As a mother of an autistic boy, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet all kinds of extraordinary people who have touched our lives. In addition to the beautiful network of supportive teachers, family, and friends, I’ve encountered many people – sometimes strangers – who share their compassion and love for my son Jack. Like shining lampposts along a back road, they often light my path in what could otherwise be a dark, lonely road with a sometimes misunderstood child. They are my earthly angels.
It’s the saleswoman who gives me a meaningful look of support when Jack is mid-tantrum over buying gum. Or my sister-in-law, Elaine, who takes my hysterical phone calls in stride and checks in each evening to hear about Jack’s day at school. It’s the man in the lobby at Bertucci’s who pauses an extra minute to thoughtfully answer Jack’s question about his Toyota Prius.
To me, angels are people who see not only what Jack has, but who he is. They take the time to glimpse the little boy hiding behind his preoccupations about cars and birthdays, radios and dogs, and can see a child struggling to socially connect despite his disability. They don’t set out to change our lives but instead make small changes to my heart with little – usually unintentional – acts of kindness. Although we’ve had many, many angels over the past seven years, three special people come to mind.
About a year ago we did a major renovation to the entire downstairs of our house. The noise, disruption, and overall chaos put Jack into a tailspin, and every day after school I had to coax him back up the driveway and into the house. Matt, our general contractor, became a permanent fixture and a familiar face amongst the endless stream of construction people in and out of the door each day. Childless himself, this tough, burly man connected well with all of our kids and worked hard to ease Jack’s transition with each new phase of the project; “Jack, tomorrow we’re going to start installing the floors. It’s gonna be loud!”
The only problem was Maggie, Matt’s beloved yellow lab. Most days Maggie traveled shotgun in Matt’s red pick-up truck and while the other kids loved it, Jack was beside himself. He’s been terrified of dogs since he was about two, and being within a mile of one can set him off. Every day I steeled myself for an outburst as he walked past the truck with a wary look on his face, as if Maggie might open the door handle herself and spring out. Every day I vowed to talk to Matt and insist he leave her home, that it was too much for Jack, that we were already asking a lot of him by gutting the one bathroom he used consistently (He peed in the woods a lot that summer).
But each day the walk past the red pickup truck got a little easier, and before I knew it he was asking to peek in the window and see the small yellow lab. Matt, a man who is given more to observation than interaction, quietly watched Jack’s progress and started taking baby steps to introduce boy and dog. Nearly every day for all of August, Matt would slowly ease Maggie out of the truck and call to Jack, asking if he wouldn’t like to feel how soft her fur was or throw her the tennis ball.
Truly, I thought he was crazy. We could hardly get Jack to watch a dog do tricks on America’s Funniest Home Videos, never mind tolerate one on his own driveway. But in time Matt’s calm manner and persistence paid off, and Jack walked over to tentatively stroke Maggie’s golden fur. It was an emotional moment for all of us, as this gentle man and his equally gentle companion were able to momentarily to permeate Jack’s deeply-rooted dog phobia.
And then there was Texas Mike, the painter who worked on our front porch last fall (we bought a fixer-upper, OK?). Weighing in at 100 pounds after a soak in the dunk tank and with dreadlocks down to his bony hips, Texas Mike was an authentic Texan cowboy who spoke little more than monosyllables. On the first day he showed up at our house for the job with a battered radio in hand, and Jack delighted in his new best friend. He wanted to know every last detail of his radios, music selection, and why he drove a Subaru Legacy. How old was his mother? Did she die yet? Every time I looked outside Jack was trailing behind Texas Mike close enough to pull on a dreadlock, firing questions at him like a human machine gun. I never really heard Mike respond more than one-word sentences, and I figured his patience was wearing thin.
I tried to explain to Texas Mike that Jack had autism and that’s why he fixates on unusual subjects like radios and birthdays. Till my own dying breath I’ll never forget the way he gazed down at Jack, then slowly back to me before uttering four of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard about my son in his exaggerated Texas drawl.
“Looks al-raht to me.”
Why yes, Texas Mike, he looks alright to me too. Thank you for reminding me that he really is alright.
This spring Jack developed a crush on our teenage neighbor, Kristin. He demonstrated his love by constantly marching up to her and drilling her with questions about her car, her age, and how many radios she had (Quite the Prince Charming!). Every afternoon in April he perched on our front steps to watch for her bus, and as soon as the doors opened he would shout down to the street, “Kristin! It’s Jack! I just downloaded Earth, Wind, and Fire from iTunes!”
Thankfully, Kristin isn’t the typical teenage girl who is embarrassed when a 7-year old boy meets her at the bus braying the latest Maroon 5 song. She isn’t the sort of teenager who hates to be made a spectacle of or is uncomfortable around people with social disabilities. She took Jack’s admiration in stride and went out of her way to make him feel special.
Although extremely kind in general, Kristin really demonstrated her thoughtfulness on Jack’s 7th birthday when she met him at the bus stop with a card she’d made for him. The combination of the homemade card, her getting up much earlier than usual to deliver it, and the immeasurable joy it brought him makes me tear up as I type.
Each of these three people touched me in three very different ways. Matt taught me that with the right amount of patience and perseverance, we can help Jack work through even his biggest phobias. Sometimes it just takes another set of eyes to see what I can’t. Texas Mike reminded me to relax, take a deep Texan breath, and enjoy this little boy for exactly who he is. And Kristin showed me that Jack resides as firmly in other people’s hearts as he does mine.
With people like this in our lives, it really is al-raht.
Do you have a story of your own to share or want to comment on this article? Email me at carrie@dovetaildental. Carrie Cariello lives in New Hampshire with her husband and five children.