“O Me! O Life!”
By Walt Whitman
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Leaves of Grass (1892)
Even as a child, even before I knew the name of the town, Huntsville was a place of dreams and acceptance.
Believe it or not, I was a kind of a loner as a kid. Growing up in the Deep South, loving books more than football was a bit of a barrier that was difficult to climb over. I didn’t get the passion over a sport that was, when I played it at least, the punishment you survived so you could go home and read the latest Star Trek novel.
And that’s where Huntsville came into play. My mom and dad decided one Saturday morning when we were visiting my Nanny in Opelika that we would take the drive up to Huntsville to visit the Space and Rocket Center. Yes, we were mere inches from Toomer’s Corner, and I honestly didn’t know it existed. I loved going to Auburn though since the Auburn Mall had a Waldenbooks. Having grown up in a town that barely had a library, the tiny (by today’s standards) Waldenbooks could absorb me all day for every day of our visits.
And so I prepared over the three hour drive to Huntsville by re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I wanted to go into space.
Space, for me, represented a place of dreams, a place where people worked together toward a common goal. A place where everyone’s skill set was crucial because usually you were one of a extremely small crew, and survival depended on being able to work together.
Space embodied the dream of being worthwhile, which was something I struggled with as a kid who didn’t fit in.
And in Huntsville, I was able to climb into the capsule that had taken people up there. I’m certain that the Mercury Capsule in Huntsville that I kept running to the back of the line to climb into again and again was just a mock-up, but it really did not matter. When I was reclined in the seat, I was in space.
And all was right.
Today, the boy climbed into that capsule. And all was right.
I didn’t prompt him; he wanted to. And then he, and Woody, flipped over, put his feet up in the air, closed his eyes, and dreamed.
I don’t know what he dreamed about. My boy, as a result of his being on the Autism Spectrum, doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t share his dreams with me often. But he did specifically, and repeatedly request this week, to go to “The US Space and Rocket Center to see the rockets, please.” So to see the rockets we went. Because when my boy goes to the trouble of asking for something, we try and get it for him.
And while he didn’t tell me what his dreams were, kneeling there, thinking about just how amazing humanity is when we work together, I thought about some of my dreams for my boy.
Like most parents, I dreamed of all the wonders of this world that I would get to share with my boy. All the books he would love. All the Lego Space Ships we would build. All the movies we would see. All the footballs we would toss (yeah, I became a bit more normal as I grew up).
But then his diagnosis interfered. And I spent a long time being angry that autism was screwing up my plans.
Until something weird started happening. The boy and I went to movies, and he liked them. We would read books and enjoy them. We would play with our amazing Star Trek technology that I could only dream of as a kid together.
And he would reach over to take my hand while he was crying from laughing so hard at a movie scene he watched over and over, just as I used to do.
And I realized that life was far, far better than my dreams could have imagined.
While I was looking at him today, sitting in a seat that was at least quite similar to the one that I climbed into when I was basically his age, I realized that my dreams have changed.
I’m not as angry at autism as I once was. It hasn’t taken nearly as much as it has given.
And so while walking among monuments to what humanity can achieve when we work together, I realized that my primary dream today isn’t to rid the world of autism. Don’t get me wrong: if there were something we could give him to make communication easier for him, I would absolutely consider it.
But that isn’t the main thing I wish for today.
Instead, I wish to make our world a place where even the most severely autistic boy or girl is seen as a gift to humanity rather than a burden because of the wonderful gifts that they bring to our lives.
- The gift to completely live in the moment even when that moment calls for going to the carwash on a rainy day.
- The gift to dance alone in the grass.
- The gift to unconsciously laugh harder at three words in a movie the 50th time you watch them than you did the first time cause sometimes things just get funnier.
- The gift to empathize with complete strangers.
- The gift to realize that a toy can be the best of friends.
We don’t need space to teach us that we absolutely need one another, and all our one anothers to survive. Our sordid lives are sufficient to that task.
While we may never find a cure for autism, we can change our world so that even those who cannot speak can contribute their verse to this powerful play.