When Life Needs No Words

16 Sep

It happens at the 36 second mark of the video.  A huge wave knocks Shelby backwards off the board and she is floating in the ocean, her feet sticking out of the water. It is less than two seconds later, Kai has swum to her and has her in his arms and back on the board. A volunteer had also run out into the water, but quickly is able to turn around.

I kept on filming. I’m sure I felt apprehension and fear for a moment, but it had to have been less than a second. Shelby, who freaks out over a loose string on clothing…didn’t bat an eyelash. And I can remember seeing over the camera, that Shelby’s face never faltered. She had complete and total trust in Kai, who she’d only known for a few minutes, that he was not going to let anything bad happen to her.

This is a moment that happened two years after she had screamed and steadfastly refused to go anywhere near the water after her father dove into a wave with her head first at Emerald Isle on vacation. I wondered after that day in August of 2009 if she would ever allow us to take her to the beach again…she seemed destined to hate the water (baths, even, had become a struggle after that incident).

But life is funny sometimes and life with autism…can be even funnier. By the summer of 2010, I wanted to sign her up for Surfers Healing camp, but my husband was feeling rather remorseful about what had happened the year before and didn’t want me to. So I didn’t. A neighbor with an autistic son Shelby’s age, told me to bring her and come with them to surf, she was sure someone would put Shelby on a board. We did not end up going that year though because Jeff had just started a new job out of town and Shelby had decided to push her dresser through her window. Life as a mother of an autistic child is a lot of things, boring is NEVER one of them. But that summer, Shelby had re-discovered the ocean, on her terms. And she was in love.

I literally counted down the days to sign up for Surfers Healing Camp 2011 at Wrightsville Beach and I was sitting there refreshing the page every 3 seconds to make sure I did not miss signing her up. The relief that washed over me when I hit submit and saw the confirmation screen was palpable. I had heard so many amazing things, but none of what was told to me could describe what happened on August 22nd.

I have always been a verbal person. I mean, I graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing, so verbal is pretty much my middle name. So the irony was never lost on me that my first child, my only daughter (at this point) is non-verbal. She doesn’t speak at all. Only vocalizations. Unlike me, she is amazingly social. Without language. Without words. So, I never imagined that I would be standing on the beach, the beach where her father proposed to me, watching her surf and not being able to find words for what I was feeling. For what I was seeing.  I mean, are there really words to describe this moment:

or this one?

or this?

And what about this?

And certainly no words could describe this moment:


And you know what, sometimes there don’t need to be words. I’ve learned from autism and surfing that there are experiences in life that just defy verbal explanation. Shelby cannot tell you her name, she cannot tell us she loves us, she cannot ask for a cup of milk or tell us when she is hurt or what hurts. But she can show us how to love, how to understand, how to be honest and compassionate. And with a little help, she can stand on a surfboard make you feel what it’s like to be on top of the world.

Shelby is the best version of herself. And she’s not trying to be someone else and I would never want her to be. And for one day on the beach, no one else asked her to be either.

Perhaps my proudest moment that day though wasn’t captured on film. I have two typically developing sons as well. Joey will be four in a week. Will turned two in May. Will is actually ahead of almost all his milestones developmentally. Joey is perfectly situated in “normal.” They were intrigued by the surfers (and truth be told a little miffed they didn’t get to surf). They loved watching all the kids go out and they eyed the surfers down trying to figure out exactly how they were doing what they were doing. As we walked back to our car, Joey, holding my hand said, “Mama, I want to be a surfer. Can I learn to surf?” I said, “Sure, that sounds like a good thing for you to do.” “Mama, I want to surf to help kids like Shelby.” My heart swelled, “That would be the best thing.” I told him. Two year old Will, holding my other hand said, “Yeah Mama, me too. William surf and help Shelby.”

This one day of the year does so much for the child on the board, for the parents on the shore and even for little boys who don’t get to surf because they are “normal.” Their lives were changed that day too. And the thought that our boys can help our family pay it forward and be the next generation of surfers taking autistic children out on their boards is a feeling beyond words. The kindness, the generosity and the gratitude of everyone associated with Surfers Healing is one of the most amazing acts of humanity I have ever witnessed. Everyone from the volunteers to the surfers to the Paskowitz family and the other families present makes a parent feel so much love and acceptance, it’s almost a shame we all have to go live in the “real world” after that.

I don’t know what I felt at the 36 second mark of my film of Shelby surfing. It wasn’t fear, it was joy. Joy that she was falling off a surfboard and doing it happily. Joy that she was feeling so at ease and not over stimulated just exhilarated. It was a long journey to get to a point where I could see something like this happen and have that feeling. I am forever grateful for that.

In Hawaii you say Mahalo for “thank you.” Mahalo Kai, for taking our daughter out on a board, you have her heart forever. Mahalo Izzy and Danielle, for sharing your love and vision with the world. Mahalo to all the volunteers who gave their time, treasure and talent to make this day a reality. And Mahalo to all those reading this…


2 Responses to “When Life Needs No Words”

  1. Francisca September 17, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    Kristen, you have truly touched our hearts. I am sure you can see it in the way Kai enjoyed surfing with Shelby. Thank you for giving him the opportunity to be part of her life.

    Hope to get a chance to meet you, Shelby, Jeff, Joey and Will.

    Francisca Dilling (Kai’s wife)

  2. Jo Ann September 18, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Hi Kristen, I found your blog via Surfer’s Healing. Thanks for this beautiful post. I have a nephew with autism and his twin brother has ADHD. They also have an older brother with no disabilities. I’ve had a huge part in raising them and it’s tough, but so beautiful! While my nephew is now verbal and higher functioning, he wasn’t always! For a long time he was much like your daughter.
    The name of your blog is beautiful as autism is such a blessing and teaches you so many things you could have otherwise never known. I love your outlook and can’t wait to read more. I’m so glad you guys had such a wonderful time surfing. I think it was so precious when your sweet boy said he wanted to learn to surf to help kids like Shelby! What a special moment! Those are some good kids in the making! I’m really looking forward to reading your blog 🙂

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