Nevertheless, the mood was festive for a late night premiere. The crowd was energetic, though sparse, and restless with expectation. Strangers nodded hellos and exchanged smiles. Some were in costume. We talked with familiar theater workers and random patrons. We chatted with Alex's good friend, Liam, and others in his family. We enjoyed ourselves as usual – Alex watched one of his favorite characters on the big screen and I settled into my unintentional, though predictable, nap. Afterwards, as we drove home well after midnight, I smiled that our brief trip was not unlike any other. As those who know will agree, trips with Alex are not necessarily about the destination. They’re about the experience and people you meet.
If you’ve never joined us on a trip around town or elsewhere, you should, because going out with this kid is eye-opening to the goodness of humanity. Be it a visit to Target, the Cincinnati Zoo, or Children’s Hospital, Alex connects with people. When we attend the Baseball Fantasy Camp for Kids, Alex cherishes every moment with fellow campers, Reds players, Mr. Redlegs, and even Reds Owner, Bob Castellini. If we visit restaurants, such as Buffalo Wings and Rings, Skyline, or LaRosa’s, Alex enjoys chatting with servers, hostesses, or table bussers. If we visit bookstores like Half Price Books, Barnes & Noble, or Joseph-Beth, Alex talks superheroes or Star Wars with anyone who will listen. Looking for fresh air or chasing Pokemon Go in the Helicopter Park, Juilfs Park, or on the sidewalk? Alex will find you – especially if you are walking a dog or two. Essentially, wherever he goes, Alex makes friends, encourages people to smile, and gets strangers to laugh along with him.
Wherever we travel, Alex puts himself out there with no expectation other than friendship. Don’t get me wrong, the kid is a talker! Those who know him will certainly agree. But, his sincerity and hope to improve your day is genuine and beautiful to witness. He doesn’t care that he sits and others stand. He doesn’t care that he rolls and others walk. He doesn’t care if you’re young or old, quiet and shy, or loud and outgoing. Alex is comfortable with himself, despite his physical limits, and simply zips around in hopes of meeting a new friend.
Here is just a sampling:
Recently, outside our new favorite restaurant, Zoup, we found our van entry blocked by a car parked partially on the handicapped stripes. We patiently waited as an elderly African-American man opened the car door for his wife and then started the long journey to the driver’s side. While we waited, Alex kindly asked the man how he was doing. The man, somewhat shocked by the gesture, stopped and responded with a smile that he was well and similarly wished us a good day before continuing on his way.
Alex wasn’t done. He told the man he liked his voice.
How many times do you hear THAT from a stranger? Let alone a teenager?
The comment caused the man stop, pivot, and then release a huge smile and words of thanks to the fine young man. The man’s smile, delight, and gratitude for receiving the compliment continued as he walked around the car and stepped inside. Once in the car, the man clearly shared Alex’s words with his wife, who in turn smiled and waved lovingly as they drove away.
During a recent Kroger trip, an autistic bagging clerk responded to Alex’s fist bump and well wish to have a nice day. The clerk smiled proudly and said “I will, because I feel that I can conquer the world after meeting you.”
On that same trip, Alex befriended a couple at Half Price Books by rolling alongside while they browsed movies. He simply said hello and asked them if they liked Star Wars. The introduction led to discussions of which episode is best. It then led to conversations of Star Wars Battlefront on PS4, which led to exchanged screen names. Now, not surprisingly, they are online gaming friends. Go figure. When I read Alex’s PS4 network message to them later that night, I couldn’t help but smile at his confidence. It read:
“Hey! How are you doing? I’m the kid in the wheelchair who you met at Half Price Books.”
Still, there’s more.
Alex LOVES drive-through window attendees, and often says hello over my shoulder from his wheelchair. Despite the line of cars behind us, I’ll power down his window so he can ask how they are doing and if they know about a movie coming out that week. He’ll thank them for serving his food and always wish them a good day. As we pull away, we’ll often see the worker leaning out the window and waving with a smile.
He LOVES everyone at Target stores, and knows many workers on sight or by name. When he arrives, he receives fist-bumps of hello and queries of his day. He’ll talk with shelf stockers, managers, cashiers, and even undercover security personnel (though they try to avoid it). In fact, when Alex recognizes an undercover agent, he’ll point them out and approach to ask if indeed they are working undercover. Within minutes of their embarrassment for being recognized, they are then seen chatting and laughing with Alex while I continue shopping. Similarly, checkouts at Target are like family reunions, as is when Alex sees the cart-corral guy in the parking lot while I load groceries in the van… you get the picture.
Alex LOVES restaurant servers and they love him. Though he makes friends wherever we go, his favorites work at Skyline, LaRosa’s, and Zoup! He’ll linger on a menu to keep the server around. He’ll ask for a drink refill, even if he doesn’t need one, just so he can stay longer. He’ll tell waitresses they are pretty or have nice hair or that he likes their eyes, and they in turn shower him with smiles, laughter, and conversation. One waitress at Buffalo Wings and Rings recognized Alex from her time serving tables at another restaurant. She approached from across the restaurant (we were not her table) just to say hello and to tell him how she never forgets a smile!
He LOVES “old people” (as he calls them)! At my recent 35th high school reunion, Alex confidently mingled with my friends who he barely knew. While I reminisced about summer nights, legendary sports, and general good times, I looked over to see Alex surrounded by smiles, laughter, and fist-bumps as if HE was back in town for HIS reunion.
He LOVES his buddy Zach’s family, including Zach’s five brothers and sisters, Mom, Dad, Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins. They make Alex feel welcome and a part of the family every time he visits, even when he stays past midnight filling their house with hoots and hollers of video game success. He looks forward to their celebrations, graduations, and their annual Chili Fest every fall as well as their acceptance of him into their home.
I share all this because, if you haven’t noticed, wherever he goes…..Alex LOVES!
He doesn’t matter a person’s appearance, background, ethnicity, education, or nationality….Alex LOVES! Could you ask for anything more in a seventeen-year-old kid? Especially one living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy?
In a world mixed with aggression, loudness, and hyper-sensitivity, I find the most beautiful, peaceful, and arguably wisest perspective of life comes from someone who boldly and proudly introduces himself to strangers as the kid in a wheelchair.
This comes from a kid facing tremendous adversity in an increasingly mobile world. It comes from a kid with more going against him than many experience in a lifetime. It comes from a kid who accepts himself and his limits, and accepts you and yours. It comes from a kid who makes the most of his day, laughs about his past, and tries not to worry too much about his future. It comes from a kid who doesn’t focus on who he is not, but who he is. It comes from a kid who simply wants to love and be loved.
At the end of the Batman movie, I awoke to find a hand gently resting on my shoulder. I looked up to see Alex shaking his head with a knowing smile as if to say Dad, Dad, Dad, you did it again!
I yawned, stretched, and apologized, “Sorry, Bud. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Did you enjoy the movie?”
Alex replied, “It’s okay, Dad. That’s just who you are….and, yes, I did! It was awesome!”
He paused, and then added with a hopeful smile…