My daughter Peyton is nonverbal and severely challenged by autism. I once believed she'd never experience a meaningful romantic relationship. Then, at a monthly workshop in Los Angeles for people who communicate via keyboard, she met Gabriel, a young man who traveled from Ventura with his support team. Dressed in preppy khakis and a plaid sport shirt, he seemed to turn a few heads, including Peyton's.
Was she smitten?
Not long after, at an autism conference at Chapman University, Gabriel did a presentation, with his mother, on the topic of supported living. He has his own place and a staff supporting his active participation in his community. Afterward, Peyton asked to meet "the cool guy" in the herringbone wool blazer. The friendship grew, and we began eating lunch with Gabriel and his facilitators after the L.A. workshops. Peyton and Gabriel were both 23 at the time.
These rendezvous transitioned into alternating monthly weekend visits. My husband, Pat, and I would take Peyton north one month; the next, Gabriel and his support person would come to the San Diego area. Peyton and Gabriel shared pancake breakfasts at IHOP, dinners on the waterfront and long conversations that were never totally private, since each of them requires a facilitator to help them type.
But as feelings deepened, theirs were the only "voices" in the room. "People question the mystery of love forever, but I taste you as lasted love," Gabriel typed.
"Sweet I cared solemnly for you. I willingly explore feelings wondering [if] you are my great love," Peyton responded.
At dusk they would always request a stroll along the ocean. Pat and I would walk in front, beside and behind, reminding them to continue to hold on to each other's hand and move together in rhythm with each other along the path. With each stroll there, the need for reminders diminished.
During one late summer visit, the couple requested their first moonlit walk by themselves along the small dirt trail that followed the water's edge near our Point Loma home. This hidden path ran along the bay for about the equivalent of three city blocks, each end opening onto paved streets and, frequently, speeding cars.
Pat and I hoped to orchestrate this stroll along the scenic trail to the end of the path, where Peyton and Gabriel would stop, turn around and return home. It was to be the first time in our daughter's life that she would be alone with the man of her dreams. I remained fretful (though supportive), while my husband assured me that this plan would go off without a hitch.
It began with a rehearsal in our living room. Sitting on the couch, we reminded them that holding hands or having Gabriel putting an arm around Peyton's waist was a useful strategy for staying together. Pat then coached them to walk across the room, continuing to hold hands. Then he placed Gabriel's arm around Peyton's waist, and the couple practiced walking.
Although the young couple often expressed feelings of intimacy when typing to each other, there was an awkwardness, partially due to motor issues, partially due to this event being choreographed by parents. Nonetheless, after 10 minutes of strategizing, Peyton and Gabriel felt comfortable enough to practice with a midday walk.
In the evening, as the sun descended, Pat and I walked with Peyton and Gabriel to the head of the trail. We gently placed their hands together and pointed them in the right direction. "Have a nice walk," I called out calmly, although my heart was racing. The two young people ventured forward, slowly disappearing around the bend.
At this moment Pat took off, running down the street, hidden from view of the two sweethearts. A little-used path intersects the trail midway through, covered by enough foliage that he could stand behind a bush to make sure they were safe, happy and still going in the right direction. Once they traveled past "check point Patrick," he quietly retreated and ran through hedges and landscaped yards to reach the end of the trail before the young couple risked walking onto the connecting street and into traffic.
I caught up with him about 10 feet before the end of the scenic trail, and we waited for the two to approach. Although they probably had not looked at each other during the entire walk, they were still holding hands. Pat smiled as they drew closer and then casually suggested, "Since the path ends soon, most people turn around here and go back the way they came."
"Thank you," Gabriel replied with a rare verbalization that surprised both Pat and me as the couple turned around and headed home. Although my husband didn't have much time to get back to the checkpoint, he couldn't help but linger and watch as they held hands and dissolved into the darkness. When they reached our house, their fingers appeared permanently locked, and it took a reminder to release their grip on each other.
That walk was several years ago. The visits continue to this day. And they are still holding hands.
Dianne Goddard is coauthor (along with her daughter Peyton and writer Carol Cujec) of "I Am Intelligent: From Heartbreak to Healing — A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Autism."