there are experiences so visually riveting, so emotionally moving, that they leave a permanent etching in your mind’s eye.  recalling these frames of memory can transport you across years and miles of the years and miles you’ve traveled, to forever savor.  the impact of such a moment can touch you with such force — it becomes a part of you.

and one day, many years and many miles ago, a little boy’s intense connection to an abrupt afternoon interruption became a part of me.

it was late spring in mid 90’s houston, texas.  when i say mid-90’s, i refer to the decade and the temperature.   it was around 1995 and around 95 degrees.  quite possibly 95 percent humidity, too (!).  i had joined friends, and their young children, for an afternoon of visiting, kvelling, watching the kids run around and enjoy each other and the physical freedoms of an overcast spring saturday.

there were about 8 of us, adults and kids all totaled, and the lively, impromptu gathering had landed in the middle of the street. not a major thoroughfare, car traffic was so scant on this street, that it was an oft-chosen (and perfect!) playing/gathering surface for neighbors of all ages.

and that was the place and the day: adults firmly planted at a meeting-place in the road, little ones racing and buzzing about the adults: squealing; chasing; laughing.  and, as was the place – sub-tropical houston – was the day. sub-tropical weather with rain storm out of nowhere a very common phenomenon.  warm, damp breezes washed us in bad-hair/good-skin caresses, and threatening clouds carrying booms of electricity marched in.
a jarring flash! and a crackling rumble! the deluge was on.  the sound of our collective fast foot steps running for cover could not keep tempo with the steady smatter of fierce-falling raindrops all around us. girlie squeals and little boy roars played background vocals to the wet cacophony of our stampede.
we arrived safely under shelter of the porch, out of breath and laughing now at each other’s skin-soaked clothes and drop-dotted hair.  someone went inside to get towels, kids wriggled little feet out of wet socks and soaked sandals.

and that was when i noticed that one of us was still in the street.

through the heavy sheets of warm rain, i could see one of “our” little boys standing right where he was when the skies opened.

and what i saw, no felt – next i will carry with me forever.  you see, this little boy, ryan (a grown man now), has autism.  at the time, i knew very little (read: nothing) about autism.  rainman was my only frame of reference.  rainman.  oh the irony.  now, one thing i DID “know” about autism (at the time), was that children have emotional (and seeming physical) disconnect from others around them.  and this was the case whenever i was around ryan.  he interacted sometimes, not always, on his terms, and that was just how it was.  he was clearly loved, safe, and cared for, so i never really focused too much time on him or crowded his space when i was in his company.

but on this day, from my vantage point on the porch, ryan was all i saw, and he was all i felt.  at this point,  my only hope is that i can render the words to paint the picture.  i’ll try:

ryan’s lanky tween body, dark rain-matted hair, pale-skinned face up to the sky, thin arms wide open, thin little fingers, outstretched in 10 directions of up,  water running over him shellacking a shiny sheen onto his form — this image is seared in my memory.  but it wasn’t just what i SAW that stopped me in my tracks, it was what i imagined he was feeling – what i felt.  how could this little boy, whose condition dictates disconnect — HOW could this child had opened himself to mother nature, to the universe?  i swear i was witnessing this little boy having an extra-sensory experience, a FEARLESS AND TOTAL CONNECTION —  with his whole little body and his entire being.  ryan was connected to something that was just his, and nothing could pry him from his moment — not his mother’s pleas for him to get out of the road, not his siblings’ coaxing, not the deafening echo-roars of thunder.  nothing.

it was intense and beautiful and sweet and mysterious all at once.

for some reason, i was so happy for him.  and i was so happy for ME that i saw this.  and felt this.  and would keep this.   for a fleeting couple of seconds, i felt equally sad that i could not possibly convey to him what his moment did to me, but that was ok – it was HIS, after all.

at this point, in my trance-like state, by another of “our” kids, also named ryan, noticed my staring.  sweet little diplomatic child that he was, he came up and sort of hugged my arm with his arms and said “andrea, ryan is autistic (very slight little lisp on the “s” in autistic); he doesn’t really know any better”.  i looked down at this ryan, smiled at him and said “dude, i think he knows MORE”, and this ryan next to me issued a wonderful little giggle of relief, and said “yeah, cuz you know what? really it’s just water” followed by a a bigger grin and a high five for me.

i said some good-byes and started home.  any other day, i’d have asked for an umbrella, or waited for the storm to pass.

but this day, this now very new day, i just put one foot in front of the other, into the lighter but steady downpour, past the ryan who was now being gently escorted out of the road by his mother, and squish-squashed up the street to my home. of the thousands of rain drops that landed on my skin, i swear i can still feel every single one.

many years and as many miles later, that memory, that feeling – my watermark – is still in me.  when it rains,  if my feet get soaked, my clothes drenched, my hair messed — all i have to do is remember the gift that was given to me by a little boy’s intense connection to an abrupt afternoon interruption.

cuz you know what?  it’s really just water.

***UPDATE.  ryan, the little boy who inspired this entry, is now living in austin, texas with his family.  he is featured in many interesting independent film and animation films.  in fact, one film was on exhibit at MOMA for a while!   i have viewed several, but have 2 favorites.  please watch the even more fun trip here and ryan’s capitol tour here.  both are just beautiful.