There was a time when I thought Colin would never speak.
He was 2, getting very close to 3, and at the time – as I saw so many of my friends’ kids hitting certain developmental milestones many months ahead of my little boy, I frantically hit the Internet trying to diagnose what I thought the doctors weren’t telling us. At the time, they would say that physically everything was fine – that boys often mature slower than girls – that balance is eventually brought to the force.
But that salve lasted only so long and in the dark of night, as I lay my weary head down upon my pillow and tried to chase those darkest fears deeper into the shadows, I’d turn a series of worst case scenarios over in my mind. I wrote about this before. That’s when the word AUTISM seemed plastered on every billboard, magazine cover and TV show my eyes dared to look upon. The message was being sent loud and clear yet I was hoping against hope that my frantic late-night web scouring would yield some magic bullet that simply needed a 5-day Z-Pack and then we’d all be sound as a pound. Just another blip on the radar that six months later, we’d be struggling to recollect ever having occurred.
Well, that not how life goes. And again – I’ve covered those frantic, fearful early days in my post, “Picking up the Pieces“. In the days (and years) since Andi and I settled into the groove of what was and is and will be a pretty fantastic life with our little man Colin and his dear sister Aria, life’s been great. Colin has made some amazing strides forward – buoyed by the awesome support afforded by the school’s Early Intervention program – one that he enrolled in at the age of 3 – and one that has allowed him to stay neck-and-neck with his peers through the normal classroom curriculum – excelling academically as he’s worked twice as hard to overcome some of those major social-emotional delays. He’s somewhere on the spectrum but as with this slippery, nebulous ailment – it’s hard to pinpoint where. My guess – the Aspergers side – which usually carries with it an “extreme shyness” and some “social awkwardness” while possessing normal to above-normal brain function and intellect.
So, instead of shying away from every social interaction, these days he can be found right in the mix. He doesn’t thrill to a deviation in routine BUT he can talk himself through changes in schedule and just roll with it. Years ago, that would have been impossible. These days – he’ll go with the flow once he gives himself the little two-minute pep talk that tells him it’s OK that the plan has changed. And where he once walked in to a kid’s birthday party, clung to my leg, now he rushes off to join the crowd for fear of missing one hot minute.
I always tell people that if they were a fly on the wall in my house, you would label me a liar. At home, where he is most comfortable, Colin comes across as just like any other kid – the textbook definition of the fun-loving little boy. I used to tell Andi that we’ll rue the day we ever wished he would just say something. That day is now and there are days where he and his sister NEVER shut up!!! 🙂 And you know the way kids communicate; two feet away from each other and every exchange is at full shout. It’s like raising little drill sergeants.
At school, Colin is beloved. In fact, just the other day I found he had plastered all of the Valentines he scored last week on his bedroom door. While the majority of them were the same cookie-cutter character cards that everyone in the class gets (Spongebob mixing it up with Selena Gomez) there was one HUGE hand-made card that stood out. I asked Andi the story on that one and she said some little girl in the class gave Colin one of the store-bought cards everyone else got AND added that one in as a bonus. On the front, she had written in huge letters – “Colin is Amazing” and then inside, tattooed in big, bubble letters was the message “Happy Valentines Day!!! – From Your Friend Emily” surrounded by a field of hand-drawn hearts. You see that and your knees buckle a little bit. He’s come so far and the kids in his class consider him his equal and some even more so. Some see him the way we do.
Colin is amazing.
At least, that’s the thought I had this past Saturday when three-quarters of the way through his second-to-last basketball game of the season, Colin was handed the ball, pivoted and took a shot – for the first time this entire year. As the ball soared through the air and time slowed to a stereotypical Hollywood hiatus – that thought I carry with me daily burst from my brain and worked on my heart. No matter where that “rock” lands, Colin is amazing.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit it – I never thought I’d see him take a shot, aim for a goal or swing for the fences. Not ever!!! In fact, it’s such a selfish thought, but that’s one of the first consolations I granted myself way back when we first started picking up the pieces of this puzzle. When I first heard we were having a boy, I did what Dads often do and dreamed of coaching him in Little League.
See, I wasn’t very athletic as a kid but it was by choice. I liked monster movies and action figures and while I loved playing pick-up games of Whiffle-Ball and street hockey, once we hit the actual organized sports in school, my skills were so dreadful that I just resigned myself to riding the pine. As I got older and my tastes changed, I grew to love sports and looking back at my earlier days, I sort of wished I had developed that passion early on. Besides the health benefits afforded by frequent exercise, I just wanted a piece of that team dynamic – to compete for something as a team and fight the good fight, win or lose.
Not playing as a kid was my choice. I did that. Nobody pushed me or pulled me from the team – I just didn’t have the interest so I didn’t pursue it. That was a decision I was granted and one that I made. With Colin, I felt he had been unfairly robbed of the opportunity – that somewhere, something had conspired against my little man when he was at his most vulnerable. Part of me felt like it was my fault. My DNA. Stupid, I know – but your mind travels to some crazy places. And that pissed me off.
But when you’re dealing with all of these complex ever-changing challenges, sometimes you don’t think straight. The future is not written for any child. And if there’s one thing my boy has done from the beginning – it’s surprise me at every turn. By always trying his best, he’s made me a better person… or at least, aspire to be one.
So – two years ago he said he wanted to play basketball. The local Boys and Girls Club was holding a 10-week Winter League for Grades K – 2 so we signed him up. And then, on a snowy Saturday morning, we settled down on the icy benches of that cavernous gym and watched our little man join the crowd. It was an instructional league that taught the kids the basics while ramping up to a handful of games at the end. The coaches were all great – working with everyone – however there were so many kids on the court (and balls flying everywhere) that I could sense Colin checked out every time he hit the court. He didn’t look nervous, he just didn’t look engaged – as if he didn’t know how to make sense of all the activity bustling around him. Aside from practice, he never took a shot but that didn’t matter to me. He asked to play and he got out there week after week.
Last year, I asked if he wanted to play again and he deferred. He had started taking karate (he’s on his second year) and he said that was enough. So, we just let it be at that. Andi and I are the type of parents who want to expose our children to all manner of activities but don’t aim to push them into anything. We figure, let them have a little tasteÂ and see if they like it. I figured, basketball just wasn’t for him. He had made up his mind.
Then one day, a few months ago, Colin came home from school all excited. There was another Winter League springing up – this time held at his elementary school. Each Saturday would feature a 1/2 hour practice followed by a 45-minute game. Some kids from his class were joining and he wanted to do it too. So, on a Wednesday evening, I drove Colin and Aria down to the Town Hall and signed him up. As a little bonus, I learned that among the coaches was this woman Janet, whose son Danny was in Colin’s class. Janet is also the girl’s basketball coach at the High School. Beyond all of that, she knows Colin and she is fantastic with kids of all ages. She and her husband were going to coach the same team so I asked if Colin could be slotted on their squad. I figured the familiarity would put him at ease from Day One and I knew they would help him out on the court, grasping the fundamentals. Plus – Danny and his little brother Ryan were on the team – two kids Colin likes a lot and has played with often times on the playground.
We got the spot and practices/games started in December.
This past Saturday marked the 9th game in a 10-game Season. Watching Colin on the court all season has been an interesting study in halves. During practice, he is fully engaged – nailing the passing and shot drills. One thing that always makes me smile is that he’s great at taking shots from the line, with a high % sunk, but I don’t think he’s ever seen one of his baskets drained. He usually walks up to the line – takes the shot – and as it’s flying towards its final destination – he turns and walks back to the end of the line, never waiting to see if he got it in. And most times, he nails it. I tell him that every week. The NBA could really benefit from this brand of “no showboating”.
Once the games begin, it’s a whole different story. He always looks comfortable out there and follows his team back and forth – so he’s always on the right side of the court – but he won’t try to get in position to score nor will he ever guard his man. At that point, he usually drifts back to the perimeter, observing all the other kids. I think the fast, fluid motion of the game play ends up distracting him. And you know what – it never bothers me in the least. Because he’s out there, with his team – HAVING FUN!!! And every once in awhile, he’ll shoot a look our way and flash a little smile but usually he’s trying to avoid our eye contact.
But when he catches our “thumbs up” and smiles, that’s all that matters.
This past Saturday, we got wind of a sweet little conspiracy. It turns out, the coaches Janet and Bill, had a little pow-wow with their boy Danny. He’s the son of two basketball coaches and has a semi-pro half-court in his backyard. He’s been playing since he was 3 and at the age of 8, this kid is going to be a star somewhere. He’s got moves that most kids won’t develop for several more years. Beyond all of that – he’s just a nice kid – a true team player.
They were determined to get Colin the ball and let him take a shot. They knew that in the context of the game, Colin was apprehensive to call for the ball and shoot with 5 kids swarming him for the steal. Every time he’s had it, he’s either dribbled a few feet and passed it off or immediately dished it away. He’s got a good shot but that’s only when it’s just him and there aren’t five people in his face.
Janet and Bill had their secret weapon in Danny, who over anyone else, could weave through the opposing team with ease in order to hand Colin the rock. So, they planned to position Colin closer to the hoop, get Danny the ball and send him off on his delivery.
With 10 minutes left to go in the game, the mission was on. Janet grabbed Colin and navigated him towards the hoop, telling him to just stay there, and Danny was out beyond the 3-point line, receiving a pass in bounds. He immediately took off, running a ring around the other team and found Colin – delicately placing it in his hands. Colin just looked at the ball – completely stunned at this reversal of fortune. He’d never been this close to the hoop – this far into the game – with this thing in his hands at any point in the season. And that split-second pause was all it took for someone to strip it from him. A low murmur rose from the crowd – most of them seem to know what was up.
The plot was far from over. A few moments later, Danny had the ball again. Colin was moved into place. Danny sliced and diced the opposition and once again gave it to Colin. This time, he pivoted on his heels – held the ball up and went to take a shot but it was batted away. The crowd let out a little cheer for Colin’s effort. Fortunately, the ball rolled out-of-bounds. It was still White ball (Colin’s team). Janet hand-picked another boy from the team to pass it out to Danny. Colin was put in place. Danny spun his magic again – although the other team was hungry for their own hoop dreams and were working double-time to block him. It was no matter, he made short work of them and on the third time (the charm?!?) Danny came face to face with my little guy. This time, Colin grabbed the ball with more confidence – turned and fired his shot. It arced through the air and while I’m sure time flowed swiftly for everyone else in that building – for me, it slowed several ticks. The world got all Matrix-y as that orange orb floated up, up, up and away before cresting its height and beginning its descent on target. It hit the back of the rim – bounced to the front – pinballed back and forth two more agonizing times before…
…it rolled off the left side and out of bounds. It was Green Ball.
Everything But Net.
But it didn’t matter in the least. Not when Colin spun around with the biggest smile on his face – one eclipsed only by the cheers of almost every parent in those stands. The type of big movie moment you think is possible only on the silver screen. And when it happens in the movies, you cheer it on despite the cheesiness of it all. That type of thing doesn’t happen in real life, does it?
But it does… and it did. And you can’t script real emotion. And who cares that the ball didn’t fall. We tell our kids, it doesn’t matter whether you win or loss… only that you try. That’s the lesson I aim to impart on Colin and Aria on a daily basis. And I can’t say it enough. When I first saw Danny darting through those kids with only one thought on his mind – to get this ball to Colin so he can get that first basket, a tear pooled in my eye and I swallowed hard. In an instant, life can be so beautiful.
This story isn’t over yet. Going into Saturday’s game, there were two kids on the team who had never sunk a basket the whole season. This past Saturday, Brett got his and Colin got whisper close. After the game, Janet came up to me and said “So close… We’ll get ’em next week.”
And whether the ball falls this week, or rolls around again, it doesn’t change a thing for me. It’s not the actual score but the effort. Its not the destination but the journey.
It’s everything but net.