This is Day Nine of the Ali Family #AutismTruths – April 9, 2017. This letter is written by Isaiah Fleming-Klink, who was D’s partner and peer buddy in the John Maloney Project (Open Gym) for four years. JMP is a local partnership between high school students and autistic students of all ages, where the kids get together every fall and spring on Sundays across a six-week schedule and engage in physical activity and friendship building. The JMP has been a constant in D’s life for 12 years.
Over dozens of Sundays, you taught me three things: how to be brave, how to speak, how to love.
You could describe high school freshman Isaiah as basically anything other than confident. Scrawny, pretentious, curious? Absolutely. Self-assured, gentle, brave? Not even close.
But there you were, years younger than I, doing your thing. Relaying what you wanted or didn’t want, walking with confidence to wherever interested you, and eager to engage in your own type of conversation. There you were, so willing and open — vulnerable even— with your emotions of any stripe and your ability to communicate those emotions so clearly and effectively with those around you.
When I was confused — where’s Mrs. Ali? What time do we need to return to the gym? Should we go inside or brave the rain? — you always knew how to comfort me. A point to Mrs. Ali, a tap on my shoulder when it was time to return, a tongue out to catch the rain drops and nostrils open to catch their scent as they bounced off the over-heated black pavement and turf. Even when neither of us were sure, you pointed the way.
You showed me how to approach a stranger, say hi, and invite her into our game of soccer or our walk around the track. Many a time you showed me how to take time for yourself and for self-care—giving a simple head nod to Mr. Ratner [the now director of the John Maloney Project] but returning 30 minutes later for a fist bump and a check in—while maintaining your own elegance and your respect for the other person.
You sat in and played with the sand in the sand box but always upheld your end of the promise and finished that last lap or those last six sit-ups.
You showed me the patience and the dignity to ignore the occasional snicker or look of annoyed awe at one of your quirks or, more frequently, one of my own. Not just ignoring it, but also engaging with the person and making a new friend; not just ignoring it, but singing just as loudly, running just as hard, screaming at me just as loud when I inevitably did something annoying, or dance wildly in that hoola hoop.
You maintained your individuality, your curiosity, and your passion in a world that so desperately tries to make us all conform and fit in and attain monotony.
Sophomore and junior year Isaiah was brimming with opinion about everything—the ACA, why Collegiate’s dress code maintained systems of heteronormativity and misogamy, the reasons behind soccer requiring more athleticism than baseball. I was at peace alone but at war in silence with others. I thought my words, and my words alone, relayed my thought and my emotion.
With you, D, I learned to sink into the silence with the comfort of slipping softly into sleep. I learned to use my words sparingly and effectively. I became aware of what I said with my body and what you did with yours. I learned to see your emotions roll over your face before any sound broke the surface.
Over time, our conversations became more and more meaningful but less and less audible. You kicked the soccer ball in the direction of the girl you knew I had a crush on and held my hand when I’d gotten in a blow-out fight with my mom or sister before. I said things and you agreed before I finished because you knew where the sentence was going; I instinctively picked up the squishy ball you had been looking forward to playing with the whole week.
Through our interactions, my voice and my words were sharper, my communication more succinct, and my comfort in and ability to learn from silence keener than ever.
As a senior, I was still figuring out what it meant to love. I didn’t quite understand how it played out between my divorced parents; I didn’t know how to reconcile huge fights with my sister and the depth with which I wanted her to succeed and be happy; and, perhaps more than anything, I certainly didn’t know how to communicate and share my love with my family and my closest friends.
I thought love was this thing that smacked you in the head when it came to you and that you expressed in corny poetry and birthday cards.
Some part of me thinks that I didn’t know quite fully what love was until I saw the way you laughed with your little sister. The way you put an arm around your brother who just wanted to be playing at home. The way you tugged at my shirt and smirked at me when you were up to no good. The way you fell into your mother’s arms and seemed to sustain her even as she held you.
But I saw love in how your family, your peers, and all those around you treated you. How your brother and sister would bring you a cookie and whisper jokes in your ear when things were stressful or how your mother kneaded your temples when it’d been a rough afternoon.
I saw their love in their devotion to you and in their pride of you. They loved you, as my parents and sister did me, ubiquitously and without bound. They loved you and you loved them with a radiance that warmed all those around you all; a radiance than made us smile in your presence and feel at ease with your voices; a radiance that felt like late afternoon April sunlight and lazy Sunday mornings.
D — you showed me love in the quotidian and mundane of setting up cones and doing jumping jacks and taking a water break. You showed me love when things got so hard that I thought I wouldn’t come back the next week and the only thing that kept me attached was the smile you flashed once in the two-hour session.
You showed me love when I needed it—when I felt alone and lost and without inner peace. And, over those dozens of Sundays, I loved you back.