Michael Collins: Embarrassing situation reveals strangers’ grace

Aug. 13, 2014 @ 11:13 AM

Several years ago, during my single dad days, I had become a master at keeping life organized. It was purely out of necessity.

Raising three kids alone can only be accomplished successfully if one remains organized to the point of becoming a drill sergeant.

I began to sympathize with Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” as my weekdays had become a recurring routine of getting the kids to school, driving to Knoxville for work, driving back to Sevierville to the Boys and Girls Club and then home only to begin homework, baths and dinner before finally collapsing from exhaustion and starting it all over again the next morning.

Occasionally, I would break the monotony with a surprise dinner out somewhere. This didn’t always go well since my autistic son, Jacob, is an unusually picky eater. One place I could trust that would satisfy everyone was Subway.

So I hit Subway on a day I was feeling particularly worn and dumped the burden of dinner preparation off on Bryan Atchley, my personally preferred sandwich artist at the Subway on Dolly Parton parkway.

He prepared our meal as flawlessly as always and we chose to dine in rather than take them home.

After a short time, a handsome young couple entered through the side door. They could have come right off the cover of some romance novel, her a sparkling beauty and him the tall, dark and handsome man at her side. The photogenic quality of this couple was only slightly distracted by the fact that he was a single amputee above the knee and using crutches rather than a prosthetic device. 

Sitting beside my oldest and facing the couple, I was relieved that my two youngest had their backs to him. Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before my littlest noticed him and quietly whispered the question that would have been asked by any child her age. Unfortunately, her question alerted Jacob to the fact that something was unusual.

An amputee was something Jacob had never seen and he reacted with passion. With great concern and, unfortunately, great volume, he began asking sincere questions:

“What’s wrong with his leg, dad? Is his leg broken? Can you put it back? Please, put it back, dad!”

Jacob was truly distressed by what he was seeing. Each question, literally dozens, was heard clearly by the young man and his female companion. He was very gracious and smiled as I looked over and apologized. As they sat down across the dining room, Jacob’s questions did not slow. I was truly horrified and had resorted to literally begging Jacob to stop speaking at all. Those that know Jacob understand that getting him quiet is not necessarily the easiest of tasks, but I ultimately succeeded in getting his focus redirected.

Knowing Jacob as I do, I knew he truly felt empathy for the young man and there was no malice or ill intent on his part – just the curiosity of any youth seeing something for the first time. Unfortunately, Jacob did not have an abundance of social graces when it came to these types of things.

As we left, I had my daughters walk Jacob out to the truck, and I approached the young man to apologize in earnest. I explained to him that Jacob had autism and had never seen an amputee before. I wanted desperately to help him understand how difficult it was for Jacob to respond appropriately to things in even the most normal of circumstances.

To my relief, the young man smiled again accepting my apology and said to me, “He and I both have challenges that we will be faced with the rest of our lives.”

I noticed as he spoke that the girl with him beamed with pride at his words. I wanted to tell her she had a keeper. The maturity in this young man was amazing! He was probably half my age and already so filled with wisdom, humility and decency I could not quite believe it. It truly did wonders to restore my faith in his generation. 

Any parent of an autistic child can tell you that there are lots and lots of people in the populace who feel it is their civic obligation to point out what a brat your child is and how you should discipline them without taking time to understand that the child, although appearing completely normal, has a serious neurological disorder.

This young man, even prior to knowing Jacob was autistic, reacted to the situation with dignity and grace. Truly something you see less and less of in this day and age. 

I don’t know if it was because I was in awe or embarrassed, but I never asked the young man for his name.

After speaking with him briefly, the kids were already at my truck and I had to go. Looking back on this day, I wish I had done more to express to this young man that he may have lost a leg in some accident or other, but his quality and character as a man were still completely intact.