It had been a relatively rough week for Harrison at school back in early December. The short weeks of school sandwiched between a 10-day break for Thanksgiving and 17-day holiday vacation are difficult for him to process, plus there were some other adjustments being made to his academic program due to his repeated disruptive outbursts in class. The biggest challenge for his neurodiverse brain is impulse control.
I wanted to do something to help him get back on track. That’s when I saw Don Richmond was playing a show at the SteamPlant on a Thursday evening which is the last day of the school week here. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the day we appeared in Christopher McDougall’s “Well” column in the New York Times.
I first saw Don perform at the Taos Plaza, and then again in a show at the Center for Inner Peace in Pueblo.
Over the years a couple of Don’s CDs have found their way into various of my playlists, particularly his album “Like Lazarus.” Among other things Don has won the Governor’s Award for Creative Leadership in the state of Colorado. I could go on and on about Don but you’ll find out much more about him here.
Back to Harrison, whom I sometimes call “The Blur,” a nickname explained in my book, Endurance. He loves music. I thought if he could keep it together for a day at school, perhaps I would surprise him with a trip to Salida for Don’s concert. That day, I stayed in contact with his aide Rebekah throughout the day, explaining that I wanted to reward him for a good day but not place any pressure on him because he tends to obsess on such things — a minor slip can quickly escalate to a major meltdown if he thinks he lost the prize.
The risks for me were not minor. It’s a 1 hour and 20 minute drive each way to Salida. The trip would mean dinner out at a restaurant. The price of the show for was not an insignificant amount. Plus, I knew if he had an issue during the show I would have to remove him from the theater.
After school I learned he’d had one minor slip-up just before the bell but Rebekah said she thought he’d had a good enough day to have earned the surprise.
I sat him down in the resource room and told him what I had in mind, and that he would have to agree to certain behaviors right now if we were to go to the show. This included being quiet in the car for the drive, proper manners and behaviors at the restaurant, and no disruptions during the show.
He agreed to all these conditions, so away we drove into the early December sunset toward Salida.
We went for dinner at Amica’s. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a fairly noisy and busy restaurant environment is actually a better place to take Harrison than a quiet one. It’s easier for us to blend in and if he makes noise or has some other issue it’s not as apparent. My friend Brandy was our server and she is always so incredibly kind. Harrison was perfect in the restaurant, and Brandy even allowed him to help her make a sundae for dessert.
After that, we headed on over to the SteamPlant. It was a chilly night outside and as we approached the doors he took off at a run, excited to get to the show.
A woman at the front door heard his footsteps and stopped to hold the door for him. I was close behind, walking quickly. As The Blur ran up to the door she looked at him. Then she looked up at me. There was a look on her face as if she had just seen something that doesn’t really exist, a fiction that had suddenly come to life.
“Wait . . . I . . . know who he is,” she said smiling. “I recognize you guys . . . I read about you in the New York Times today.”
I felt sort of embarrassed at this random notoriety and just smiled and muttered something like, “Yep, that’s us!”
Inside I quickly realized Harrison was not just the only autistic child at the show. He was the only kid there. Period. I saw my publisher Mike Rosso from Colorado Central magazine and he suggested we check out the side-balcony seating, which turned out to be a really great tip.
We climbed up the stairs, found the little balcony completely open and took our seats. At last the show began, and Harrison began singing along right away. After a few tunes, local musician Bruce Hayes joined Don on the stage, accompanying on the mandolin. It was clear Harrison had “cataloged” all of Don’s songs — he knew not only the lyrics but also which album each song was on. Except for singing out a bit loudly and also some minor throat-clearing due to some sort of sinus issue he was having he was behaving perfectly. I was glad we were in that little balcony so as not to disturb the other concertgoers.
At intermission, I took Harrison down to the stage and introduced him to Don. The Blur was thrilled, and since he had a full catalog of Don’s songs right there in his head he requested two that Don had not yet played. Don replied that one of those two songs, “Me and Everybody I Know” already was on his setlist and he would try to play the other request, “Awake,” if he had time to fit it in.
I saw the potential train wreck in the making right away. So after we got back into our seats, I explained to Harrison once again the rules we’d agreed to and that Don would do his best to play both songs, and for sure would play one, but that he could “deal” if Don didn’t play both.
The concert began again. At some point Bruce again accompanied Don, and then another fine regional musician, Tom Dussain, joined the show. Harrison was thrilled when they played “Me and Everybody I Know,” and then the countdown began. I could feel the angst building in the chair next to me, and there were some minor exclamations as the show wound down and none of the final songs were “Awake.”
Of course none of this was Don’s fault — he wasn’t there to play requests and had no idea the obsessive nature of Harrison’s mind.
As the show ended, Harrison jumped up from his chair, grabbed his jacket and determinedly headed for the stage.
I was quick after him and was able to divert him at the bottom of the steps. My attempts to block him from getting to Don quickly turned to a bit of a wrestling match as I tried to guide him toward the exit, narrowly missing bumping into an elderly woman with a walker during this fracas. In the hallway leading out to the lobby I literally had to restrain Harrison, and a woman walking past asked, “Is everything OK here?”
I replied that “No, it’s not but we’ll get through this.”
Right then the man walking with her, I’n guessing her husband, said, “Yes, everything is fine.”
Then she asked him, “How do you know that?” as they walked away.
I was too concerned with getting Harrison out of the SteamPlant to worry right then about what anyone else thought of the situation, but I am sure it does appear odd to some people to see a grown man wrestling a 12-year-old kid out of a theater, and they probably don’t know what to think or do.
Once outside The Blur took off running down the sidewalk to the car. I followed behind. It was a cold night and I remember sitting down in my seat and focusing on slowing my heart rate before slowly driving away. Not a word was said the entire drive home. I reflected upon how our exit was so much different than our entrance.
All the way down the Arkansas River canyon I stewed over my mind’s story about how Harrison had managed to “ruin” an otherwise perfect evening. Why did I even try to take him to something like this? What was I thinking? I wrestled with my own questions about how I had handled the situation after the show, and how I had responded to the woman asking if everything was OK.
About at Cotopaxi, as I turned from U.S. 50 to the winding road that takes us back up to the Wet Mountain Valley, I suddenly had an epiphany. I remembered the good moments from the evening. I remembered Brandy smiling as Harrison helped with dessert. I remembered the woman’s smile at the Steam Plant door when she recognized him from the New York Times. I remembered realizing Harrison had memorized entire albums. I remembered Don kindly reaching out to shake his hand. Like the unsung song, I was suddenly “Awake.”
The truth was Harrison had not wrecked the entire evening. He’d merely had an episode that made for a few uncomfortable moments at the end. I took him there because I am his father and I want him to have great experiences as a child. He did not totally disrupt the show. Nobody got hurt.
Furthermore, I handled the situation as best as I could under the circumstances, and nobody was questioning this other than my own mind. As for the woman’s question about everything being OK, I appreciate her concern and am sorry that I could not produce the words to adequately explain at that time with my arms and mind so full what was actually going on there.
What I should have said is this: “Yes, everything is just fine here. We’ll be just fine.”