September 7, 2011
By Dan Olawski
I don’t know how to swim... I’m turning 45 this week, but I don’t know how to swim. Just never learned. I didn’t grow up around the beach or swimming pools. I spent my summer days on the baseball field instead.
Consequently, my trips to the beach have always been cautious ones. I love the beach (the sound of the ocean soothes me like a lullaby and the waves always tempt me to follow them into the sea). But I’ve never felt daring, or comfortable enough, to venture into the water any farther than knee level or to tempt fate in any way.
That all changed recently. On a vacation with my family to Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, my six-year-old son with autism, Mikey, inspired me to ignore my fears and be brave -- bravery inspired not by words, but by actions that spoke volumes.
As parents of children with autism, we’re usually the ones doing the inspiring. It is a fact of life for us to teach and encourage our kids to bring out the best in them. But every once in a while, the student becomes the teacher.
I don’t know if it’s the influence of autism or if it’s just a character trait, but Mikey is unfazed by a lot of things that most typical children would be turned off by or would whine about. When he wants to do something, he sets his mind to it and a single-focused stubbornness blocks everything else out.
At the beach, Mikey loves to walk to the water’s edge and feel the waves splash on his feet. That feeling brings the biggest smile to his face and a genuine laugh of pure enjoyment that is so contagious you can’t help but smile with him. He is fearless when the waves come in and often tries to pull his way deeper into the water...not the best idea, considering he doesn’t yet know how to swim.
The beach in Sandwich was unlike any other we’d been to before. It was very rocky, with several jetties, and the water was full of foul-smelling seaweed...oh, and the water was FREEZING! None of that was a deterrent to Mikey. He wanted to play in that water with his bucket and that’s what he was going to do...and that meant that’s what daddy was going to do, too.
As we stepped carefully over submerged rocks, detangled smelly seaweed from our legs and braved the frigid water, the smile on Mikey’s face said it all. The look of pure joy and accomplishment was all I needed to see how much fun he was having. It almost made the feeling of hypothermia in my legs bearable.
As we played in the water, my eyes would frequently glance over at this amazing jetty that extended from our beach out into the water. I’ve always loved jetties, but never was brave enough to walk out to the very end of one, especially not one that went out as far into the water as this one did.
Each day at the beach was the same routine. Mikey and I would brave the water and then play in the sand for a while. Mikey’s full attention was on getting back to the water as much as possible. I admired his passion for overcoming the challenges of the water to do something he really wanted to do. It’s that passion that finally inspired me to do what I had wanted to do for so long.
Mikey was playing in the sand one afternoon after we’d returned from the water. I was stretched out on my side studying the jetty. I finally rolled over, turned to my wife and said, “I think I’m going to walk out on that jetty.” I don’t know who was more shocked, my wife or me at the words that had come out of my mouth. She said, “Are you sure?” I paused a second, looked at Mikey and then back at my wife, and said, “Yeah, I am.”
I walked over to where the jetty began its stretch into the sea. The tide was out so far that the entire length of the jetty was exposed and stretched out farther than most people would swim. There were jagged rocks sticking out in all directions, and it would take a very deliberate path and a delicate step to make it to the end. I was scared. I’m 6’3” and not the most graceful guy, but I WANTED to do this.
As I stood at the end of the jetty and waved to my wife, Mikey and the rest of our family, I felt a great sense of accomplishment and knew that my little boy’s bravery was my inspiration. And, no, he’s not just brave because he goes into freezing, smelly water. He’s brave because of what he does every day. All of our children are that brave and that inspiring.
So, the next time you’re feeling that hesitation to do something you want to do, and the shyness or fear has put that lump in your throat, think of our children, who, like Mikey, brave a world each day that they don’t understand and that doesn’t understand them. Then, take a deep breath and...walk out onto the jetty.
Dan Olawski blogs about fatherhood and his son Mikey for the Autism Society. He lives with his family on Long Island, N.Y., where he works as a writer/editor. His time is spent following Mikey with a vacuum cleaner, watching his beloved New York Yankees and continuing his pursuit of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topics:Living with Autism
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