I have been a mentor/friend to “David” for a half-dozen years or so – long enough that I don’t really remember (how long). David (a pseudonym) is in his twenties and suffers from a rare disease in which he has a handful of challenges and remains intellectually and emotionally at the level of about a 12-14 year old. He has minor symptoms of autism, walks a bit awkwardly, and his speech is sometimes difficult to understand.
Like many people with various mental or physical illnesses (think Down’s Syndrome), he displays a joy and happiness that counters what the outside world might think of his “condition.” He’s a delight to be with, he’s pleasant, and there are no tantrums or any untoward behavior that I’ve ever seen.
I met David through a charity that helps match people and needs. They are sort of like a Big Brother organization but they do other things besides “match” people. Occasionally, after all these years, I am obliged to report in to this organization simply to describe what activities we’re doing.
After a few months of getting to know David, it became clear that there was essentially just one thing he enjoyed doing together with me – going to movies. He has dietary and physical limitations, so eating out or doing anything sports-related is out of the question. But, he loves television and film. Buying him birthday presents is really easy – we just go to a store that sells DVDs and he chooses what he wants.
When we were first introduced my younger son was a very precocious eleven. Though my outings with David were mostly just he and I, on occasion my younger son would join us. It turned out that they shared similar interests, at that time, in animated shows on The Cartoon Network and other shows on the Disney Channel, and on regular networks. And, they both loved movies.
They became Facebook friends and often communicated via the message system on Facebook.
What has been fascinating about knowing David all these years is how he’s stayed pretty much at the same place – mentally and emotionally – that he was when we first met when he was in his late teens. However, my son “grew up” and David still asks him (or me about him) questions about my son’s interest in this or that animated TV show or movie. My son has long graduated from watching The Disney Channel or going to see most animated movies. After all, at 18, that simply isn’t cool.
But, David still enjoys those interests with the same affection he has since the day I met him. The contrast between my son’s emotional and intellectual growth and David’s status quo is fascinating. As I said earlier, David is as happy a human being as any I’ve ever known. He’s not apparently aware that he’s stayed “stuck” in a sort of time warp. My son, however, communicates with him less but still is loving and caring towards him.
I remember very well a short story, “Flowers for Algernon,” which was later made into a movie called, “Charly (1968).” It’s the story of a mentally disabled man, with the intellectual level of a child, who is given a drug that accelerates his intellectual level to that of a genius. However, at the height of this newfound mental acuity, he realizes that it will wear off and gradually he loses his newborn intelligence and becomes the same man he was at the beginning of the story.
It’s tragic to read (and watch) though the character is ultimately unaware of the pathos of it all. Much is the same with David. I sometimes leave our outings feeling quite melancholy. I observe my own (younger) son’s evolution with pride and, because I know David, sincere gratitude about my own boys’ health and general maturation.
David’s mortality is real. How much longer he will grace my life and those around him is unknown. My son will soon go away to college. He will grow, change, and mature. He will hopefully find love, perhaps marriage, and hopefully have children, too. Where David will go is less clear. He is happy, satisfied, but those around him are painfully aware of what he may not experience, and we feel sadness but also realize it’s our sadness, not his.
Life. A mystery. A gift. Embrace it. Be grateful.