By Barb Arland-Fye
Brian Daley’s eloquent reflection “The Boys of Summer” in America magazine (Aug. 21) tells the story of his experience working with boys with disabilities at a summer camp. The sub-headline reads “At a camp for children with disabilities, I met the freest people I have ever known.” But in my mind, Brian discovered an even deeper lesson: the value of relationship with God’s neediest human beings.
Introduced to Jace, a young man strapped protectively inside a power wheelchair, Brian felt utterly unequipped for his new role. Jace communicates by uttering a deep groan as spittle runs down his chin. With dread, Brian imagines having to change the young man’s diaper, washing him, dressing him, feeding him. Brian describes other young men with varying degrees of disabilities. His job was to assist wherever needed.
“I used to think that relying upon others somehow betrayed weakness,” he reflected. “That changed when I worked at this camp.” He observed that those of us without visible physical disabilities can hide our dependencies. These guys could not; they trusted their care givers with their lives.
Through his daily interaction with these young men, Brian discovered the subtleties of communication with each one. A poignant moment in the story occurs when Brian, after interpreting Jace’s “yes,” takes the young man into the waterfront at the camp. The gentleness, the love conveyed as the two make their way deeper into the water caused a lump to form in my throat.
“He even laughed when I made a motorboat sound as I pulled him around. Eventually, he began to get used to letting himself be supported by just me and the water…. Everything he had he was putting in my arms, and I knew there was nothing I would not do to keep him safe. I felt what parents must feel for their child: I would die for him.”
I remember the early days of my motherhood when I first felt that kind of love. One day after picking up my baby son, Colin, I chatted briefly with his babysitter on her farm near our home. My car, a Datsun 210, had slipped out of gear and started rolling down the short hill of the babysitter’s house with my first-born son inside his baby carrier. I raced after the car, actually getting in back of it to try to stop it. The babysitter screamed from her porch for me to let go, knowing that I could be run over in the process. Fortunately, the car came to a gentle rest at the edge of the sandy road.
Through the years since Colin’s diagnosis of autism, I have been drawn to stories about individuals with disabilities, especially those involving acceptance on the part of typically developing individuals. As parents, we strive to nurture our children so that they will be accepted for who they are – whether or not they have been given a special challenge. Like Jace, my son Colin, implicitly trusts the people who enter his life. He will go out into the deep of loving friendship when it is offered.
The mission of this past summer’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America was to help Catholics get to know Christ more deeply and to invite others to encounter him. “The Boys of Summer” is a beautiful example of such an encounter. Brian went to the peripheries in his encounter with Christ, and so did the young men he served.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at email@example.com.)