By Barb Arland Fye
When he returned home from work last Saturday night, my son Patrick invited me to attend Mass with him the following Sunday morning. He planned to go to Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport, where he is completing his studies this fall.
His invitation delighted and surprised me. Last Sunday was Patrick’s 23rd birthday. How many young adults his age ask their silver-haired moms to attend Mass with them — as a way to celebrate their birthday? I accepted the invitation.
Both of us have been busy, me at work and Patrick with his studies, work and internship. So we don’t get as much “bonding” time as I would like. My son drove us to Mass on Sunday, a dreary-looking day because of the gray sky and the snowflakes hitting the pavement as rain. But I felt warmth and joy, thinking about how far my younger son has traveled in his life’s journey. We’ve experienced some hard bumps on the road, but traversed it together.
The 20-plus minute drive to St. Ambrose gave us an opportunity to talk about his perspective of the past 23 years. With maturity, Patrick has gained great insight concerning our family’s dynamics and his relationship with his 30-year-old brother, Colin.
Patrick told me that when he was growing up he thought everyone else’s family was perfect. He knew of just one other family who had a child with autism, so he felt somewhat like an outsider. I remember asking Patrick throughout his childhood to write about his relationship with his brother with autism, but he declined. It has taken this long for Patrick to come to terms with his relationship with Colin.
Other kids and their siblings could have conversations with each other, Patrick told me. He longed to be able to do that with his big brother. A conversation with Colin inevitably changes subject almost from the start. “We’ll be talking about something and Colin will say, ‘Who’s picking me up for church on Saturday?’” Patrick said. Today, “I’m grateful Colin can talk.” This gratitude comes from Patrick’s experience volunteering as a “pusher” for another young man with autism during sled hockey games. This young man does not speak. “It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, or whether he’s having a good time,” Patrick reflected.
As a child, my younger son didn’t share with classmates or teachers that he had an older brother with autism. He worried about rejection. He’d hear schoolmates talk about children with special needs as “retards,” and that slur stung. Patrick has always been protective of Colin, but in public sometimes overcorrects his brother’s quirks, comments or impulsivity. “I’ve always been like the older brother,” Patrick said. He’s grown to accept that responsibility with more patience and compassion.
Recently, one of Patrick’s friends suggested that the two of them go to Colin’s apartment for a visit. That gesture of acceptance deeply moved Patrick. However, he told his friend he didn’t think it was a good idea to drop in on Colin, which is correct. I encouraged Patrick to make that visit happen soon, and I believe he will.
Patrick celebrated his birthday last Sunday but I’m the one who received a gift — an invitation to Mass from a son who has grown to embrace his faith and his family.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)