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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Special Education

I have a cousin who has Asperger's Syndrome, at least that's what the doctors say. A lot of people try not to talk to Billy or look at him. That's a strangers "polite way" of not staring or making a big deal that something is amiss.

He's the kind of guy who takes the world in as he watches it go by. While watching, he is learning, absorbing and loving every second of life as he knows it. If only I could learn to see people and the world the way he does, I would be complete.

He watches people and sometimes talks to them. He wants to be part of their lives but so many fear hanging around a retard, which is the silliest part of all. He is a man/boy, all grown up on the outside, while his mind is free like a child. Those who fear him most might actually learn something about life, if only they took a moment.

He lives in a fairly large city and loves to ride the bus. He carries a tape recorder with him everywhere he goes. Sometimes he records people talking to each other just so he can listen to the tape before he goes to bed at night. He wants to be part of their lives, be included in their conversation and understand their world.

Billy is as independent as this world allows him to be. He recently got his own apartment and holds down two jobs. There's always the fear for us that someone will take advantage of him but as a family, we had to let Billy grow up.

A couple of years ago, my mother in-law was lying on her death bed. Cancer had taken it's toll and was winning. We rented a house on the beach and the whole family stayed with her. We took shifts taking care of her so she was never alone. Her end was coming much too quickly at the age of 56.

Everyone agreed that Billy shouldn't see Amanda that way. We let him know she was very sick and when he asked to come see her, he was told that no one could come to get him. It was a little white lie to try and protect him.

Billy took matters into his own hands and got on a bus to come visit her. It had been some time since he saw her and was slightly taken aback by how thin she was, how bald she was and how broken she looked but that didn't stop him.

He sat at her side, "taking a shift". He watched her sleep. He watched her chest rise and fall as her breathing became labored and unsteady. He took his tape recorder out of his oversized pocket when her eyes opened.

He pressed record and asked her, "Any last words Aunt Amanda?"

He was the first to be able to make her smile.

His question was so innocent, real, meaningful and what all of us "normal" family members, didn't have the balls to ask.

She knew she was dying, he knew she was dying, the rest of us watched in awe, learning from the disabled and the dying.

He listened intently as she spoke into his recorder, "I love you Billy. Thank you for taking the bus and coming to see me. I have Jesus in my heart and I'm not scared to die. But I will miss you all very much."

Talking took a lot out of her and she fell back to sleep quickly. Billy looked around the room, we were all crying. He hit the stop button, put his tape recorder back into his pocket and told us the bus would be coming around soon and he needed to go.

Tomorrow Riding The Bus With My Sister, a made for TV movie, staring Rosie O'Donnell, will air on CBS at 9 EST. I saw a preview for the movie and couldn't help but think about Billy and his love of public transit. Not to mention all I've learned from him. I plan to watch and hope to learn even more.

I don't feel sorry for Billy or people like him, I envy their spirit.