Never Forgotten


Gram passed away Christmas morning. She was 101 years old. She was born in 1916, when
people with disabilities were probably never discussed in public forums and the concept of
inclusiveness wasn’t possible.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Mark and I visited his Gram, Dorothy, in Montana because we didn’t know how much longer she would be with us. She was almost 100 years old, living alone and waiting to eventually see her husband again since his passing, almost 40 years earlier. She no longer drove and looked forward to visitors for stimulating conversation. Her small condo was still spotless and without clutter. Everything in her house was in its proper place. Mark was her only grandson so I knew that us visiting would mean a lot to her. With Broden having a difficult time flying, my parents came to our house to take care of the boys to ensure that Mark and Gram could spend some time together.

As we handed her pictures of our boys after arriving, she started to cry. Gram’s eyes fixated on the picture of Hayden standing tall. He was growing so fast and was no longer a little boy, but embarking on the teenage years. She looked at Broden’s picture and seemed to cry a little harder. “I worry about Broden. I worry so much about him all the time. Is he going to be cared for and will he be safe?” I found myself assuring her that Broden would be fine even though, deep down, I had the same fears. As I put my hand on her shoulder while she was sitting at the table, I reassured her that Mark and I would make sure he would be okay. I don’t know if that alleviated any of her anxiety, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

When we left that day, Mark and I came to the realization that that may be the last time he would lay his eyes on his Gram. They were fairly close when Mark was growing up and he made a point to call her every week. We would always joke with how the conversations usually went on that Sunday afternoon. She would ask about the boys, tell him the weather report, and then explain to him how productive she was that day. I would overhear him saying to her, “Gram, you are 100 years old. You should be sitting on the couch relaxing. Don’t worry about your chores. Just take it easy.” She never thought days should be spent without accomplishing something.

Gram passed away Christmas morning. She was 101 years old. She was born in 1916, when people with disabilities were probably never discussed in public forums and the concept of inclusiveness wasn’t possible. When Gram found out that her great grandson had autism, I never felt judgment from her or that she saw Broden as less than his typical brother. Mark would just tell me that she would ask how she could help. For quite some time, she would send us money every month and in the subject line of the check, it would say “For Broden”. When Broden went to a private school, she would send checks in the mail to help with the cost. As she got older, her handwriting was less legible and her cards that went with the checks had less writing in them. Mark always accepted what she gave Broden and didn’t try to decline her checks because he knew this was her way of providing for Broden. It was her way of showing that she loved him unconditionally and wanted the best for him.

Even though she only saw him once, we know she thought about him and still remembered to ask how he was until she was no longer able to speak while in the hospital. I still remember the awkward conversation Mark and I had in the kitchen when Gram realized that her time with us was dwindling. She was revisiting her will and testament and making sure everything was just the way she wanted it. Looking back, that was Gram. No stone would be left unturned and not one question would be left unanswered based on what she wanted to go to whom. She remembered all of her great grandchildren in her will and was adamant about Mark’s father carrying out her wishes. If only I could live as long as her and have a fraction of the insight she had at 100 years old. She’s no longer with us, but I’m certain my children gained another guardian angel this Christmas. Mark’s parents sent us her obituary. She asked that donations be sent to Autism Speaks, one last act of love towards her special needs great grandson and to the autism community. •

Shelley Huhtanen is an Army wife with two children, one with autism, whose husband is currently stationed at Fort Benning, GA. She is an autism advocate and currently the parent liaison for the Academy for Exceptional Learners.