What Does ‘Special Needs’ Mean?

I am still processing one of those magical moments in my life, today from in a Wendy’s. I decided to share the incident with my daughter – it is at her encouragement that I’ll attempt to share the story with you.

Picking up my tray of food, I saw that the room was somewhat divided. To one end were folks, just folks having their meals. Mixture of parents, salesmen, little kids. Just folks. And over by the window were about fifteen youth with their counselors. Also, just folks. As I began to select a seat unconsciously with the first group, consciousness stepped in as I grasped a reoccurring thought that led to opportunity – and I went over to the second group by the window. Spying a table in the center, I asked ‘no one in general’ if I could sit there.

Several giggled and in distorted voices, nodded that it was okay. All noticed the stranger in their midst. A toothy smile emerged on one boy as he turned to a counselor, and in broken yet excited words with a failed attempt to whisper exclaimed, “He wants to sit with us.”

Smiles were traded, some nervous laughs, and each along with the counselors glanced in my direction more than once. At one point, a young man they called Nathan stood to take his wrappers to the trash. Counselors guided him as he wandered unsuccessfully when I, perhaps broke the norm, and suggested, “Nathan, look for the big round holes.” As he succeeded throwing away his debris I added, “Way to go, slam dunk,” as some others clapped, “Basketball!”

Headed back to his table he paused and looked at me with the innocence of a new-born. “Are you handicapped?” The counselor went to interrupt.

“Like how?” I smiled, with a nod to the counselor that all was fine.

He made a sweeping though erratic wave with his lanky arm. “Like us, we’re in a special school for special needs.” He began to point to some classmates as they smiled and waved freely.

“Do you mean – do I have special needs? Sure I do. Everyone does,” I replied.

This is where one might say, the silence was deafening.

I confess that I have had instances where some idle conversation or one of my stories may attract an audience of sorts, but never as the little group forming near my table. Two unable to physically join, turned their chairs.

Inquisitively if not suspiciously he asked, “Like what special needs do you got?”

I was winging it. “Everyone has special needs – just some folks won’t admit it. That’s sometimes why folks get in fights, because they have special needs and don’t know how to explain them. Any needs are special if they’re your needs. We all have a special need to eat. Most of us need food and water, hamburgers and French fries and maybe a milkshake at times.” They giggled.

“But I have my own special needs, some maybe that others share but some are just my own special needs. I need air conditioning and mine broke so I’m eating in this airconditioned place with you guys. And I don’t know how to repair an air conditioner so I had a special need for a special repairman that knew that stuff. And I need my dog Gibbs, he is really special. I need him for company and at night to lay on my bed so I feel safe and not alone. And being a dog, he has a special need and I have a special need to make sure he has a great vet.”

They asked where Gibbs was, so I said, “That’s a great question. He’s staying with my friends who have an air conditioner that works and a dog that is his buddy. Gibbs needs friends on two and four legs. And that’s a huge special need of mine. I need friends. So does Gibbs.”

I knew I was in a safe place and solid energy so I continued. “I am a writer so I need to write or I feel like something is missing. Sometimes I need to draw or color pictures. Those might not seem special to others but they are special needs for me. I need to exercise every day and pray for my days to go well, those are more of my special needs. And when I visited my daughter in Alaska way far away, they have a season where it never gets dark so my special need was to pull a stocking cap over my eyes so I could sleep.’” Good audience as they got the humor.

“A really special need I have is love. Gibbs and my friends give me love and I sure hope I give it back to them. I need to know I fit in with people. Need to know that at least some folks like me which may sound weak or silly but I admit that’s a special need to me. I need to know I am doing something useful or helpful. And a really, really special need I have is…. for hugs. I admit it,” I laughed. “There I said it. I need hugs.” Everyone laughed and a couple of the counselors and kids hugged.

Talk then went to questions about my dog, about what I write, about what I like to draw, about my daughter. One girl showed me something she was coloring before I thanked them for letting me share lunch with them. Now….is the part that is tripping up this wordsmith.

I was almost to the door when one of the counselors approached with Nathan, and she paid me one of the best and most humbling compliments that I have ever received in my life. “Do you know that show Highway to Heaven?” she asked. “We watch it at school.”

Those that know me understand why mention of that TV series of the 80’s made me grin. But I was way unprepared for the next couple of moments.

“The kids will be talking about meeting you back at school. You’re like that angel guy ‘Jonathan Smith’ on the TV show,” she said.

Before I could respond, or make my escape, Nathan gave me a huge hug – then gripped my hand to lead me back to hug each and every one of his classmates….and even the poor counselors explaining, “Pierre has special needs, he needs hugs.”

Once back in my car I gave up on controlling the tears in my eyes even though I was laughing. Then I sat in silence giving thanks for many things before calling my daughter. We shared how fortunate I am for the things that occur in my life though she regularly reminds me that I am often the catalyst that allows such things to fall into my lap. I simply observe and then sometimes interact.

But as I chatted with her, I realized how very many times when I find myself in a situation labeled good or bad, or am about to walk past an opportunity to make some teeny tiny difference – I often ask myself, “What would Jonathan do? What would the Angel do? What would Michael do?”

So, as I give thanks – I give thanks to Cindy Landon, to Jennifer Landon, to Sean Landon for sharing their husband and father Michael Landon with me and others.

And with Michael’s words echoing in my ears and hugging my heart, The one thing I need to leave behind is good memories.