It is Inauguration Day. The dawn of a new era. I had a wonderful little piece of America the Beautiful that I had planned to share on this historic and incredibly poignant day. I’m sorry to let you down, but I’ve decided to abandon my original plan in order to share a story with you. I can only assure you that what follows here is in keeping with the spirit of the day – HOPE.
So join me, won’t you?
On Friday night, I spoke at the Autism Speaks awards dinner. I was nervous, but I found it interesting that I was far more anxious about finding the time to put together what I would say than I was about actually having to say it. Quite a contrast from the last time I spoke in front of largely the same crowd back in August, when it was all I could do to hide my shaking knees behind the podium.
As for the speech itself, I used a lot of material from ‘diary’ and pieced it together in a way that hopefully got my message across.
I had the unenviable task of following an incredible young speaker. His name is Michael Mayes and he is an eighteeen year old senior at Marshfield High School, just to the South East of Boston. Mike was fantastic. He was poised; he was charming; he was completely engaging. He commanded the room and grabbed our hearts from the moment he took the mic.
Mike is a successful student, an outstanding athlete, a mentor to young children, a role model, and a political activist. He is one of just twenty-eight young people selected by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to serve on a state-wide youth advisory council. Quite a resume to boast at eighteen. He looks forward to attending Colby Sawyer College next fall. And let me tell you, they will be lucky to have him.
Oh, and Mike has autism.
He talked about the teachers who gave him a chance – the ones who believed in him and who saw what he was capable of. He talked about the coaches who knew he could do anything he wanted to do. He made special mention of his wonderful, dedicated parents and his obviously beloved aide, Mrs Ridge, who has been with him since kindergarten. She sat beaming at him from their table, no less proud than his own parents.
In short, Mike is what it’s all about. Confident, funny, soon-to-be-running-the-world Mike. Mike who came up to me after I spoke and told me that I had done a good job. “You told really good stories,” he said. Mike, who stood before a Red Sox pavilion full of parents and offered himself up as living proof that our efforts matter – that success is within our reach.
After I spoke, a number of people came over to me to share their thoughts. The support, the caring, the raw outpouring of emotion at these gatherings is gratifying and overwhelming. From the grandfather who told me about his grandson’s first words (a full sentence at eight) to the mom with tears in her eyes who told me that despite a joking protest in my speech, I am indeed the mother of the year (I’m not by a long shot; but I loved her for saying it). From the man who told me that he knows a lot of people who get $25k a speech who don’t speak as well as I just had (I of course thanked him and told him I’d do it for $20k) to the mom who chided me for making her cry (again). From the uncle with a birthday party story of his own to the mom who I had met after I spoke at the Kick-off and then had seen again at a lecture not long thereafter. She came to tell me how much she adored Brooke. I was confused. Did she somehow feel like she knew her? Turns out I had mentioned the Superstars class to her and her son now attends every week with my baby girl. The world gets smaller.
There was a string of parents, adults with autism, friends and grandparents telling me their own stories. And then there something entirely different.
(Come a little closer. This is important.)
A lady came over to my table and sat down with an obvious sense of urgency and purpose. “You need to know something,” she said. “My boy – he didn’t speak when he was five.” She paused, then repeated each word, one at a time. “He. Didn’t. Speak.”
She drew her chair closer to mine – the better to make sure I was really listening, really hearing her. And then she continued.
“I need you to hear that,” she said. “I need you to understand that. Keep working. Keep at it. It will all come together.”
I was trying to be respectful, but she must have seen the confusion on my face. She realized that she hadn’t yet introduced herself.
“I’m Mike’s mom.”
Time stopped. All the noise in the room disappeared. Nothing else existed.
This incredible young man who had stood before a crowd of nearly 300 people and drawn in every last one of them. This funny, charming teenager who was so poised and engaging. This young man who was part of three championship teams. This kid who coached baseball in the summers and was headed off to college next fall. This young adult who was confident and self possessed and who clearly knew who he was and where he was going.
That young man had no words when he was Brooke’s age.
“He didn’t speak,” she said.
She paused again, staring right into my eyes.
“Will you remember this?” she asked.
I promised her I would never, ever forget. We hugged. The embrace of battle-worn mothers who barely know one another and yet who know it all.
So, please – just as I promised Mrs Mayes, I want you to promise me. Promise me that you won’t forget Mike and all that he represents. Mrs Mayes said, “Keep working. Keep at it. It will all come together.”
Mrs Mayes is no doubt a neat lady, but she’s no different than you or I. She had the strength. She found the tools. So will we. Just like her, we have the love for our children that won’t let us fail. And someday, if they should want to, our kids will be the ones standing in front of the crowd inspiring all of us to greater heights.