Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Our Love Birds

Katie and Noah are in love. She is eighteen and has Down syndrome and he’s seventeen and has autism. They go to school together, they carpool everywhere together and after three years, Katie was finally able to convince Noah to join her in Project UP. We’ve heard about Noah for years, as Katie tells us all about her romances when she comes to class each week. And she has quite a few love interests at any one given time! They include actual relationships with boys at school, crushes on boys she knows at school, crushes on boys at she doesn’t know at school, and major crushes on several celebrities but primarily Justin Beiber and Joe Jonas. Some days, Katie comes to class all wound up, in tears, and we’ve learned this usually means she has seen an article in her favorite “Teen Beat” magazine that has a picture of Justin or Joe kissing a girl. We call her our “Diva” because she loves the limelight, waves and blows kisses to the audience when she performs and in general, is …a diva! But Noah is her main man.

Katie and Noah dancing at The Connection 
The first thing Noah said to me when I met him this summer was that he loved Katie so much and that she was his future wife. Katie has decided that they will be married when they turn 25 (she told me that I will certainly be invited to the wedding but she’s not sure about anyone else who works at Merrimack Hall just yet) and they will live together in her parent’s house. She has already chosen her wedding gown - she told me its white and is covered with pink daisies - and Noah told me they will be going to Hollywood on their honeymoon so that they can go to Disneyland and “get our big break in the movies.” He wants to go to “that place where you put your hands in the cement and stay in a hotel.” Noah’s mother told me he is fascinated by hotels and loves the chance to stay in one - doesn’t matter to him if it’s a Motel 6 or the Ritz Carlton - if it’s a hotel, that’s all that’s important to Noah! At the first event for our new program, The Connection (which is social, cultural and recreational events for adults with special needs), we had a dance and of course, Katie and Noah came together. Katie had on a cute fedora and a feather boa, while Noah wore a huge sombrero. When I asked them what was up with the hats, Katie looked at me and said, “Duh! It’s a party!” Of course, how could I be so silly - if it’s a party, you gotta wear a hat!

Noah and his sombrero

Two weeks ago, I was out of town when Project UP had their class and I was told that Noah became quite agitated that I wasn’t in the office. He asked everyone on the staff where I was, when I was coming back, why in the world I had to go anywhere in the first place. His agitation was escalating and just when the staff was afraid he was going to have a complete come apart, it was time for class to start; all the kids made their way upstairs and Noah forgot about being upset that I wasn’t there.
Last week, I knew I needed to see Noah as soon as he walked in the door so that he would know I was back from my trip. I also knew that Katie was sick with a sinus infection and had missed school, and that her mother was sick with walking pneumonia. Noah walked in and, when he saw me, his screwed his face up tight. The tears started flowing and as he hugged, his tears turned to sobs - albeit, highly overly dramatic sobs. The conversation between Noah and me went like this (with him doing the over-the-top sobbing thing while he was talking):

“Where in the world were you last week?”
“I was in Greenville, South Carolina visiting my daughter.”
“Why? Why? That wasn’t necessary, was it?”
“Yes, Noah! I had to visit my daughter. She just moved there and I was helping her unpack her apartment.”
“That really doesn’t seem necessary to me. Couldn’t she do that by herself?”
“No, Noah, she couldn’t. She needed my help. But I’m back now! How has your week been?”
“Oh, Debra! I’m so upset. How long does this pneumonia illness last?”
“Noah, does Katie have pneumonia? I thought it was just her mom who has it.”
“No, Katie doesn’t have it yet, but I’m sure she will get it soon. And Miss Lori has it and its been forever and I miss my future wife.” He was really sobbing by this point.
“Noah, calm down! Katie probably won’t get pneumonia - she just has a sinus infection! And Miss Lori will be better very soon - she just has to take it easy of a few weeks.”
“And as if everything weren’t bad enough, I had to ride here with Miss Smith and I like Miss Smith and all, but she’s not Miss Lori and I really only like to ride with Miss Lori and I just know that this is going to go on for a really long time and (at this point, he walked to the wall, put his forehead against it and starting beating the wall with his fists. Other parents were standing around and I looked at all of them saying behind Noah’s back, “Hey, could somebody give me a hand here?” But it was so very amusing that they were all just watching and laughing, telling me I was on my own). I MISS MY FUTURE WIFE SO MUCH!”
“Noah, you don’t need to get yourself so upset. I bet Katie will be back in school in another day or two. And in the meantime, you are here with all your friends and we are going to have a fun class today, so why don’t you come in the lobby and let’s see who else is here.”
“I don’t care who’s here if Katie isn’t here. You don’t understand how this feels. I love Katie so much and I just know she’s going to die.”
As all the adults in the room struggled not to bust out laughing, Noah wailed his anguish over missing Katie and over the prospect of her death.
“I know she’s going to die because my grandmother died and my grandfather never was the same again. And I know that’s what happens. You get married, you are married for a really long time and then you die. I will be so upset when that happens to Katie.”
“Noah, you’ve got to get a grip on yourself. Now, look at me in the eyes, Do you know how many  years I’ve been married?”
“No.”
“I’ve been married 26 years. Do you think that’s a long time?”
“Yes, that’s a really long time.” 
“Do I look like I’m about to die?”
“No.”
“Okay, I’ve been married a really long time and I’ll probably be married many more years before I’ll be old enough to die. You and Katie will be married for years and years before either of you is old enough to die so you don’t need to worry about that right now. She’ll be back at school in a couple of days and you are late for class.”
“Now that I think about it, maybe you do look like you might be about to die. Twenty-six years really is a long time.”
“Well, Noah, I may not be looking too swift today, but I promise you I’m not about to die and neither is Katie. Now come on, let’s get up to class.”

He reluctantly agreed to follow his friend, Bill, up to class, but we could hear him muttering to himself as we went  up the stairs “I miss my future wife” over and over. Of course, all the adults laughed at me when I told them that if 26 years of marriage hasn’t killed me, nothing will! I told this story to Austin and Alan when I got home that night but after I told them, I felt bad. Noah’s anguish was real to him and I shouldn’t take it lightly. 
What I love about the teenagers in Project UP is their utter and complete honesty - with each other, with their parents and teachers, with us at Merrimack Hall. A “typical” 17-year-old boy wouldn’t want people to know how deeply in love he was, nor would he be willing to share his concern when his girlfriend was sick and missed school. Even though he might feel as in love as Noah does and even though he might worry when his girlfriend isn’t at school, a typical boy would never expose himself the way that Noah did.  Our typical teenagers have been taught how to play games with each other, how to do that “mating ritual” that hasn’t changed much since my day. The girls flirt, the boys respond; the girls say no but the boys beg for yes; the girls pressure for a definition of the relationship, the boys resist having limits put on them. 
Katie and Noah don’t do it that way. They love each other, plain and simple. They are dating each other, plain and simple. They don’t date other people….well, Katie flirts with lots of other people but for some reason Noah doesn’t get jealous. Noah tells Katie that she is the most beautiful girl in the world and I heard her reply by telling Noah that he was “the most special boy of my heart.” They don’t play games, they don’t manipulate each other, they don’t hurt each other. They just love each other and aren’t a bit uncomfortable declaring that to the rest of the world.
Let’s take a lesson from Noah. Let’s ask ourselves how we would feel if our spouse were gone and then let’s treat them like today might be the last day we ever have together. Let’s shout our love for our significant others from the rooftop or out the car window! Let’s tell our partner how much we miss them when they’re away from us - and why not go all out and pound the wall with your fists, like Noah did? Noah didn’t hold back - he told his feelings to me honestly and openly; even through my amusement, I could feel his pain, I could tell that his young heart was doing pounding and that his stomach was doing that flipping that we all remember from when we first fell in love. 
Noah and Katie are “different” from other teens their age but not because they have a diagnosis that labels them as disabled. They are different because they don’t play games and manipulate (who am I kidding, Miss Diva does do a bit of manipulation with the men in her life); they freely proclaim their love and devotion for each other.  They are different because they aren’t afraid for someone to know when they are sad, or scared, or when their heart is breaking. They are different because with Katie and Noah, what you see is what you get. They don’t pull any punches, mince any words or cut any corners - they call it like they see it, they ask for help when they need to and they don’t have one thought for what someone else’s reaction to their behavior might be. Katie and Noah, and all the kids with special needs I know, are the most authentic people I’ve ever known. And if that makes them “different,” then thats the kind of different I want to be, too.
Our Love Birds

1 comment:

Tina Morrison Bedwell said...

That is the sweetest post about the two of them. Olivia thinks A.J., her sister's boyfriend is her boyfriend; she always wants him all to herself.