It was July 30, 2006, and the first day of relief from a record breaking heat wave in the San Francisco Bay Area. I stood anxiously by the escalator at the Oakland Airport waiting for my twenty-year-old son Matthew to arrive from Pennsylvania. Matthew is autistic and had been attending a special residential school there since he was 15.
He would be home for a five-week break. Worried that he would be lonely and adrift as in summers past, I hired a companion who worked at his school to fly Matthew home and stay with us for three weeks.
His name was Kim, a twenty-five-year old from South Korea who had joined the staff of Matthew’s school just a year earlier. I had heard good things about Kim, but was nervous because our communication through phone and email, though cheerful, had been awkward. His English was difficult to understand, and I wasn’t sure he understood the notion of “friend to hang out with” rather than “policeman”. Matthew was painfully aware of his disability and need for support, but despite his innate social ineptitude, he craved independence and friendship, and wanted to be viewed by the world as a regular twenty-year-old.
In the past when I had hired “friends” for Matthew, I’d had the benefit of meeting them first in person to see if the chemistry was right. When Kim and Matthew came into view at the top of the escalator, I saw no chemistry. My son, wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals, rushed ahead of his smiling companion.
“I’m not with him,” said Matthew, frowning in earnest. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“He’s not a babysitter,” I said, shaking hands with the stranger in front of me, “Kim is our friend!” Matthew rushed ahead to the baggage claim. “Did you have a nice flight?” I asked Kim, who shrugged and smiled.
It’s gonna be a long three weeks.
The first few days of the visit Matthew avoided Kim, and my husband and I and our other two teenage sons tried manically to make Kim feel useful and at home, talking to him, struggling to understand his English, inviting him for walks and meals, and asking him to help with the dishes. By the third day, I was exhausted from smiling, talking, and suggesting activities for Matthew and Kim that fell flat.
“Do you want to go to the movies with Kim, Matthew?”
“How about a hike?”
Feeling like a prisoner in my own home, I left Matthew and Kim alone together while I took our four-month-old Labrador puppy, Cali, for a walk. When I returned, there was a police car in the driveway.
“He’s stalking me!” Matthew was telling the policewoman who had responded to his 911 call. Kim smiled nervously and paced around, and the officer looked confused. I explained the situation and apologized profusely. She said she thought she’d seen everything till today.
“Look, Matthew,” I sighed, “Kim is our friend. Will you please be nice to him?”
“Probably not,” was his response.
There was no way I could endure this kind of grief for three weeks, and I wondered if I should just pay Matthew’s friend for hire the full amount that I had promised him and put him on a plane back to Pennsylvania. But then I glanced at Kim who was stroking the puppy, and I could see he was a person who smiled even when he was hurt. Somehow I had to make his visit a successful one.
“Matthew has some yard work to do,” I said. “Could you do me a big favor and wear this puppy out?”
Kim nodded eagerly, and the two fled to a walking path around the corner. Later that evening, Kim took Cali for another walk, and came home looking exhilarated. Did we have any movies he could watch on his laptop, he asked? As I was reaching for The Sound of Music, my thirteen year old handed him the first season of “24″, a cult show among teenagers about the dangerous adventures of no-nonsense counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer. The next morning Kim slept in, and admitted sheepishly that he had been up half the night watching the series.
“That’s OK,” said my thirteen-year-old, “We’re addicted, too!”
By the fifth day of his visit, Kim had settled into a happy routine of dog care and other chores, amiable family dinners and evenings with “24″. On day six, a Saturday, Matthew knocked on Kim’s door, and asked him if he wanted to walk downtown and get some pizza.
“I decided that I might like Kim,” said Matthew when they returned, and I heaved a sigh of relief, grateful that the web of reverse psychology that I had woven out of desperation snagged Matthew. I stopped counting the days until Kim’s departure, as the two bonded over daily walks downtown.
The morning of Kim’s departure, Matthew told him not to be sad-he’d see him in September. But Kim had a hard time saying goodbye to Cali, and knelt down to cuddle her one last time. He was still smiling, but I saw a tear cascade onto the puppy’s shiny coat.
“You are going to miss uncle Kim, aren’t you Cali? Let’s take your picture with him.” As Kim grinned for the camera, I was grateful that the painful scene at the airport three weeks earlier had unfolded so magically. It seemed that by turning our constant focus from our autistic son to the needs of our houseguest, Matthew was free to befriend his friend for hire in his own time and in is own way.
The next morning, an email message from Kim arrived. It remains on our refrigerator along with his picture with Cali.
So much thank you for you, and family, and my niece Cali.
It was a great 3 weeks for me….my best summer in life.
Thanks a lot for giving me such a nice memory.