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The Moment of New Light

by Hal Walter

photo by Hal Walter
photo by Hal Walter

As the days reached their shortest, the week became a blur of Christmas cards, doctor appointments, school programs and visits to the post office – so many, in fact, that I joked I should pay rent for desk space there.
The doctor appointments in Pueblo were annual checkups for me and my son Harrison. For me this entails the usual blood pressure (120/78), weight (160, same as last year), discussion about whether I want a colonoscopy (no thanks!), and a discussion of the usual blood tests (lipid profiles, C-reactive protein, vitamin D levels, etc.).
For Harrison it entails a weight that increased significantly (up about 10 pounds to 64.6), and height (just a few inches under 5 feet), and sometimes a discussion about the possibility of meds to control some of the wild behaviors associated with his autism. I remain opposed.
So really, I’m not sure why we go. But we did. Afterward we ran a couple errands in Pueblo, then returned to Westcliffe to get Harrison back for at least a half-day of school.
When we arrived at the school, he did not want to go inside. I had some difficulty persuading him to follow me from the car to the building. While I was getting a late pass in the office, he played with some doors in the hallway – this seems to be calming to him. Then we traipsed off to the classroom. As we rounded the corner he stuck his head out and looked inside the classroom. It was empty. His classmates were in another room practicing for the Christmas program.
Upon seeing the empty classroom, Harrison screamed loudly and ran shrieking. Immediately other teachers, the school nurse, the special ed director and the principal ran out into the hallway to see what was happening, and his tantrum only escalated. His teacher, Mrs. Holycross, was on the scene immediately, trying to console him and calm him down. Meanwhile, I forced a smile in order to ward off tears.
So many times it’s difficult to piece together the progression of events that lead to these moments. I imagine this also is what it’s like in Harrison’s mind, that he has difficulty piecing back together what made him behave in this manner. But this time it was all so clear. He simply didn’t want to go back to school that day, and then when it was obvious he had to, and his classmates were not there, his world was completely out of order.
Mrs. Holycross ushered him to the classroom, and after he had calmed down I left for home to try to work for a couple hours before returning to pick him up after school. In truth I was wrecked and opted instead for an afternoon cup of coffee and a 5-mile run.
* * *


My neighbor called to ask a favor. He had an old mare and wanted to put a blanket on her. The day was gloomy with gray clouds hanging low to the ground, and the forecast was for snow and colder temperatures. I’m not a fan of horse blankets for many reasons, but I knew he was going to try to blanket this horse whether I helped him or not.
My neighbor is probably 80, a slight fellow and not very tall. He’s the type who will plow your driveway sometimes when it snows just out of the goodness of his heart. I found him at his barn, and the mare was in bad condition. She’d been dropping weight despite extra rations of senior feed, soaked alfalfa cubes and hay. Her teeth were badly worn, the beginning of the end.

The blanket was an awkward affair, with several straps and buckles. I folded in it half lengthwise, inside out, and set it upon the mare’s back. Then I softly flipped and lowered the offside half over the horse. Partly because the blanket was too large, and partly because the horse was so poor, the straps had to be taken up, a clumsy task for cold fingers. A britchin’ strap was so loose below the tail that I decided it was safer to just leave it off.
I jury-rigged the blanket to tighten the fit at the withers using some baling twine through three D rings. Then I used some more twine to tether the back cinch strap to the front, hoping to reduce the possibly of the horse tangling a leg should she decide to roll. We stood back to admire our handiwork. I noticed right away that the horse looked much better covered with the blanket. As a fine snow began to sift down, my neighbor extended an arthritic hand and we shook. I believe tears were welling.

* * *
Over the years the annual Christmas programs have been a source of stress. Harrison’s unpredictability takes on a whole new dimension when he’s up on a stage with all the other kids, and with their families watching. Above all, nobody wants some sort of outburst to disrupt the program.
Earlier in the week the class had practiced the show for a local senior center, and Harrison took it upon himself – to the surprise of his classmates and teachers – to be the program’s announcer. During this visit he also introduced himself to one of the residents, saying, “I’m Harrison and I have autism.” When I learned this from Mrs. Holycross the next day, I realized for the first time he has developed some sort of understanding of his condition.
There was the usual discussion about whether to just stay home from the Christmas show. It’s the sure-fire way to avoid embarrassment. But fifth grade is the last year of elementary programs. Of course we were going.
And as we sat nervously in the folding chairs on the gymnasium floor, Harrison tromped up onto the stage with the rest of the class, singing along effortlessly, his perfect pitch rising above the chorus of the other kids so distinct anyone could pick it out. He knows he has autism, and many in the audience know this as well. But in this moment of new light it didn’t seem to matter. To him, or to anyone else.

Hal Walter’s new book Full Tilt Boogie is available at the Book Haven in Salida, and also directly from him in paperback and e-book. Write to him at for details.

One Comment

  1. Jeff Bennett Jeff Bennett January 3, 2015

    Hal, as always, you convey so many things in your writing. I admire how your courage and how you handle the challenges you face every day. There is so much significance in this column. Thank you for sharing.

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