On Healing 5/16/2005: A life lesson, courtesy of a 5-year-old

Dear Sam,

Happy fifth birthday. In your five years, you have brought incredible joy to many people. Your beautiful smile, kind heart and unusual compassion attract people to you like a magnet.

And you have also been a source of much concern. When you were first diagnosed on the autism continuum at 18 months, you had stopped babbling and would spend long periods in what appeared to be dazed silence. When you got frustrated, you would hit your head on the floor. All of us were gravely worried about your future.

But with early interventions and therapies, you are not only speaking, but your vocabulary is almost up to normal. You still have some very rigid behaviors, which cause distress for you and your parents. But we are hopeful that with the right therapies we can help you.

Your fine motor skills are still pretty far from what we would like, but it’s your incredible gross motor skills that taught me a very important lesson about life.

Your father has been telling me for months that you are a good little golfer. He even got you your own set of golf clubs. I was delighted when I heard how much you like the game. Your dad told me that he woke you up one Saturday and you said: “Dad, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s play golf!”

But when you and your father recently invited me to go on the golf course with you, I was overcome with emotion. That’s because I had not been on a golf course since my accident 25 years ago.

Before I became a quadriplegic, I loved to play golf. Like you, my father taught me how to play, and it was our way of being close. It was the only way I could spend several hours alone with him.

After my accident, my grief about golf was so painful that I couldn’t drive past a golf course without feeling tearful. So when you and your dad invited me, I felt a little uncomfortable. But mostly I was excited to see you play golf.

When we got on the course, I was relieved that I was able to navigate the turf in my wheelchair. And then I experienced all of the beauty of that environment. I had forgotten how wonderful a golf course smells and the magnificence of the manicured lawns dotted with sand traps that seem to go on forever.

Then I saw you put the ball down and take a swing. Your form was beautiful and you connected with the ball. I can’t ever remember feeling such pride and gratitude. I was almost giddy with joy as we made our way down the fairway.

And then I began to think. I thought about how much I would love to be able to swing that club and feel the grass under my feet. Instantly I was overcome with great pain. If I had been alone, I would have wept.

In a few moments, I noticed you were taking a golf club out of your bag and I reminded myself where I was. Again I took in the grandeur, watched you hit the ball again and felt great joy.

Several minutes later, the old regrets returned. I remembered how I used to play golf and how the clubs felt in my hand. This time I felt grief. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to feel the loss and wish for something I could not have.

A few minutes later, you lofted the ball about 20 yards and all three of us applauded your accomplishment.

Sam, when I lived in the present moment with you, I felt great joy. And when my mind went to the past and to what I lost, I felt pain. When my mind went to the future and what I longed for, I also felt pain.

So many of us grown-ups suffer because we are trying to live the life we had or are trying to live the life we wish for. You reminded me that day that life is much easier when we live the life we have.

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