We didn’t know what to think of him. Who was this young man, and why was he hanging around our campsite?
For the last 7 years, my family has joined a close-knit group of families to camp on Memorial Day weekend. We have become more than close during those years, watching our kids grow from preschool age to adolescents. We have shared laughter, tears, trials and triumphs. These three-day excursion has made us more family than friends. We are a tight circle indeed.
This weekend, we had 5 campsites lined up along one side of a beautiful lake in South Carolina, set well apart from the other campsites. This was exactly how we wanted our space at the campground to be … set apart. After all, this was our time to share with special friends, reminiscing about the years past and sharing the events of our lives. We had booked these sites — the very best at the campground — months in advance. It was our time to relax and be together.
That’s why we didn’t know how to react when a 16-year-old teenage boy decided to make our campsite his own.
All five families returned to our campsite from a morning excursion on Saturday morning, laughing and ravenous for lunch and found him there, sitting at our picnic table reading a book. You might think that he would introduce himself as we regarding him with caution, this strange young man sitting at our campsite, for how long we didn’t know, surrounded by our personal belongings. How long he had been there alone?
When we greeted him uncomfortably, he said his name was Connor. We were sure that he would head off to his own campsite now that we were back … but he didn’t. Instead, as we lined up with our plastic plates for steaming hamburgers, he jumped in line with us, fully unaware that an invitation was usually required when sharing a meal with a group of strangers.
Surely he would go back to his own campsite, we thought, after lunch was over, but instead he stayed on with us. It was awkward to say the least. We whispered, who is this young man, and why is he still here? We had such a safe, tight group and we didn’t really want to share it with this boy who didn’t seem to understand social protocols.
In the evening, during our kayak races, he jumped excitedly, maybe too excitedly, and cheered for our kids as if he had known them for years. To be honest, we weren’t happy about it. After all, we had our children there and we didn’t know this older boy. Why did he want to hang around our younger children? It was odd, and we felt very uncomfortable with the situation.
Even later, as the day gave way to darkness and we sat around the campfire, he pulled up a chair into our circle, roasting our marshmallows and laughing with the group. There was something about him that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He laughed at odd moments and didn’t pick up our not-so-subtle hints that he should be heading back to his own camp after being with us for nine hours. One of my neighbors finally walked him back to his parents to let them know we were turning in for the night.
I felt uneasy as the fire died down and we gathered ourselves into our cabins. On some deep level, I felt like I had failed an important test. I didn’t reach out enough to Connor. I was confused and cautious by his presence in our group. We all were. But the boy had done nothing wrong, he just didn’t understand the social protocols. He was, well, different.
As I wiped the dust from my feet before closing my cabin door, my family safe and secure inside, it hit me, the “aha!” moment:
Connor was on the autism spectrum and I missed it! He didn’t understand many of the social cues that my son, Alec, also missed. Although we allowed this boy to hang out with our group, I would have been so much more welcoming to Connor if I had not been so protective of my own “stuff”: my things, my family … and my sense of security.
I know in my heart that I held back protectively from fully welcoming Connor. I didn’t take the risk to get to know him. I didn’t ask him questions about himself. I didn’t try to find out about his family. I was afraid to risk what I had with someone who was crossing into my territory uninvited. What if he was dangerous, this young man? He certainly didn’t act like the teenagers I knew.
I knew it. I didn’t risk love.
We have things that we hold so dear — our families, our sanctuaries and those that we love — and we don’t want anything to shake those things.
But the truth is that love always involves a risk. I know this, and yet I held back.
My husband Matt and I talked about it on the way back home tonight. Looking back, I think that Connor was drawn to the laughter of good friends. He simply wanted to be a part of it.
Had I picked up on the signs earlier would I have done more? Would I have risked more in getting to know him? I’m not sure I passed this weekend’s test, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll get another chance someday.
This morning, as we packed our things to head back home, Connor came over to our campsite once again to say goodbye … and then he was gone.
As so many children with autism approach adulthood, we will meet more men like Connor who are, well, different. They may not act the way we think they should act, or do the things we expect them to do, but they have so much to offer us.
The question is, will we risk knowing them? Will we risk love?
Lord, open my eyes to see with Your eyes. Help me not to be so self-absorbed in my own life that I miss those that You have placed on my path to share Your great love with. You have loved me well, Lord. Help me, Sweet Jesus, risk loving them as You have loved me.
“For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you brought Me together with yourselves and welcomed and entertained and lodged Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me with help and ministering care, I was in prison and you came to see Me.”
“Truly I tell you, in so far as you did it for one of the least [in the estimation of men] of these My brethren, you did it for Me.”
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