PUZZLES & CAMO BY SHELLY HUHTANEN
I knew that I would be seeing people who had never met Broden before and I was actually concerned about how they would judge Broden. In some selfish and shallow way, that affected me.
“Are you ready to leave yet?” Mark yelled to me from the living room as I was running back into the bathroom. I ran into the bathroom to spray my hair again because the last five times I had sprayed didn’t seem sufficient. I then ran back again to grab a hair band just in case I got too hot. Mark looked confused at me as I ran to the door to tell him that I was ready to go.
“Are you nervous? You seem on edge,” Mark said. I told him he was imagining things and that I was fine. In actuality, I lied. I wasn’t fine. I was nervous. My own family was headed to a reunion in Bristol, Tennessee, and I would be seeing more family members I had not seen in quite a while who had not met Mark or our boys.
My brother, his wife, and two children flew in for the big event. We hadn’t seen them in two years, since we left Fort Hood, TX. Their children had changed so much. Their daughter was much more mature and their son had taken a liking to Lacrosse and is excelling at baseball. Everybody knows that he’s the family athlete.
My parents stood by the car waiting to load everybody. My father was so excited because he was finally going to have the opportunity to show everyone his family. Like my father said, “I’m so proud of you guys! I can’t wait to show everyone how well you turned out.” Of course, he had to rib us by saying he was glad we were able to stay on the straight and narrow and dodge any jail time. He always finds humor in everything.
We made several nostalgia stops on our way to meet everyone. He showed us the house where he grew up, including the high school where he graduated from, back in the mid 1960’s. Several times, he had to remind everyone he walked all that way to school. My son couldn’t believe it because I drive him everyday and drop him off at the turn around. He may walk 10 steps to get to the door.
As we got closer to the park area, I found myself getting a little bit more on edge and I could feel my stomach starting to turn. I knew why, but I found that I was disappointed in myself for feeling that way. I was nervous because of Broden’s autism. I knew that I would be seeing people who had never met Broden before and I was actually concerned about how they would judge Broden. In some selfish and shallow way, that affected me. Believe me, I know what the right answer is, but it’s easier to say it than actually do it. It’s shouldn’t matter what they think. Who cares what they think?
We got out of the car and started to get set up for the reunion. One by one people started to show up. In the beginning, there was a lot of staring and not a lot of socializing, but as the day progressed and the marshmallows came out along with the graham crackers and chocolate, everyone started to let their hair down.
I would see Broden running all over the place. He loved the hills. I tried to keep one eye on him and one eye on the person I was trying to have a conversation with at the time. Either my Mom or my Dad would take off running after Broden and then corral him back. As Broden became more comfortable, I noticed my extended family starting to ask more questions. My cousin, Pam, tried to talk to him but he wouldn’t respond. After I prompted him, Broden acknowledged her. “Wow, so when I ask him a question, he doesn’t answer. I didn’t know that.” I explained to her that Broden had difficulty with verbal communication and that was one of the traits of autism. I realized that Broden might be one of the few interactions she has had with a child with autism.
A few of my aunts and uncles had met Broden before and it was a joy to see them interact with him again. They saw Broden as a boy first who just happened to have autism. My Uncle Larry wanted to know how school was going and my Aunt Jeni always has such a special way of making you feel loved by how she looks at you and treats you. Jeni always smiles when she looks at my son. Her husband, Uncle Richard, is very gentle and patient. Broden has a great sense about these things and remembered him right away. Broden had to be holding his arm or hand when Uncle Richard was near.
My Aunt Judy was the biggest surprise. Broden woke up the next day after the event very upset. We assumed he wanted to go home because we had such a busy day the day before, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. When Broden finally calmed down he said, “Judy, I want Judy.” We explained that we would see her in a few hours. Periodically in the car he would cry and say “Judy”. Finally, we met up with her. Broden came up and gave her a hug, acknowledged she was there and then didn’t cry the rest of the day. I told Judy that Broden had been asking for her, and she seemed puzzled. “I don’t know why. I don’t see him all the time.” I have to admit, I was confused too. I’d like to think that he sensed a connection. He knew that she was his Papaw’s sister.
We may not see our family as frequently as we would like, and may fear that too much time has passed in order to feel that bond, but after this trip I don’t think that is the case. When I left the reunion, I did not feel judged and also didn’t think Broden was judged. If anything, he reminded those who knew him of how special he was. At the same time, Broden taught family that had never met him before of how it felt to be around someone who may not be able to verbally communicate as well as others, but knows love like no one else. •
PUZZLES & CAMO
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.