It was a small gesture — but it meant so much.
Last night was the first game of Ryan’s street-hockey season. He’s back with the same coach that led them to the championship last season, and very excited. When I think back to how far we’ve come since the first year he went out for street hockey, it really is remarkable. That season began with crying on the bench and inappropriate blaming of teammates for losses. We took Ryan to every practice and game with a pit in our stomachs.
Not anymore. He’s very much just another boy on the team. He drew plenty of the coach’s attention last night, but is was all hockey-related. Ryan kept wandering deep into the offensive zone even though he was playing defense — something the coach kept reminding him. I suspect, after his five-goal offensive outburst during the winter ice-hockey season, that Ryan was goal-hunting.
Here too, more progress. The coach talked to Ryan between periods about the need to stay back and play his position.
And he listened.
He never complained about being taken out of the game. He celebrated appropriately with teammates. He showed the right amount of aggression in pursuit of loose balls. He was fully engaged the entire game, never losing focus and letting his mind wander the way it had years ago when we started.
All that was great, but also expected at this point. Ryan’s team won, which was also nice, but not the most important thing.
No, the best thing about last night’s game was something that happened outside the rink’s walls.
As we were watching the first period, we ran into the family of one of Ryan’s school friends — a boy who has been over to our house many times, who has been to Devils games with us, and who has tried to help Ryan when anxiety got the best of him at the bus stop. He’s just a good kid, and he seems to genuinely enjoy Ryan’s company.
Ryan is friendly with lots of kids, but doesn’t have a lot of friends. It’s difficult for kids to engage with Ryan’s limited interests and inflexibility. But that has never been an issue with this particular boy, who had baseball practice on a nearby field while Ryan’s game was starting.
We exchanged greetings with his family and Veronica talked to his mom about finding a time for the boys to get together. We didn’t expect what happened next. When the boy’s baseball practice ended, he wandered down to the rink — and stayed. The entire family did, watching the last two periods and calling out encouragement to Ryan.
None of them needed to do that, but the boy wanted to stay. We made sure Ryan noticed that they all stayed and thanked them after the game. Veronica made plans for Ryan to come watch one of the boy’s baseball games.
That’s what friends do for each other.
A friend — a true friend, who accepts Ryan the way he is — has been an infrequent occurrence in Ryan’s life.
That’s what made a small gesture so important to us. It was a friend acting as a friend does. Nothing more, nothing less. Inconsequential and so, so meaningful all at the same time.