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Tennis courts a great match for father and son


I knew Nolan’s Autism diagnosis 12 years ago would change the way I interacted with him. And yeah, it took me some time to come to terms with that.

All the things I’d dreamed of doing with him that started the second the ultrasound revealed Cindy was carrying an already strapping boy simply weren’t going to happen. There would be no baskets shot in the driveway, no footballs tossed in the backyard, no moments of dad passing on sage advice to his son, even if those words of wisdom only consisted of, “Keep your eye on the ball,” or, “Listen to your coach.” There would be no moments where we walked side-by-side, a la Andy and Opie Taylor, fishing poles slung over our shoulders, heading to that sweet spot where we knew they’d be biting.

Nolan has severe Autism, he’s nonverbal, and he has more than his fair share of sensory issues. I came to accept a long time ago that while we wouldn’t be doing the normal father-son things together, we still could bond and have fun. That might mean hitting a balloon back and forth while Nolan bounced on his yoga ball. It might mean dad plays chauffeur, driving Mr. Nolan around the county in which we reside – and perhaps a neighboring one, too – on the days he’s really craving movement. And it might mean hanging out on tennis courts.

That’s right: hanging out on tennis courts. No rackets and balls. No serving and volleying. We’re just … there.

Somewhere between the time our daily walks for Nolan’s adaptive physical education class began this past spring and July, our stopping point typically became the tennis courts at the middle school located about 4½ blocks from our house. I don’t remember how or when it happened. One day we were walking on the side of the street opposite the school. Then Nolan began pulling my arm – first to cross the street, then to drag me past the entrance to the school and the basketball courts and onto the tennis courts. This became our ritual a few days a week.

From there, if they weren’t occupied – and thankfully, they very seldom were this summer – Nolan had free reign to do as he pleased. First the Crocs came off – all the better to get more bounce on the springy surface as he ran around the courts. Then he would sit on each bench by each of the nets, trying out each one as if he were Goldilocks (The benches on the far eastern and western ends of the courts must have been just right, because they seemed to be his favorites). There were instances when he would pick up an old piece of rope that had tied a net to a post or part of an old net that was laying on the court and do an interpretive dance for the occasional pedestrian, bike rider or motorist who happened to pass by.

I caught more than one person shooting us a quizzical glance and likely wondering what the hell we were doing. Not that I cared. Nolan was happy, and so was I.

Who knew I could ever feel content on tennis courts? The only time I ever played, if you can call it that, was because I had to in high school as part of my physical education requirements. And given the choice of watching a five-set championship match at Wimbledon or cartoons on television, I’d pick seeing Bugs Bunny outwit Elmer Fudd for the 155th time. I enjoyed seeing John McEnroe’s meltdowns – I might have learned a new cuss word or two from him – and for some strange reason I had a crush on Monica Seles when I was in college. But I’ve never really had any interest in tennis. I never even considered spending more than a few seconds on a court.

That changed this summer. As much as I looked forward to going on walks with Nolan, I began hoping he’d pull me toward the tennis courts once we reached Quincy Street, where the middle school is located. His smile, his laughter brought great joy to my heart. A chain link fence surrounds the four courts, and in my mind it served as a barrier from the uncertainty and meanness going on in the world right now. While Nolan enjoyed himself, I savored the hot sun and the warm breeze, especially on Friday afternoons when I knew we’d reached the end of another week. I think we both reached a point where we didn’t want to go home until we absolutely had to.

Nolan is back in school now, thanks in large part to the district’s director of pupil services pushing for special needs students to receive face-to-face instruction. That, coupled with the fact October weather (chilly air and a lot of rain) paid our little corner of Wisconsin a visit last week, meant we haven’t gotten to his favorite hangout together since Labor Day Weekend. I’ve really missed our treks there. I thought it would be fun Sunday for Cindy and I to walk with Nolan to the tennis courts. Judging by the fact Nolan pulled Cindy a few paces ahead of me and shoved me away every time I got close, he obviously thought it would be more fun if mom took him. Cindy got to see that the courts she’d played on 30 years ago hadn’t changed too much. I got sent home.

I hope Nolan will want to go back with me this week after school. The forecast is calling for what very likely could be the last summer-like temperatures we see until next year. I’d like to think that Nolan will still have some energy left even after spending nearly eight hours in school. I’d like to think he misses me as much as I miss him and will want to spend some time together at a place that we both enjoy.

Maybe there’s a small part of me who wishes I could play a game of “H-O-R-S-E” or toss a football with my son. But I love the way that we’ve found a new way to connect with each other.

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