A friend of Collier’s passed away from Covid-19 complications a few weeks ago. He was thirty-four years old, but still a peer of Collier’s, as they played on the Achiever’s League baseball team together. You may have heard or seen something about him on Facebook – his name was Chris “Yep Yep” Pettiford, and he worked at the Birmingham Zoo, and was proud of his job. He was a good man with a golden heart, and it broke my own heart when I heard of his passing. I knew it would break Collier’s as well, since he had been praying for Yep Yep every night since we found out that he was sick.
I remember reading the news on Facebook on a Thursday morning. I came in the bathroom to tell Amye about it with tears in my eyes, and when she saw my face, she knew the awful truth. We decided to hold off telling Collier for a few days as to not disrupt his school week. By holding off until the weekend, we reasoned that it would give him more time to process it. When we finally told him, with the three of us sitting on the couch, he cried a little and buried his head under his mother’s arm. My big thirteen-year-old with hairy legs and the beginnings of a Patrick Mahomes mustache faded before my eyes, huddled in a fetal position under his mother’s wing. After a few minutes, he recovered in a seemingly quick fashion.
There’s a myth or misconception that folks with autism and those with special needs in general don’t feel emotions like the rest of us, or that they don’t understand emotions. In some cases, they may find it difficult to grasp the magnitude of what’s going on, but don’t we all? Isn’t there a moment of stunned silence that follows for all of us as we process what it all really means? I know there is for me.
I knew that weeks or months later Collier would think of Yep Yep again and really let loose, as he has done with my grandparents and others that have passed away. I was telling a colleague about this – one who met Yep Yep once when she was volunteering at one of our ball games – and I mentioned that it would be months or longer before it all really sank in for Collier. She told me that it was that way with her. It had been years since her grandmother passed away, and she still thinks of her every now and again and tears up. I guess that’s the way it is with all of us.
A week after his passing, Yep Yep’s family held a celebration of life. We decided to get there early and stay just for a few minutes to help with keeping the crowd down. There’s still a pandemic going on, after all. Amye and I walked with Collier up to the casket and nodded to the family, paying our respects without physical contact in this new era of the coronavirus. Collier handled it well. At this point, we were probably the only non-family guests there. We started to walk out, but Collier hesitated. He wanted to stay for a few more minutes. We took a pew in the back of the chapel.
It didn’t take long before Collier really started to cry big, crocodile tears. We assured him that Yep Yep was with Jesus, but just like when I was a kid, that didn’t seem to help all that much. He got up and walked back down to the front of the chapel. I could hear the bubbling of snot from up under his mask. As he was getting one more look at his friend, Yep Yep’s mother and aunts noticed him and came over to console him. Seeing him crying reminded them of their own grief, but more than that, I think it was a shared love for a life taken too soon, of a young man they’ll miss in their lives just like Collier will miss in his.
Seeing all this confirmed to me that there’s no validity to the notion that folks with special needs don’t feel emotions or have feelings. I saw it on my couch that day when we broke the news to Collier, and I saw it in the shared experience the day we celebrated Yep Yep’s life.
It’s not only pain, though. Collier has a wide range of emotions. I see it every day – when we celebrate birthdays and holidays, or when one of us gets our feelings hurt, or in a myriad of other instances. In many cases, Collier is MORE emotional than the average kid. I think he probably gets that from me.
This is a great reminder for me, and maybe you, too: It’s important to presume competence of folks on the autism spectrum. Just because they may not show it, doesn’t mean they are not feeling it. They may not be able to verbally share what they are feeling, but that’s true for a lot of people, not just people with autism. Feeling pain and grief is, unfortunately, part of being human.
Fortunately, it’s not the only part.