“Why Couldn’t He Be Like Any Other Boy?”
After years of wishing his son could just be “normal,” a camping trip helped this father stop comparing his son to other kids and start appreciating the ways in which ADHD made him unique.
My son came into the world without a sound. He seemed perfect from the start, with bright, curious eyes that scanned the room, absorbing every detail. My wife and I named him Drew – meaning “intelligent,” according to our baby name book – because we sensed he was a smart one. As I held him for the first time, I felt lucky to be the father of this perfect little boy.
Years passed, and I watched with dismay as Drew changed from that perfect child in the delivery room into a boy with significant developmental delays.
He would hit his friends to let them know he was happy, no matter how many times we told him not to. When he entered school, we noticed that he was slower than his peers at understanding abstract ideas.
I vividly recall the evening my wife, Wendi, patiently explained the concept of death to Drew. When she finished, she asked if he had any questions. “Yes,” he replied. “Did you ever die?”
Still, Wendi and I wouldn’t admit to ourselves the severity of his delays until we finally heard a doctor say, “He’s years behind where he should be.” I went from wondering how I was going to pay for a Harvard education to watching Drew climb aboard the special-ed bus each morning. There was no denying that Drew was different from other kids, but I was convinced that if I tried hard enough, I could make him “normal.”
At age six, Drew joined a T-ball league. But he seemed to spend most of his time picking dandelions in the outfield. He couldn’t understand why his teammates were running all over the place to catch a ball when there were so many beautiful flowers to gather.
Drew moved on to soccer, but he proved less interested in chasing the ball than in playing with the drinking fountain at the edge of the field. In karate class, he spent most of his time putting the other kids in headlocks – something his instructor frowned upon. Nothing really engaged him except building Lego masterpieces.
At age seven, Drew was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His odd behavior continued. Still, I was determined to find something he could do like any other little boy. So I signed him up for Boy Scouts, volunteering to be the troop leader.
We started off with a series of weekend hikes. Halfway through each outing, I found myself carrying Drew’s backpack, along with my own, as he kept stopping to examine anthills or use a stick to trace pictures in the dirt.
By the time we made it to the campsite, the other kids had long since pitched their tents and were gathered around the campfire. My co-leader would optimistically remark on how great Drew was doing. I felt like screaming but comforted myself with the belief that scouting was helping Drew have a happy childhood.
Still, I was really looking forward to our next outing: a 30-mile canoe trip down the Colorado River. The first day was magnificent, perfect weather for a float trip. But Drew wasn’t much of a paddler. He didn’t so much stroke as he simply stirred the water. Despite my best efforts at teaching Drew how to paddle correctly, we fell far behind the other canoes. It was a long first day.
When we finally reached our campsite, I lost my footing getting out of the canoe and toppled into the water. Drew ran off without a word – he hadn’t even noticed. Exhausted and cold, I quickly inhaled some food and said goodnight to Drew, who seemed captivated by the moths circling our lantern.
The next morning, I felt re-energized. If I paddled harder, I reasoned, Drew and I would be able to keep up with the other canoes. But, once again, we fell behind, losing contact with the nearest canoe barely two hours into the trip. Drew and I were alone on the river.
As I sat there in the blazing sun, I felt more frustrated than ever. Drew, oblivious to my disappointment, was peering into the water, looking for fish. Why me, I wondered. Why couldn’t Drew be like any other boy who could paddle a canoe, kick a goal, or hit a home run?
Then I began to wonder: What in the world was I doing? Why was I obsessed with having a son like everyone else’s? Drew pointed at a butterfly that had perched atop his shoe and gave me a big smile. And there it was, right in front of me: It didn’t matter that Drew had no interest in hitting a home run or being the fastest down the river. He was too busy discovering the world around him. No, this wasn’t the little boy I’d had such hopes for in the hospital so long ago. But he was happy.
In camp that evening, Drew watched as a pair of dragonflies danced above his head. He turned to me and said, “This is the best trip ever.” In that moment, for the first time in a very long while, I felt lucky to be Drew’s dad.