Ten years ago, about the same time as I am writting this, I found myself in a luxury apartment common area in the middle of Providence, decorating the area in paper bats and streamers and stuffing personalized hand drawn treat bags for our guests of honor, a group of special needs adults who were assigned to our little group of college kids as buddies.
I was dressed up as the modern version of Strawberry Shortcake, complete with her red stripes shirt, jeans and farm boots, wearing the crushed and semi beaten up pink hat, which mishapen from shipping, along with the outfit reminded everyone that day of a pirate.
I sat in the area as our lead brought in one buddy after another as they arrived and sent them to their newfound college friend.
But where was mine?
About 15 minutes towards the end, here he came, dressed in an orange and black shirt and black pants, carrying a Freddy Kruger mask in one hand with great might, all while using a metallic purple set of crutches.
As my lead walked me over to this man, she smiled and explained “This is Billy.”
Billy, I connected the name with my treat bag sketches. He loves space movies, Power Rangers, and video games, the survey I used for reference said. Just what I drew on the bag.
I shake his hand, not expecting him to talk back or be limited in his speech.
“You are a pretty pirate…a Strawberry Shortcake pirate. My name is Billy and I’m a self advocate. I live in my own apartment and work at a movie theater. And you must be Amanda. My sister’s name is Amanda too. I think I’m going to call you Mandy. Ok?”
In that 15 minutes, he went on and on about his life story in detail with great pride and positive energy. I felt a sense of great comfort around him. Positivity was something I lack.
The next day, I got a call from him. Apparently I had doubts of his ability to use a phone as I volunteered in the past with people who were lower functioning. Not this guy. He knew I was new to college and living on my own and would offer me some dinner one night if I came over. He taught me to come out of my comfort zone and I took the city bus for the first time in an unknown town.
I remember my first visit to his place to be an adventure, a secret stash of M&Ms and Reeses Pieces in a mason jar under his sink my reward for making it to his place on my own. We sat on his kitchen floor talking for hours, joking about random stuff and just loving life in general.
My parents at the time didn’t take too kindly to this older man.And since he called me non stop 24/7 at one point, I made him a Build A Bear with my voice in it before thanksgiving that year so he wouldn’t be lonely. Just to try to avoid an angry mom and dad when my cell would go off during dinner.
The day before break, I was met with our secret candy jar and coffee brewing, and since his birthday was around the corner, I treated it as a gift. I had my doubts as how a man would respond to something as cheesey as Build A Bear.
It brought him to tears.
“Nobody has ever loved me like this before. Ever. I don’t know what else to say.” He went on to kiss the bear and cradle it as tears flowed from his eyes.
“Is it OK to hug you?” He asked.
“It sure is.”
That moment in time grew a whirlwind of adventure in trying to find myself in a world that looks down on others based on their looks and their abilities.. Or lack thereof. Seeing Billy thrive amungst great adversity gave me a sense of hope. If he can do it, so can I.
We’ve been through a lot, him and I. From non approving parents, overprotective roommates, community adventures both good and bad, the special events in my life and the many wonders of his. We faced extreme prejudice from many, an off again on again romance that somehow hasn’t tarnished our friendship, the triumphs and tribulations that come with being disabled, the small vicotories in life, like a canceled class becoming a fun trip to the mall to learning how to use technology to communicate when we are thousands of miles apart. Or that one time during Christmas where he made it to Atlantic City during a holiday of great sorrow when my aunt passed away and he met my dad for the first time during the great recession when I couldn’t go to school anymore. He came down…for me. And that’s what I call true love.
Ten years has shaped me up to be stronger than I ever was. Learning I do have a voice when the world doesn’t want to listen to me. Knowing I have that one friend that I can spend hours on the phone or Skype with just being silly and laughing so hard, I can’t breathe. He helped me learn to be spontaneous and follow my dreams in my times of great doubt, which in a small way, led me to where I am today.
My sweet William, your never-ending love and gentle spirit are your greatest gifts. Although at times we offend the shit out of each other and get on each other’s nerves, we somehow made it a decade of friendship, love, and companionship that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
Happy 10th anniversary! Can’t wait to see what the next decade will bring.