One snowy Saturday my fourteen-year-old son Joel and I bundled up to visit Janet, a friend just home from the hospital. Eight short weeks before, Janet had a stare-down with death and won.
Joel didn’t really know Janet. She was an old friend of mine who lived out of town during much of his childhood. When she moved back to Cincinnati, we only saw each other once or twice a year. And yet, “Let’s pray for Janet,” Joel insisted daily as she struggled for life.
Oh, did I forget to mention? Joel has autism. He cannot read or write or tie his shoes; struggles with anxiety; becomes aggressive when overwhelmed and frustrated; and is physically challenged by severe kyphosis of the spine. As much as we love him—to the moon and back—life with Joel has not been easy.
Before stopping at Janet’s with beef stew and biscuits, Joel and I ran into Adrian’s florist shop. Bundled up against the single digit wind-chill in a bright yellow parka, Joel stood in the doorway of the humid shop, peering out at the snow. A woman entered, the bell over the door jangling. She stopped just inside the door to stamp snow off her furry, Eskimo-style boots. My son watched with interest.
“You got a cat?” Joel asked loudly.
The woman walked past him, not realizing the question was for her.
“You got a dog?” Joel shouted. Several people in the shop turned to look at us.
Finally, Joel had her attention.
“Yes I do!” she answered. “As a matter of fact, I have three dogs!”
“I like your boots!” Joel stepped closer to the woman.
Many people, when approached by Joel (who is rather large, and has no concept of personal space), become uncomfortable. They will turn away, mumbling a quick answer under their breath. Some ignore him totally. A few, like this woman, are pleasantly surprised to be engaged in conversation by a big lug of a teenager who just wants to be friendly. She proceeded to tell Joel all about her dogs. He interrupted her.
“You got a turtle? You got a snake? You got a lizard?”
Not long ago, as we went through this same scenario with a clerk at Macy’s, I found myself apologizing to her for Joel’s persistent questioning.
“Why, I haven’t thought about that dog in years! And those cats…my, my my! Honey, don’t you dare apologize. That boy’s been a blessing to me today. He surely has!”
On the hardest days of living with autism – days filled with tantrums, anxiety high enough to melt your socks off, and phrases repeated hundreds of times in a twenty minute time span – I reflect on Joel’s concern for Janet; on his sprinkled blessings as he interacts with people in our community; on the unconditional love with which he showers me, his dad, and his brothers, even on days when we’re not all that lovable.
Suddenly, the burden lifts and my heart sings.
(Joel turns 33 this week, and I have been reading through my writings about our life together. This piece, which appeared in The CIncinnati Enquirer, is one of my very favorite memories of life with my son. Happy birthday, Joel! You are salt and light to all who know you. Keep on sprinkling those blessings as you continue to become more and more the man God created you to be)
Kathleen Deyer Bolduc is the author of The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities and Autism & Alleluias