Having a child with Autism who also is nonverbal – as is the case with my son, Nolan – has in no way meant we haven’t been able to forge what I’d like to think is a pretty strong father-and-son bond. It’s just meant that I’ve had to modify my vision of what that bond looks like.
When Cindy was pregnant in 2005, I would joke with my co-workers that my son and I no doubt would make mischief together, thus earning the stink-eye from mom and getting banished to our rooms while both of us were wearing shit-eating grins. Our Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter would consist of watching a steady diet of NFL games. When Cindy would complain about the amount of football we were watching, we’d tell her it was the same game as before and the teams just changed into different colored uniforms at halftime. Hey, it worked for Norm on an episode of “Cheers.”
I’ve come to really enjoy doing things with Nolan that bring him happiness. We’ve hit balloons back and forth to each other while he’s bounced on one of his many yoga balls. His days off during the school year and summer vacation more often than not include at least one car ride a day and a pit stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for a beverage. We’ve taken walks around the neighborhood together. Both of us have discovered that a good time can be had at a tennis court without playing five-set matches.
But a game of catch, a time-honored father-and-son tradition that probably goes back to the Paleolithic period and involved dads and sons tossing rocks back and forth, had always eluded me. I tried a few times over the years to toss Nolan a Nerf football, only for him to respond by yelling and having no interest in channeling Tom Brady. Sure, when he was younger I’d toss him one of those bouncy balls you find stacked 50-deep in a bin at Walmart and he’d toss it back. But the interactions were always short-lived.
I’m talking about a real game of catch, with purpose. The kind of interaction you see at the end of “Field of Dreams” when Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character, and his father throw a baseball back and forth, oblivious to what’s happening in the world around them and simply enjoying each other’s company.
The kind of interaction that, after more than 15 years of waiting, I finally got to enjoy last week.
And willingly on Nolan’s part.
I finally got to play a true game of catch with my son, who is a member of his high school’s Adaptive Sports League wiffle ball team. Each practice begins with players warming up by playing catch with a teammate. In Nolan’s case, his partner is me. I told Nolan’s coach, who also is his adaptive physical education teacher, I would be happy to attend practices and games with him – as had been the case over the winter in an abbreviated soccer season – so that he would have an opportunity to participate.
Would he even want to participate? To be honest, I wasn’t optimistic.
Cindy and I registered Nolan for an adaptive baseball program through the local YMCA a few times when he was in grade school. There was many a practice when he had no interest in batting, throwing, or catching – just being pulled on a scooter either by one of his therapists or one of the college-aged inclusion specialists while holding a hula hoop. Nolan participated in a three-week Adaptive Sports League camp in November 2019 – one week of soccer, one week of floor hockey, one week of wiffle ball – but I can’t say that anything stood out the week he played wiffle ball.
With that in my mind, I told Nolan’s primary special education teacher before the first day of practice last Tuesday I didn’t think he was going to enjoy himself. Still, he was going to try for at least one week. I took a deep breath, met Nolan in the gymnasium, grabbed a wiffle ball from a bucket, and tossed it to him underhand.
He threw it back to me overhand. It wasn’t a hard throw, but it was decent.
I threw it back to him underhand. He threw it back overhand, this time a little harder.
Wow – not bad, kid.
This went on for a few minutes before I asked myself, “Are we doing what I think we’re doing? Are we really doing what I think we’re doing?” I know Nolan returned a couple throws to me handball style, and I know there was at least one bathroom break mixed in. But I started throwing the ball to him overhand, he caught most of my throws, and he put a little mustard on a few of his return throws.
At one point the coach walked by and complimented Nolan for what he was doing. I asked him if he had been practicing throwing and catching Nolan in gym class. No, said the coach. The current unit is tennis. Whether or not they had practiced throwing and catching a wiffle ball earlier in the school year, I didn’t ask. All I could think of was that my son was playing catch with me. And he did it again after the team stretched. And again, twice, at Thursday’s practice.
I freely admit there are times when I fear the worst will happen in certain situations. I envisioned Nolan having a meltdown of epic proportions about me making him do something he didn’t want to do. But I really believe he enjoyed himself at both practices last week. I’m optimistic he’s going to enjoy going to practice this week and playing in his first game Thursday after school.
I hoped when Nolan was a baby that one day we could connect on many levels, but I really hoped that sports would be the one thing that would bring us together. Obviously we’ve found other ways to connect and enjoy each other’s company. Give us both a cold beverage and the open road and we’re happy. If Nolan wants to take the long way home on a walk, even on a very warm day, I’ll go willingly. And I have to admit hanging out on a tennis court is more relaxing and enjoyable then I ever thought it would be.
But there’s something about playing a game of catch with my son, as so many fathers get to do with their sons, that has brought me incredible joy. And I’m damn happy I finally have a chance to do that with Nolan.