By Barb Arland-Fye
I arrived at my son Colin’s apartment to pick him up for our Saturday night tradition: Mass at Our Lady of the River Church in LeClaire and dinner at our house afterward. As we were leaving, I reminded Colin to say goodbye to his roommate, Erich. Looking down at the floor, Colin said goodbye, softly.
“Colin, you need to look at Erich when you say goodbye,” I said. Colin looked up and said earnestly: Goodbye Erich!” Erich, who like Colin, is autistic, responded in the same earnest voice: “Goodbye Colin!”
Then, as we headed out the door, Colin said, to no one in particular: “I have a difficult time making eye contact.”
I couldn’t help but smile. While he’s heard that line repeated by my husband and me for years, he didn’t seem to be mimicking us with that statement. I think he’s internalized and acknowledged the fact that it’s hard for him to make eye contact, and he wants to share that information.
It’s one of those moments of revelation that is so thrilling to me — a glimpse of the grace of God and God’s very real presence in our lives.
Nine-and-a-half years ago, the mother of an adult child with a cognitive disability sent a letter sharing with me what a gift it is to be the parent of a child with a disability. While I’m sure I agreed with her in a return phone call or note, I was far from convinced. At the time, Colin was a freshman in high school struggling with adjustments to a new building, teachers and other staff and how to be a teenager. Colin’s autism seemed more like a curse than a gift.
We’ve survived a roller coaster ride through adolescence and young adulthood, when Colin seemed adrift and bereft without the security, routines, familiar faces and boundaries of school. Many parents have been strapped into that same roller coaster seat as we have — even if they didn’t have a child with a disability.
But I didn’t think they could have the same worries as me: their children would eventually become self-sufficient. It was likely, Colin would not.
His moving into an apartment proved to be scary and trying at times, not just for Colin, but for our entire family. But eventually, he’s found his equilibrium. He and his roommate of nearly one year seem well suited for each other and are alike in a number of ways. We’ve had Erich over for Thanksgiving and he’s gone to Mass with us on occasion.
I told my friend Marcia that even though I’ve always loved Colin, there were years when I was angry about his autism, and sometimes had difficulty separating the disability from the individual.
Through the years, both Colin and I have matured — and the love I feel for him is deep. I once wrote that a doctor had destroyed my dreams for Colin with her diagnosis of autism. Now I understand that my dreams were misplaced. A person’s value isn’t dependent on holding down a 9 to 5 job or inventing the cure for cancer. God has a purpose for each of us. We may not know precisely what that purpose is, but I know that God meant for me to be Colin’s mother and for Colin to be my son. And that is a gift!