An Unlikely Friendship

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We are driving in the pouring rain down a windy road lined on both sides by Dogwoods decorated with orange and red colored drupes. Ruby is leaning her head against the side of the car, her almond-shaped eyes watching the foliage pass in a blur of wet and green.

Why aren’t there side rails on the road? Can’t we fall off the side?

We have driven down this road every Saturday for the last two years, and every single time we head down the hill Ruby asks this same exact question. Always, her head is cocked, brown hair skimming a shoulder, eyes lit as if a small fire is catching the edges of her imagination. Ruby crafts worry like a fine artist.

When we reach the entry to the bridge that will carry us across the water, she tells me about the tiny islands she can see in the middle of the river, points out the small white fishing boats that bob up and down on the inky water like quarter notes in a nocturne. Sometimes from the bridge we can see the snowy peak of Mt. Hood seemingly painted behind the architecture of the city.

What will you do if the bridge falls down while we are driving over it, Mom? Will you save me first?

This child, who is so predictable in her routines, has completely blown apart my idea of what Autism is. When as a tiny overall and hat wearing toddler she was diagnosed, my biggest fear was that Ruby would never have friends. My assumption was that she would never be able to express love or empathy, that she would never be able to communicate with another child.

And it is true that at that young age Ruby existed only in her own world. Other children were just objects to push past to get to that shiny red toy on the table. The accidental touch of another child could spark a blaze of hot tears. The feeling of a smooth doorknob or the texture of a painting could hold her attention for much longer than the face of any person.

But after many months of speech therapy and occupational therapy, Ruby was ready for something more. She was regulated enough that she was starting to show less anxiety around her peers. She made fledgling attempts at connecting. One day at the park I saw her approach a group of children and, while looking down at her shoes, say in the softest voice I am Ruby. The children didn’t see or hear her so she walked away, staring up at the leaves rustling against the woven net of bark.

That summer we enrolled Ruby in a social skills therapy group run by an amazing therapist who really understands the challenges kids on the Autism spectrum face in social situations. Finding this group was one of the greatest gifts because not only did Ruby start to grow in leaps and bounds, but she met Eliza, her first true friend, her steady bridge to companionship.

Photo by David Friedman

I’m not sure how to adequately describe Eliza other than to say that I’m in love with her. Her mother writes beautifully about raising this girl who has more than her share of struggles in schools and with peers. Eliza is brilliant, kind, and befuddling. I have never known a child who is more unabashedly and purely herself. Picture a beautiful girl with long, wavy hair exploring the uneven terrain of a shallow riverbed. Mud, tadpoles, dirt, water and the lilt of a girl’s voice singing. I love Eliza’s observations about the world. But what I love best about Eliza is the fact that she understands Ruby better than anyone else.

I can’t tell you how these two girls fell in love with each other, or if it happened slowly or quickly, because it seems that there was never a time that they weren’t friends. Here are two children with Autism who can spend hours playing together, who can have normal conversations, who sneak off to have a smooch or a hug.

When my mother died last year, the person who gave Ruby the greatest solace was Eliza. One day Ruby ran upstairs with my phone after we had called Eliza. I was downstairs working on my computer when I got a message from Eliza’s mom telling me that Ruby was crying to Eliza about how much she missed her Mimi. Whenever Ruby is having a rough day the first person she wants to talk to is “Sissy.” She considers Eliza her sister.

My feelings about Eliza’s parents will have to be saved for another day, but I will say briefly that they are Catchers. I feel like I can talk to David and Sarah about anything. (And nothing grosses Sarah out. Ever.) I feel like they are part of the reason why Ruby is doing so well. They are the village that I have always wanted. Most of my family lives on the other side of the country. David and Sarah are like family. Having family and a village is so important when you have a child with Autism.

But the most important thing to a child (and his or her parents) is a friend. I thank my lucky stars for Eliza because she is a true friend.

Photos of Ruby & Eliza courtesy of David Friedman

30 thoughts on “An Unlikely Friendship

  1. Awww Shucks! Thanks for the kind words about Eliza. We feel grateful to have Ruby in our lives. Ruby is the only girl that Eliza truly plays with like friends do. Like friends should. I like that they mix up their play between imaginary games in the basement and virtual games on the computer. And the fact that we adore your whole family makes our girls’ lovefest that much sweeter.

    • Awww Shucks right back atcha! We have big love for you, Sarah & Eliza. Today Ruby told me that the biography she has to do for homework will be about Eliza. How cute is that?

  2. The beauty conveyed in your words is blinding because of the tears in my eyes. And I so gratefully share your feelings about the friendship between Ruby and Eliza… as well as the immense respect I have for you, Paul, Sarah, and David.

    Your words are soaring, Jen… and surely reaching your Mom’s heart.

  3. Oh how I want my children to be loved like this.
    Oh how I’d want that for myself, too.

    A village. And belonging.
    A guard-rail through life, indeed.

    Lucky stars for everyone.
    All around.

  4. I love this story!! It reminds me of my son and his best friend. Though my son never had a formal diagnosis he suffered many of the same symptoms. We too did intensive therapy and social skills classes and when he started kindergarten in a class where he spent the morning in half day kindergarten and the pm in a special group with 4 other boys who had various spectrum diagnosis he found his friend for life. My son just blossomed in kindergarten and did beautifully in the typical class and made many friends but he and his best friend had a bond that is just so special. One day when Tom was doing something that I thought other kids would think was odd, I called it to his attention. “You think the other kids may think it’s strange? “They might” I replied. He thought about this for a minute than said, ” It doesn’t matter Sam likes me just the way I am and he will always be my friend. I was as happy as mom can be! I’m so glad your daughter has her best friend!!

    • Kathy, I loved reading about Tom & Sam’s friendship! It’s amazing when two kids just totally “get” each other. I’m so happy that your son has that kind of forever friend. XO

  5. This is a beautiful post.
    What a wonderful support system you have for your family and your daughter.
    I’m so glad.
    I’m also still very affected by your “catchers” post! So wonderful!

    • Thank you so much, Leighann! I am so thankful for Ruby’s friendship with Eliza. And so lucky that we love her parents, too.

      After I wrote the “catchers” post I started thinking about all the catchers in my life. Pretty cool! I hope your catchers are in full effect, friend.

  6. What a beautiful relationship! My oldest is ADHD and has Asperberger’s. He went through a long friendless stage (11-15) with zero social interaction, but at 15 found a girlfriend who is now his best friend. As the parent of a special needs kid, it’s impossible to fully explain what these relationships mean, but you did a lovely job.

  7. I’m so glad that you and your family have them in your lives- Catchers to be sure. I’m really happy Ruby has her in her life- a friend like that is something I wish for all of my children to be sure.

    • Alexandra, Wow, I don’t think I knew that about your son, either. It’s amazing what one true friend can do for a kid’s self esteem and overall happiness. We feel very lucky!

  8. What a sweet and loving story about your daughter and friendship and how important that is. And how as Ruby’s mother, you are doing everything you can to help her grow and bond and live and enjoy life. Sweetness all around!

    • Thanks so much, Pippi! We are doing as much as possible to help Ruby. She has a penchant for stepping in her own steaming piles of friendship doo-doos, but luckily she has Eliza who forgives ALL. Gotta love her. Thanks so much for commenting, friend!

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