I saw this article on Twitter yesterday, and it changed the course of my day. I had briefly met Travis several years back when he had a tryout for a basketball team I was coaching, so I’ve followed his success with some interest, but nothing he’s accomplished has made me happier than reading that he had shared lunch with an autistic middle schooler who was eating alone. This kind gesture hit close to home for me not just because of the local connection, but because when I read that boy’s mother’s words of appreciation for what Travis did, I was reminded of my late mother’s passion for my autistic brother, Henry.
My mother poured so much of herself into caring for Henry, and she knew all too well the challenges the Paske boy has faced. She took Henry to school, sat through his elementary school classes to give him the personal attention that he needed and his teachers didn’t have the means to provide, and personally advocated to give him every opportunity his classmates got. She saw the bullies, and she told me of the countless tears she shed when her oldest son wouldn’t be included in his classmates’ birthday parties.
Now that I am a parent, I think I can begin to understand the heartache. You have so many hopes and dreams tied to your child, and above all else, you would do anything to open any and every door for them so that they can live the life they’re called to live. Suddenly, life is a world of opportunities, and it feels like your very joy is tied to providing as many of those as possible for that precious child under your care. Constantly seeing doors slammed in yours and your child’s face must be agonizing, but I do believe Ms. Paske is correct in stating that her son (and my brother) handles it better than most of us.
In fact, it calls to mind one memory my mom frequently shared. Henry was invited to his first birthday party, and my mother was so excited she must have spent a month preparing. But, the party was on Palm Beach, and it was the 1970s, long before people were aware of autism, so she worried Henry would be misunderstood and ostracized from such a sophisticated crowd. Sure enough, there was a professional photographer snapping photos of all the children with his big, fancy camera, and when Henry wasn’t cooperative, the photographer was, as my mom put it, “nasty.” Incensed, but not wanting to make a scene, my mother’s frustration built as she watched the photographer sticking his lens in Henry’s face and insisting he smile and pose like a perfect little boy. For his part, Henry could care less about the photograph. He was far more interested in the leaf he was holding in his hand. When the photographer finally had had enough and yelled at Henry, Henry calmly looked up at him and planted a giant thumbprint in the middle of the photographer’s camera lens. He really lost it then and went storming off. My mom celebrated a silent victory, still worrying about fitting in with the crowd, until another mother who had been watching the entire ordeal put voice to my mom’s triumph. “And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” she said sarcastically.
It turned out Henry had a better perspective and appraisal of the situation than my mother did, and that was a lesson my mother made sure to pass on to me. We worry so much about perfecting things. Living the perfect life, doing things just right, squeezing as much as we can into the fleeting minutes we have, and getting the perfect picture to document the whole thing. We get so bogged down with the worries we create in our own heads that we forget to stop and stare in wonder at God’s creation all around us. We become too busy and desensitized to remember Jesus’s second greatest commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:39-40)
Then, someone like Henry shocks us out of our stupor. Suddenly, we realize that God created us all and geared all our hearts with the same hope that drives us towards a happiness that can only be found in Him. Perhaps that’s why Ms. Paske’s son doesn’t mind being excluded from some conversations and birthday parties, because he’s never excluded from God’s love, and God’s love can sustain us through anything. It’s the hope that gets me through the loneliness and grief of my mother being gone, and it is the same hope that binds us together in common humanity, regardless of our social class, IQ, color, or creed.
I’d like to thank Travis for this great deed and for the reminder it brought me personally, and I’d also like to encourage you to reach out to someone being marginalized. You might be surprised by the blessing they bring to your life.