The enormous hooves of the Budweiser Clydesdale-like horse create puffs of dust as she plods steadily forward. Sean walks alongside this huge, perfectly proportioned animal, his right hand firmly grasps the rider’s pink embroidered boot just above the stirrup. The four year old girl atop the saddle wears a shiny white safety helmet, covering most of her dark brown hair. Two pigtails poke out and trail down her back, neatly secured with pink ribbons to match her blouse.
At just over six feet tall, Sean comfortably reaches his other hand to grip the back of the saddle, poised to steady the young rider if necessary. Two female staff members complete the team, one leading the horse in front while the other, walking on the opposite side from Sean, conducts the lesson. Sean, wearing his tan t-shirt with the Carousel Ranch logo, matches the rhythmic stride of the brown and white steed. Every Friday night, for the last six months, he’s dutifully laid out this uniform for his Saturday volunteer position at this therapeutic horseback riding program. Even though the shirt is fading and showing the beginning of a hole in the armpit, Sean rejects any offer to replace it.
The young rider that Sean assists has been in lessons at Carousel for about a year. Her mother says her daughter was unable to hold herself upright when she started riding. Now, she sits with straight posture, holding the front of the saddle, supporting her own weight. A giggle escapes her grinning mouth. She is the queen surveying her subjects from on high.
I proudly observe my son. He’s focused and confident with both the young student and the formidable horse. My volunteer work at Carousel is different from Sean’s. I stick to the support functions, cleaning stalls and checking water barrels. I enjoy the work. A bonus is a perfect vantage point to watch Sean in his element.
The lesson is over. Sean carefully, gently, guides the dismounting rider from her saddle to the waiting elevated platform. Staff helps support her as she walks with head held high toward her mother who engulfs her in waiting arms.
“Sean, can you come here and help us?” Becky, the program director at Carousel, calls from the parking lot.
I harness my automatic reaction to get involved and add my voice to the mix. This is Sean’s job, stay out of it, I tell myself.
Sean jogs to Becky who’s standing next to the open passenger door of a parked SUV. Another staff member, Rachel, stands next to Becky.
“Sean, this is Sammy,” Becky directs Sean’s attention to a young man in the front seat. “Sammy has spina bifida and doesn’t have good use of his legs, so he needs our help to mount his horse.”
Listening attentively, Sean’s eyes look back and forth between Becky and Sammy.
“I’m going to get under his right leg and Rachel will take his left leg. You stay behind to make sure he’s steady, okay?” Becky continues.
A question from Sammy’s mother takes Becky’s attention away. When she turns back, Sean, on his own, has already reached into the car and scooped Sammy up from his seat. Sammy is cradled in Sean’s arms.
“Where do you want him?” asks Sean smiling with his accomplishment.
Becky chuckles as she instructs Sean, “Put him on that horse next to the platform.” She points to a small tan and white horse with a blonde mane, saddled and standing at the ready.
Becky and Rachel follow Sean as he carries Sammy. They are quietly speaking to each other, shaking their heads. I can’t see their expressions, but I can imagine them.
Sean walks slowly and steadily as he ascends the weathered, plywood ramp and traverses the grey steel platform. Sammy’s head turns, showing a grin. Becky and Rachel are in position with the horse. They watch as Sean bends and lowers Sammy into the center of the leather saddle, and double checks Sammy’s stability. Sean looks to Becky as she reaches to take over.
“Thanks, Sean. Nice job!” she exclaims with a nod of approval.
“Yeah, thanks Sean” adds Sammy.
Sean smiles and says, “No sweat.” He strides away, shoulders pulled back and chest jutting forward.
I swing another rake full of horse poop into the wheelbarrow, and offer a prayer of thanks. The sun’s position overhead in the cloudless spring sky indicates the approaching noon hour. The last lesson is at 12:30. I think of the rest of our Saturday schedule. Next we’re off to Special Olympics golf at 3:00. Maybe I can sneak in a nap between.
I refocus. Becky and Denise, Carousel’s executive director, walk toward me. Am I imagining this, or are they coming to talk to me? Both women are always busy with their individual Carousel responsibilities, so seeing them together is out of the ordinary. Now there’s no mistaking their destination is me.
Are they coming to complement my stall cleaning prowess? Unlikely. Was I mistaken in my positive interpretation of how Sean handled things with Sammy earlier? Do they think that Sean should have waited and followed Becky’s instruction instead of acting on his own? Their facial expressions signal a serious conversation will take place.
Denise begins, “Can we talk to you for a minute?”
Becky adds with a soft laugh, “Hate to interrupt your work”
“Finally found something I’m good at. Hope you aren’t going to fire me.” I say hoping to keep things light.
They both laugh, but Denise’s expression turns serious again.
Oh, boy. What’s coming? I think to myself, rolling my bottom lip between my teeth nervously.
“Becky and I were just talking”, Denise begins. “We were putting together an ad for a paid staff position here at Carousel.”
Don’t they know that I’m a full-time teacher? I wonder.
Becky continues, “So as we were listing all of the things we’re looking for, we realized that Sean is already doing these things when he is here volunteering.”
My mind shifts gears. I put my hands in my pockets to hide my fidgeting.
“We wanted to talk to you first. Do you think Sean would want to join our staff? Would it be okay with you and Linda?”
My childhood stutter resurfaces as my thoughts race faster than my mouth and tongue can keep up. “Yah, yah, yah, yes!” I finally blurt out. “That would be awesome.”
I can’t thank you enough for giving Sean this opportunity.” My hands free themselves to participate in this joyous moment, gesturing as if juggling invisible balls.
Denise responds, “Let me be clear. We’re not doing this because we feel sorry for Sean dealing with his autism. We’re doing this because Sean has demonstrated his abilities and motivation to perform in the job we are hiring for.”
“This is like a dream for me”, I continue. “Sean’s mother and I have always hoped and prayed that someday he could find meaningful work. Sean loves what he’s doing here and having a paid staff position will be the icing on the cake.”
“How do you want to proceed?” asks Denise in a businesslike tone.
“Can I call Linda?” I ask, hoping to move this dream forward before the bubble bursts.
“Of course.” answers Becky, “Let us know after you’ve chatted”, as she and Denise walk away toward the training arena.
“Yes, this is for real,” I say to Linda after telling her the news.
“Amazing! What did Sean say?” Linda’s voice is exuberant.
I reply, “I wanted to tell you first. I’ve got to go and talk to Sean.”
I walk toward the arena looking for Sean. I give my head a brisk shake to stay focused.
Becky and Denise are leaning against the pipe railing, each with one foot on the bottom rail, talking watching the last lessons of the day.
It dawns on me. Why am I going to talk to Sean? In the real world, employers talk to a prospective employee, not his father.
I interrupt Denise and Becky, “Linda’s onboard with the idea.”
“Do you want to talk to Sean first?” Denise quickly asks.
“I think it will mean more to Sean, coming from you, without me there.”
“Works for us,” Denise responds, Becky nods in agreement.
“Hey, Sean come here a minute, please.” Becky calls as I walk away.
I avoid looking back as I hear my son’s voice, “Okay, Becky, I’ll be right there.”
I grab a poop rake and maneuver through the rails of a nearby stall. I do my best to look uninterested. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sean jog up to Becky and Denise. He’s facing them, away from me. I can hear only muffled words and sentences. Sure wish my hearing was better.
Denise and Becky both wear their business expressions. Sean is rocking back and forth, ever so slightly—a self-calming strategy. I hope he’s understanding.
He stops rocking and stands bolt upright and still. What’s happening?
His shoulders jerk up and his arms and hands move through the air like a musical conductor trying to get the attention of his orchestra. His legs and feet join the party as they move to an unheard symphony. He’s doing the Sean happy dance.
“Wow! Wow! Really? Really?” his words accompany his dance.
He turns in my direction. “Dad! Dad!” bubbles from his mouth.
Continuing his freestyle dance moves, he starts toward me. I meet him half way and say,
“What’s up?” trying to maintain my best poker face.
“Becky and Denise say I’m doing good work. They want to hire me. Is it okay?”
“That’s up to you, Bud. Is this what you want?” I say.
“Oh, yeah! They say I’ll get a paycheck and everything.” He responds, his face filled with joy and certainty.
“You better go back and let them know.” I say, pointing to Becky and Denise.
As he runs back, I make eye contact with them and mouth the words, “Thank You.”
They acknowledge my emotion with thumbs up and a grin, but return their attention to Sean. He’s got the spotlight in this moment, and they are enjoying sharing his unbridled happiness. They walk off together in a huddle, three colleagues talking business.
This is the beginning of a new chapter for Sean. These days, he’s writing his own story and I’m glad to still be a part of it.