Beautiful People (Part 3): A Beautiful Friendship

Auburn University, Disability, Down Syndrome, Education, Friends, Inspiration, Special Education, Teaching, Western Carolina University Add comments

During my graduate work at Auburn University, I taught a demonstration class for children with intellectual disabilities. Billy and several other children rode with me from Columbus, Georgia during the summer to attend the class with local children. During our first summer, we met Steve Hinton, who was also a member of the class.

Steve, who has Down syndrome, became Billy’s best friend. His parents were professors at Auburn who, like me, were devoted to finding the best education possible for their child. One teacher who observed the class said that he had never seen a more beautiful friendship than the one between Billy and Steve.

After we moved to Auburn Steve and Billy were together each day at their regular school. They were so close that they talked on the phone after school every day and visited with each other frequently. We went with Steve’s parents to their home at the lake where the boys played in the water and Steve tried to teach Billy to swim. They put on concerts for each other, pretending to be their favorite singers. Billy had never had a real friend before.

When I completed my work at Auburn, we moved to North Carolina where I had accepted a teaching position at Western Carolina University. We regretted leaving Steve and promised to return and to expect visits from him. Although thrilled with our new home, we were somewhat concerned about Billy’s adjustment, especially being apart from Steve. When we opened our first phone bill, it was apparent that Billy and Steve had maintained their practice of talking with each other every day after school. As amazed as we were, we realized that we hadn’t explained the difference between local and long distance phone calls. We also acknowledged our surprise and delight that Billy had managed to make the calls.

Steve spent a week with us in North Carolina and whenever I visited my mother in Georgia, Billy spent time with Steve in Auburn. It was always as if no time had elapsed since their last encounter. They were still best friends. As Steve and his family moved farther away and we became involved in our new lives, our letters and visits became rare.

When Billy and I began doing presentations at various conferences, a welcome opportunity arose. We had been invited to The University of Alabama. Since Steve and his family had moved to Tuscaloosa, they planned to meet us at the conference. Billy was so excited and looked forward to a reunion with his best friend. The reunion, however, brought sorrow to Billy and to me. Steve’s mother had warned us that Steve has Alzheimer’s disease, which appears to occur more frequently and at an earlier age in people with Down syndrome than in the general population. Although we knew that Steve’s behavior would be unpredictable, we hoped that he and Billy would retain some degree of their relationship. Billy was devastated when Steve neither recognized nor spoke to us. He could not understand, as none of us can, how a deep relationship can disappear from someone’s mind. Billy sill recalls with sadness, “Steve not know me.”

Steve has improved somewhat, and we still speak by phone from time to time. Billy, however, is still sad about his friend’s inability to relate. Even as we recall their past positive experiences, it always ends with “Steve not know me.”

Like the teacher who observed Billy and Steve, I think of their relationship as the most beautiful friendship I ever saw. Have you had close friendships like this? Have you had experience with Alzheimer’s disease? What would you say to Billy?

7 Responses to “Beautiful People (Part 3): A Beautiful Friendship”

  1. Elaine Ross Says:

    How I understand !!!!! My mother had Alzheimer's disease and it truly causes much pain to those who watch it happen. My mother "not know me either". I tried so many things to revive any memory that might still remain. The last thing I tried was taking Peppermint ice cream to her one year at Christmas. I thought the smell might at least get a smile. It did not. She was in there somewhere, but I could not reach her. I know Billy misses the Steve he used to know. For now, Billy and I must wait until we see my Mom and Steve once again when they will know us and we can pick up where we left off. I have so much to share with my mother and I know Billy does with Steve. As the old hymn says, "Oh, what a day that will be !!!!!!! Knowing that day will come gives me the hope to live the days until then. Much love to you both.

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