Leaving Washington DC

“Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”

John F. Kennedy

After nearly 30 years as a Washingtonian I left DC in October 2018 with very mixed feelings about the nations capital. More than 3 years on – and from a distance of some 6000 miles – I am writing this to acknowledge and accept the bad things that happened and in doing so to try to reclaim happier memories of our past life in Washington DC.

Although neither my husband nor I had joined the US Foreign Service to sit behind a desk in the uninspiring gray structure known as Main-State, after our son’s ASD (Autism) diagnosis we stayed state-side and settled into life in DC. We were fortunate to find a semi-attached townhouse in a leafy neighborhood, a child-friendly corner of Cleveland Park with our nursery school/synagogue, library, community pool, shops and restaurants all within a radius of a few blocks. I cherish memories of family and friends in the house and garden and the scent of flowers that greeted passersby and guests alike as they approached the house.

Front garden path, our old house on 30th Street NW

Washingtonians are very busy working at their very important jobs and living their very important lives. As long as my husband and I fit that mold – relatively speaking – life in DC was ok.

Within 2 years I had left State Department for a prominent trade association in search of both more resources and flexibility. We laughed when others called us a ‘power couple.’ Still it was disconcerting when some of these same friends disappeared after I subsequently left organized employment to better meet the needs of both of our kids. Washington DC can be a cold and indifferent place and we felt the chill when I no longer had what others considered to be an important job.

That was a sign of things to come.

In 2011 my husband had to take a mandatory Tour of Duty in Kabul, Afghanistan, and so for 360 days I was a single mother of two teens – one with ASD but both with special needs during this challenging time for our family. Our immediate neighbors were wonderful, and a handful of longtime friends reached out. However the silence from our wider circle was deafening.

In the rarified atmosphere of Cleveland Park, DC, serving in Kabul, Afghanistan was something that happened to other people. We had been very active members at our neighborhood synagogue, and it was hurtful to be left alone on countless Friday nights (Erev Shabbat) when my kids most missed their Dad. This seismic event in our lives had made us invisible in our own community.

Literally the one time that someone from our shul called me it was to ask for money, specifically a $500.00 contribution for an event intended to make the Minyan warmer and more inclusive. And the person who made the call had not even thought to invite me in for a cup of coffee the entire year my husband was in Kabul. There was an irony there that I failed to see at the time. (No dear reader, I did not write the check.)

Over time we found our long-time shul generally unwelcoming as our son grew older and sought continued opportunities for participation commensurate with his abilities. We ended up leaving our long-time synagogue and found more accepting communities farther afield. But the worst was yet to come.

To celebrate our son’s graduation from high school on the honor roll, we had a lovely Oneg Shabbat (Open House) where he led the Friday night prayer service followed by a buffet dinner. The number of people who wanted to celebrate Aaron’s achievement – and who insisted on contributing home-made salads, main courses and desserts – made the event that much more special. The house and garden were full of love and laughter.

Then reality set in. Our planning for his so-called transitional years proved grossly inadequate, as it became apparent that there was nothing to take the place of the supports we had relied on during his high school years. This is a national tragedy for tens of thousands of young men and women annually who graduate or age out of educational programs with no bridge to adult life.

If you have been following my blog you may recall that my family, like so many others with special needs children, struggled mightily to find meaningful opportunities for Aaron in young adulthood. Over time the walls began to close in. Of course as Aaron’s world narrowed, so did mine. And when he became essentially home bound, so did I.

A few wonderful, kind friends and neighbors stuck with us, continued to invite us out to places and events with Aaron in mind, or just dropped by to keep us company – many days that was the most that we could manage. We also found an amazing rabbi who really ‘got’ Aaron and so we had a reason to get up in the morning to help make the minyan at the 6:30 am prayer service.

In this manner we cobbled together a schedule for Aaron that brought a minimum of spiritual engagement, physical exercise and social activity with Aaron’s friends – many of whom were in similarly leaky boats – but it was far from where we needed to be, with no hope in sight. Even the direct support of the Washington DC bureaucracy – we were blessed with exceptionally positive relationships with both our DC Social Worker and her supervisor – could not change the reality that there was no future for Aaron in DC.

And there were other traumatic family events of the period that I won’t revisit here. My point is, if you felt claustrophobic during COVID-19 lock-downs imagine how it would feel if that was all you had, all the time, with nothing to look forward to, adding in the necessity of drugging your son to help him get through the reality of his daily life and his very real feelings of being in his words ‘left behind.’ This was my reality, and of course Aaron’s most of all.

Watching the returns of the 2016 election I suspected it would not get better. So that night as Hilary Clinton lost the presidential race I opened our Israel immigration file and began a lengthy and complex process to leave DC culminating in our departure on October 10, 2018.

Our decision has given Aaron the opportunity for a fuller, more meaningful life and this in turn has released me and my husband (in early retirement) from our Sisyphean existence in DC.

I am hoping that with enough time our good experiences here in Israel may balance out the pain of our last years in DC, and that some day I will be able to contemplate going back for a visit.

I am not there yet.

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