Winds of Change

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There are countless articles on keeping things routine for an autistic child.  “Avoid change” is repeated throughout these articles.  What good is it to shelter a child from change in an ever changing world?  Cade has always been exposed to change.  As a result he handles it like a champ.  One of the biggest changes of our lives came August 29, 2005.  Strong warnings were issued to the residents of the gulf coast region as we braced for Hurricane Katrina.

August 26, 2005:

“Mr. Kelly, I have to make stinky,” Daniel announced as he skipped down the staircase.  With one hand over his backside he looked at me with his head tilted sideways.

“Dan the man, you know where the stinky room is,” I smiled as Daniel made his way to the bathroom.  Daniel was the neighbor’s kid.  He was happy, hyper and Cade’s best friend.  We became neighbors August 30, 2004.  We may have lost our home a year later but in that short time we gained family.

“Mr. Kelly, I ever told you about the time my Katelyn made spaghetti?”  Katelyn was Daniel’s older sister.  Anytime we needed a babysitter Katelyn was there.

“No Daniel.  I don’t think you did.”

“This one time my Katelyn was making spaghetti and I was watching Spiderman.  Spiderman was fighting the Green Goblin.  Did you see that movie?  That was a good movie and my Katelyn made spaghetti.”  Although Daniel’s stories never got anywhere they were always entertaining.

“Mr. Kelly,” Daniel peeked through the bathroom door.  “I’m still making stinky.”

That kid always made me smile.  We continued our conversation as I checked my hurricane supply kit.  Certain things were a necessity in southern Louisiana.  A hurricane supply kit was one of them.  These kits typically included a flash light, batteries, a pocket knife, duct tape, candles or an oil lamp, a lighter, a portable radio, toilet paper, first aid kit, insect repellent, some plastic cups caught at a Mardi Gras parade, various snacks, plastic utensils and a few cans of potted meat.  One more item was also needed.  Survivors of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 learned that it’s a good idea to keep an ax in the attic in case the levees fail.  With water rapidly rising it may be the only way to evacuate your home.  While making a list of items needed a weather alert flashed on the television. The National Hurricane Center just advised that they are predicting the storm to make landfall as a major hurricane.

August 27, 2005:

The New Orleans metro area was placed under a hurricane watch in the early morning hours.  My hurricane supply kit was fully stocked.  Meanwhile, the pan was sizzling with the left over crawfish from my wife’s etouffee.  Nothing beats breakfast on the bayou.  Cade was eight years old at the time.  With his Ninja Turtle pajamas still twisted from sleeping he fixed two plates.  One for him and one for his good friend Manny.  Manny was a stuffed bear Cade took everywhere.  I distracted Cade as I stole a few bites of Manny’s omelet.  It was just too good to waste on a teddy bear.  We spent the remainder of the morning playing with action figures and watching cartoons.

Through the French doors I glanced out to the back yard.  I gazed for a moment at the trampoline I recently assembled.  It was one of the many items we bought hoping Cade would enjoy.  I couldn’t get Cade to play on that trampoline for more than thirty seconds.  Similarly, I couldn’t get him to ride his bicycle.  He made no attempt to pedal.

“Cade,” I queried.  “Would you like to go jump on the trampoline with me?”

“No,” he replied.  “Play toys.”

Cade continued playing with his action figures and I finished the rest of Manny’s omelet.  There was a knock at the door.

“Mr. Kelly,” Daniel announced as I opened the door.  “Guess what?”

“What?”  I questioned.

“I already made stinky this morning and it was green.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, and my mom said it was because I ate a green snowball.  And then sometime I eat a yellow snowball but it’s not yellow.  What color stinky do you make?”

“Mostly it’s just different shades of brown,” I replied.

“Just brown?”  I could hear the disappointment in his voice.  “You should try to make a different color sometime.”

“Thank you Daniel.  I will keep that in mind.”

“Mr. Kelly,” again he asked for my attention.  “I can run fast.  Remember that time we went running at the high school?”

“Do you mean yesterday Daniel?”

“Yeah,” he continued with a sense of pride.  “And I ran fast.  And guess what?”

“What’s that Dan the man?”

“And that’s not the only time I ran fast.  This one time I ran fast and my friend couldn’t catch me.  And then we had to go inside because the mosquito truck was coming.  The mosquito truck smells yucky.  And you know what?”

“What?”

“I can run fast.  Can I play on the trampoline with Cade?”

“I don’t think Cade wants to play on the trampoline but you can play all you want.”

“Hey Cade,” Daniel announced as he made his way to the living room.  “You want to play on the trampoline?”

Without hesitation Cade quickly put down his action figures.  The two boys bounced on the trampoline for well over an hour.

“Well look at that,” declared my wife Julee.  We both watched in awe as they jumped and laughed.  It was a warm sunny day in southeast Louisiana.  With such beautiful blue skies it was hard to imagine the darkness lurking in the gulf.

“Would you boys like a snack?” asked my wife.

“Yeah!”  They shouted with excitement.

Cade opted for cookies and Daniel requested his favorite.  “Mr. Kelly,” Daniel questioned.  “Did you see how high I jumped?”

“Yeah man.  That was fantastic.”

“I know,” he continued as he munched on his uncooked ramen noodles.  “This one time I was jumping high and my Katelyn did her  homework.  And I was jumping high.  You should have seen that.  I jumped real high.  I think I want to go ride my bike now.  You want to watch how fast I ride my bike?”

“I would love to see that Dan the man.”  To my surprise Cade pulled out the bike he never rode and pedaled right along with Daniel.  Of course he wasn’t as fast as Daniel but who could possibly be that fast?

Many families in St. Bernard parish were supported through the money they earned fishing and trawling.  Daniel’s father was one of the many local fishermen.  With a storm approaching it was time to secure his boat.  Play time was coming to an end.  Daniel’s father walked over and stated it was time to go.  With his eyes squeezed tightly shut Daniel proclaimed, “I can’t hear you and I can’t see you either.”  Needless to say his father didn’t buy into it and Daniel and his father were soon on their way.

I remember how brightly the stars shone that night.  I pointed out various constellations to Cade and he shared new ones with me.  In the stars he could see Spiderman, The Hulk and Captain America.  I guess it’s a Marvel universe after all.  As I tucked Cade and Manny Bear into bed a weather update flashed on the screen.  Katrina was now a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds over 115 mph.  The National Hurricane Center has now placed us under a hurricane warning.  I did what most residents in the region did that night and slept with one eye open.

August 28, 2005:

It was the wee hours of the morning.  Katrina has now strengthened to a very powerful Category 5 hurricane.  Maximum sustained winds were over 175 mph and the storm was showing no signs of turning away.  Local government officials warned of certain death to residents who failed to evacuate.  We filled our suitcases with clothing and important documents.  As we bid farewell to the neighbors we promised that we’d see each other within a couple days.

We boarded our vehicle and thirteen hours later we had only driven ninety miles.  All traffic lanes were converted outbound and they were moving at a snail’s pace.  The remainder of the day was spent in the car with the radio tuned in for weather updates.

August 29, 2005:

We reached our evacuation spot.  The drive of roughly 450 miles to Hot Springs, AR took over twenty-three hours.  In that time we heard updates of extreme wind, rain and tornadoes ripping through our neighborhood.  That day we lost more than our home.  We lost our entire community.

We shortly realized that we would be breaking our promise to our neighbors.  There was no way of going home anytime soon.  We prayed for the safety and well being of our family and friends as we anxiously awaited their contact.  In the meantime we made the best of our cabin on the lake.  I remember a great talk I had with my sister’s father-in-law on a deck overlooking the water.  Willie and I reminisced on the unique culture of our hometown and all the wonderful people we grew up with.  Cade came to join us.  He giggled as he made his way over.  Willie spotted a beautiful bird flying and shared the moment with Cade.  To Willie’s surprise Cade yelled “Look out!”

The next ten minutes Cade laughed hysterically.  Speaking of himself in the third person he boasted, “You pushed old man Willie in the water.”

A few days later we sought long term refuge and found ourselves near Charlotte, NC.  Ten years later we still call this place home.  I realized how great Cade dealt with change when we moved here and enrolled him in school.  I was worried terribly about how he would handle such change.  I even contemplated shadowing him in class for a few days.  It was hard for me to hold back the tears when my wife and I dropped him off that first day.  We walked him to the door.  As he entered the building he turned around and waved to us.  “Good bye Mom and Dad.  Going to school.  See you soon.”  He walked in with a smile from ear to ear.

Life is full of change and Cade takes it all in stride.  I admire him greatly for that. We often think about Daniel and his family.  Neighbors like that come along just once in a lifetime.

Kelly Jude Melerine