I do not love autumn and its chill the way some people do, yet I see her beauty. Saturday I took off on a walk alone, something I seldom do. John and his Dad had taken the car for a much needed oil change and I was left with my dog Cindy, we chose to take off for a while and look at the leaves.
The first frost fell a few days ago, little more than a heavy chill, a thin layer of lacy ice that melted in the presence of human breath and yet was strong enough to kill the last of the summer zinnias. Brown leaves crunched under my feet as I hiked, enjoying the quite alone time and watching Cindy run. Suddenly the silence was broken with the sound of a familiar voice and familiar phrase, “Hey, watch this!”
“Mamma watch, watch me!” That one cry is the very thing I missed the most out of John’s life. John’s development left off at the happy childhood point of watch me. I still long to have him call to me watch this. I smile as I look up to see the young adult caught and left in that very point of life, that watch me stage. Watch me is the place where life left off for him.
I am ashamed to say, I don’t know his name. I really don’t know how old he is. I know he is a young adult from his build, face freshly shaved, and his height. I suspect he is in his early twenties, but it’s all I really know. I don’t know his diagnosis, though I highly suspect a form of autism in part of the mix. He tries to connect with people, but is caught in a world that keeps him unable to understand how to talk to people or how to answer a question. I don’t know who takes care of him, but they do a wonderful job. I know she is his Grandmother, but that is all I know. He is always very well dressed in pressed jeans or kakis, button down oxford cloth shirts or pull over Izods, leather belts sporting local college logos in pewter moffs, expensive shoes and impressive jackets. He is beautiful, well groomed with a stylish hair cut, bright deep brown eyes that twinkle as I walk near, I wonder who manicures his hands that pumps a football.
“Watch me, hey you, watch me!” He cries as I walk near the fenced in back yard.
I am watching I call out, “I can see you, kick the ball.”
I stand very still as he holds up his hand to stop me in the place where he wants me to stand. He pumps the football twice between his hands, placed it on the ground, on its end, but not in a kicking tee. He glances back to make sure I am still there, smiles, grimaces and then takes a step forward and swings his left leg hard. His foot comes in contact with the pig skin with a force only God could have given this young man. The ball flies into the air high and fast, it bangs though the oaks in his back yard scattering golden leaves as it splits the limbs apart, on it sails in a perfect spiral until it crash lands some 60-70 yards away. The place kicker stand perfectly still watching his ball fly high and far until it lands. He smiles, glances at me then runs to retrieve his ball. He does not come back to the fence, but rather yells out to anyone walking by, “Watch me, hey WATCH ME!” and he starts the process of the flawless kick over again.
I stand still waiting for him to kick the ball back my direction. This is something we have done for years, me watching him, the place kicker kicking his ball. I yell back to him that I am watching. I watch. The ball flies over my head and bounces into the street. I run to pick it up for him and take it back to the fence. I notice it is a new ball, figures I say to myself, odds are he kicked the last one so far his Grandmother had to go buy him a new one. Good thing she lives near a sporting goods store.
I hand him the ball when he comes near. He is breathless from the run across the yard, he reaches across the fence and says, “Come here Max, come here.” as he looks not at me, but to my dog Cindy. Cindy does not respond, it is the wrong name. I softly and quietly call Cindy to me and then walk him to the fence where the place kicker is still trying to get Cindy’s attention. He pets Cindy all while calling her Max. I understand, all dogs are named Max, and no matter how many times I have told him to say Cindy, he does not respond, so yes, while in the presence of the place kicker I say Max as well.
“Watch me.” He says as he walks back to the kicking spot. I watch. I think how right this minute there are college games being played. I think how impressive his kicking ability would be to some college recruiting coach and how his Grandmother would have sat with him as scholarships where discussed. I brush tears from my face thinking of the life and opportunities he will never have. I watch the ball fly high and straight across the yard spinning so perfect as it flies. The old oaks serve as goal post for that perfect field goal. “I am watching” I cry out again.
The sun is growing low in the west. Cindy has already turned to head home. I wave good by to the place kicker, there is never an easy way to leave him, you just have to walk off. I do. The cold autumn air blows and I feel chilled. I shove my hands into my fleece jacket and wonder if the chill I feel is from the wind or the hurt for the life of the gifted young man who will never know a real football field or a real football uniform. His voice grows faint as I hear the strains of “Watch me.” I wonder if anyone is around or is this just part of the routine. I walk on. My feelings are mixed. On one hand I am sad his life is so limited and yet on the other, I am thrilled he has an activity that he loves and does so well that fills his time.
In the distance I see my living room lights turn on as John and his Dad return home. I think of how I never got to hear John say, “Watch me.” Nor did John show me some feat for which he had such a passion. I smile to myself and say a thank you to God for the place kicker and the skill and ability that he was blessed with. I decide it’s okay to be a back yard place kicker that nobody ever knows, as long as God knows his ability and is always his audience. I say thank you to God for John, who many not have ever said, “watch me” but who lives a life of watch me with his actions. I smile to myself and think how blessed I am to have two amazing young men living in the same neighborhood. I speed up a bit as dark falls and remind myself, I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving when I see the miracle of life in these two young men, and I am God, I really am. And I am thankful for autumn, cold and all because it brings out the football.