Saturday, October 29, 2011

When Robbie's Story Met My Story

I didn't know Robert Wood, Jr., until I met him this past Sunday. I don't even remember how I heard the news about him, though I'm guessing it was somebody's Facebook post. What I do remember is "8 years old with autism," lost in Hanover County park. That resonated pretty hard.

As I looked at the picture of this boy, which was very quickly everywhere in my sights, I couldn't help but identify. North Anna Battlefield Park, where Robbie got lost, was a place we had visited with the girls. A family hike. I remember the picnic tables near the parking lot and the hilly terrain on the trail. There was whining about going too far, and when could we turn around and go home. Lots of trees and not many obvious markers, clearings or obvious rest stops. Years after our walk, we had to drive up to the park to rescue R, who had popped a bicycle tire on a ride in Doswell. He sat by the tree at the head of the park's driveway.

I thought about this child being in this park on a Sunday afternoon. What fun! So many places to explore. The more I read about his account, the more I thought about just what a great playground this was. A river, train tracks, quarries! When I looked at Robbie's face, I thought of two words--curious and resilient. Understanding just a bit of how a child with autism can function, I could see how he could be in the spot he was (to him, having a great time!) and how he could cope with the conditions he was in (because it probably didn't have much of an impact, in his mind).

RJ2 shares a bit of commonality with Robbie, which is why his story hit with particular strength. I could see her running off to explore. Even when you explain safe boundaries, every place you go is considered new. What are the rules? Are they the same? Being in the outdoors is about as free as life can be. Maybe there are no rules? When so much of the rest of your life revolves around schedules and sameness, being in a beautiful outdoor environment is extremely enticing. There's just so much to see. So much trouble to get into, if you only knew it was trouble.

I said to a friend that we have lost RJ2 in the house! I have no doubt that she would have spent hours at the river, and probably would have had too much of it to drink! I was hopeful that Robbie was doing the same thing. RJ2 wouldn't hesitate to pick up something that looked like a food container--used, on the ground, crushed...so what. Maybe Robbie's fascination with containers landed him some nourishment. RJ2 loves to sit in the dirt or sand and just sift it through her hands. The quarry would provide ample material! One place would lead to another, and if she got bored in one, she would probably go to the other. Very much like Robbie, she doesn't understand all of the dangers in her environment. She can be really quiet when she's in her world, which is what happens in a playground, sometimes. Robbie is non-verbal, but he definitely had the means to verbally communicate if he wanted to. He must have been content for awhile.

It certainly did get to be a long week, though. Wednesday morning, while on my way to two medical appointments, I put on the radio. A woman was talking about how she had to go to work and couldn't help in the search efforts for Robbie, but she still wanted to help. She mentioned that the local fire station near the park was serving as a receiving place for donations of food for the volunteer searchers. It was a no-brainer to help in that way. With time in between my appointments, I ran to the grocery store and filled the cart with trail snacks, water and juice. I had just enough time between my last appointment and school pickup to bring the items to the fire station.

I pulled into the parking lot with another woman. She got her bags out of the car as I was unloading my trunk. My hands were full, and she closed my trunk for me. We walked in together and volunteers met us and took our bags, thanking us for our donations. We thanked them for what they were doing. As we walked out, this woman and I shared with each other just how much we had wanted to do something and were so very hopeful that the news would be different at the end of the day. Complete strangers, yet, somehow not. Have you been there? As I got in my car and stared at the local TV trucks across the fire station lawn, I cried. Just overwhelmed at all of these folks who were coming together doing whatever they were moved to do, yet still wondering how long before there was something new to say.

The rest of the week brought more volunteers with every day. The calls for prayer continued to go out. Hanover County officials remained positive and encouraging, even suggesting that Robbie would best be found at night, even with all the help. By Friday, the weather had started the bad shift we knew was coming. What would happen today? Why hadn't they found something, anything of note that would change the news. It was hard not to get humanly practical, talking about how this search-and-rescue mission could turn into a missing persons case file by the weekend.

I picked up RJ2 from school and was driving back home close to 2:30. I looked up and saw a helicopter heading north, following the path of I-95. I had been hearing helicopters all week and with each one would wonder if Robbie would be discovered. Within the half-hour, the news came out that Robbie had been found, alive and doing well--and a helicopter was air-lifting him downtown for medical treatment!

I haven't been glued to the TV over anything in a while. As TV folks were waiting for the hospital news conference, my old media relations hat came back on, waiting to hear how the hospital would describe Robbie's condition. I watched the emergency physician talking, being guarded as to how many details he could share. He could not talk about medical tests they could be running--keys that could point to how Robbie survived almost a week in the wilderness. The PR person had written statements from the parents. I knew how important keeping their privacy was and how very difficult in such a high-profile story this will be for them to do.

I'm not sure I would say that I was surprised that they found him. I really believed that this wasn't going to end with nothing. But that Robbie was alert and just roughed up.... That was really amazing to me. I was expecting "critical but stable" condition out of the hospital. But, no, he was really going to be very much OK. His resiliency definitely went beyond the scope of what I had thought, and I was so thankful!

After I posted the TV news blurb about Robbie being found, a friend posted that he was "surrounded by protecting angels." Brings some familiar words to mind:

"Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. 'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home."

Robbie's story reminded me that there are definitely dangers, toils and snares, and that we have come through a lot of things. We're still on the learning path as far as understanding autism. We still wonder--a lot--about where things are going. But his story also reminds me that Grace kept him safe, and Grace led him home.

Grace is amazing!