“Sgt. Aaron Evans and I met while he was stationed in Tobyhanna Army Depot, an Army Base in Pennsylvania. I worked at a local nearby hospital. I was a 10-year divorced mother of two boys, who I shared custody with my ex-husband. Aaron was in a process of an exhausting divorce. We were friends and I gave him advice and shared with him how I got through my divorce. We used to talk for hours about our childhood and how we grew up. Aaron is from New York, he’s a city man. He never had hiked before, so I showed him the hiking trails. I worked in a dual diagnosis floor at a local hospital as a Mental Health Technician. I noticed he had signs of anxiety. We briefly spoke of his previous deployment in the combat zone during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Our friendship grew and he told me he had feelings for me. I looked at him and chuckled. ‘You certainly would not want to be with me, I have far too much baggage.’ I shared I have Lupus and two very active boys part time when their father doesn’t have them, and my 12-year-old has autism. At this time, Aaron and I had known each other for a year. Without hesitation, he said he would love to meet them.
This is the part of the story when I found out fate was in the cards. I told my ex-husband that I wanted a family dinner with the boys, and told them I’ve met someone. My ex-husband asked if he could be at the dinner as well. I had no objection as I knew the caliber of the man I was introducing.
Aaron arrived to my house. The boys were peering out the window. Aaron had just come from work and was in his uniform, tall and stoic walking down the long driveway to the house. Maverick, who was 10 at the time, yells, ‘Hey Dad, he’s an Army man. Daddy, did you know he was black? I mean the real black.’ Austin looks at his brother and said, ‘Shut up! That man is a soldier.’
Dinner was interesting. Austin, my son with autism, asked Aaron, ‘Have you killed anyone in a war?’ I quickly tried to hush Austin up. He looked at Austin and said, ‘No, but I know bullets can kill.’ Austin looked perplexed. Austin looked at Aaron and said, ‘Do you like video games?’ Aaron replied, ‘Yes, I love video games.’ Austin smiled from ear to ear. Austin said, ‘Great, because my dad doesn’t like video games. We can be friends.’ This is where their beautiful friendship began.
A year later, Austin was now a freshman in high school and Aaron has finished his tour at the Tobyhanna Army Depot. At that time we had to make a hard decision. My Lupus was getting progressively worse. I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s Syndrome, the condition when the extremities turn blue due to cold weather. A move to warmer climate was mentioned by doctors. Aaron was freshly out of the military, and after 10 years active, he wanted to dig his roots somewhere. It was time to just live a calm, simple life, and we chose mutually to move down south to North Carolina. It was a hard decision for me as Austin was a freshman and Maverick has just started middle school. At age 12 in Pennsylvania, a child can choose which parent they would like to live with, should the joint custody need to modify. Aaron, my ex-husband and I, all had a family meeting. I told the boys Aaron and I are moving, and they have a choice where they wanted to be. Maverick, without hesitation, stated he wanted to be with his daddy. But Austin seemed more conflicted on what we were asking him. ‘You mean start all over?’ I answered, ‘Well I guess – new friends, new school, and new state.’ Austin paused with deep thought and said, ‘Mommy, I want to be with you and Aaron. We can be a family. Dad will visit and I’ll be okay with that.’
Early on, I understood that Austin’s dad could never come to terms with Austin’s diagnosis of autism. My ex-husband argued with doctors. He told them they were wrong, even after the third opinion. I found out I was pregnant again. Austin had just turned 2 and was freshly diagnosed with autism. His dad said, ‘Maybe our next one won’t be different.’ I was hurt and saddened by this. Maverick was born two months premature. I was diagnosed with Lupus after giving birth. Soon after, our marriage crumbled over all the stress and sadly, Austin had been treated differently once Maverick reached every milestone early. Maverick began Quad Racing at 3 years old. Austin was soon left in the shadows. His dad finally got the perfect boy he always wanted. At age 12, Austin knew he was different and often wished he could do all the things his younger brother could do. I, as a mother, overcompensated often, feeling horribly saddened for Austin. Austin just wanted a dad to play video games with, to talk about Star Wars with and enter into his very complex world.
Moving forward in the next few years, Aaron has entered that complex world. Aaron’s escape for his PTSD was often video games – a world that Austin would escape to as well. The reality of both their worlds was sometimes painful to deal with, and together they shared this common bond. Austin was picked on in school. He had a reaction to a drug called Risperdal. He need a bilateral mastectomy in the spring prior to our move to North Carolina. He wanted to be free of the torment from Bangor, Pennsylvania. Kids picking on him, saying he had boobs, and calling him a derogatory names. Kids can be harsh and downright cruel and this anguished me horribly. Austin had his bilateral mastectomy at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. Aaron and I, along with Maverick and Austin’s dad were there to support Austin for his day of Surgery. Then the journey of the true healing began. ‘The new family,’ as Austin called it. We moved to North Carolina in August 2015. Austin healed from his surgery bearing a scar across the chest. Aaron was out of the military and I was having to start all over, leaving the job I worked for over 10 years, leaving everything behind to embark on our new journey to the south.
Austin came from a very rural school in Bangor, Pennsylvania, with very little diversity. We moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As if it’s not hard enough to be autistic, starting a new school in your sophomore year where you’re now a minority, would have been a shock to many. But to Austin, because of his autism, he doesn’t see color like many do. Austin’s first day of school, his eyes widened as kids were yelling in the halls. I wanted to hold Austin’s hand, but Aaron looked at me and said, ‘He’ll be just fine.’ Aaron more than anyone would know what adapting to a new school would be like after enlisting into the army fresh out of high school. He had to adapt to a military that sent him to many places worldwide. Aaron many times told me prior to moving, Austin is stronger than I had given him credit for and Aaron had faith in him. Sadly his birth father did not. We often limit ourselves because of our diagnosis, not realizing a leap of faith can take us further than even imagined.
The next day, Austin took the bus to school. When he came home from school we asked him how his day was. He said, ‘I got on the bus and 3 boys yelled at me saying, ‘Hey white boy.’ ‘Mom, I was nervous, but I answered ‘yes.’ After all, I was the only white boy on the bus. The boys asked me if I use the N-word? I said, ‘no,’ and my Stepdad is black. He’s my family,’ Austin explained. Then the young kids said, ‘You good. You’re okay with us!’
I was naïve to the fact that there is still racism, but I found out quickly. While shopping as a family we were often asked if our items were together or separate. Eating out was often frustrating too. ‘Is this the same check or a separate check?’ We are a family, a blended family. There is no black or white, there is just love. And for this family, there is hope in healing. I can remember the first time Aaron and Austin went for a ride to a local store when we were still in rural Pennsylvania, Aaron had been pulled over simply because he had a young white kid in the car. The police asked Austin, ‘Are you okay?’ Austin with his bluntness said, ‘I was until you pulled me and my stepdad over. You know he’s a soldier?’ Aaron handed his license over, sporting ‘VETERAN’ on his license. Another time, security followed Austin and Aaron at Wal-Mart because they ‘looked suspicious.’ I thought moving to a more diverse area in the south we would escape this, but we all have learned that there is no escape against racism. Much like when you’re born with a disability, there is no escaping that. You are simply born just the way you are. Perhaps, that is why Austin had a bond with Aaron.
Austin found an unexpected love for wrestling his sophomore year. Aaron never missed a wrestling match, yelling from the bleachers, ‘You got this Austin, you can do it.’ Onlookers from stands would ask, ‘which one is your son?’ Aaron proudly pointed at Austin so many times. We got complexed reactions. The one that hurt the most was from three black women sitting behind us. When Aaron pointed at Austin, they snickered behind us. One of the three ladies said under her breath, ‘He can’t be your son, he’s white.’ I turned around and calmly stated, ‘The title of a father does not come with a color.’ Many people in the stands smiled that day. Was it because this boy with autism was wrestling and his stepdad was cheering him on with such heart, or simply because there was so much happiness to be shared?
The years have gone by in the blink of an eye. Austin has now graduated high school. During his junior year, Austin got Septic Arthritis and needed emergency surgery. Aaron did not leave his bedside. Austin awoke, was in pain and was combative. He wanted nothing to do with me, and was trying to get out of bed. A 6-foot-tall boy, 230 pounds. Aaron grabbed Austin and said, ‘You need to rest. Get in bed.’ Austin hugged him said, ‘I love you and you’re my best friend.’ Tears swelled in my eyes.
Sadly the phone calls from Austin’s dad became less frequent and months went by with no visits. Austin’s dad has only ever seen him wrestle once. But Austin’s stepdad was there for football games, wrestling matches, his struggles with girls, first dates, and the challenges that come along by simply being different. I asked Austin what college he wants to go to. He stated, ‘An all-black college.’ I was perplexed by his answer. He said, ‘I’m different, people treat me differently because of my autism, and Mom, to be black in this world, sometimes you’re treated differently too. At least we all know together how it feels and maybe I’ll be treated better.’ Honestly, I was taken back, but humbled as a white woman, who at times finds it hard to relate to the challenges that minorities face each and every day.
Austin struggled with anxiety after graduating. He’s working on this so he can attend college in the future. Aaron has finally came to terms with his PTSD and has got treatment for his scars of the past. Austin often has looked Aaron on a bad day and said, ‘I got you man, you are going to be okay.’ It is not uncommon to come to our house and to find these two grown men playing video games, entering into a world where they both feel safe and they both can escape the troubles that ail them that particular day. I watched this friendship grow between my son and the man I love. Two people, from two very different worlds, yet so much alike one another.
I know around the time Aaron entered our lives, Austin was searching for acceptance and friendship – just someone to relate to. Amazingly in the end, Austin found a dad not defined by genetics, not defined by color, but simply defined by unconditional love and acceptance.”
This is an exclusive story to Love What Matters. For permission to use, email Exclusive@LoveWhatMatters.com.
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Connley-Ebert of Clemmons, North Carolina. Do you have a similar experience? We’d love to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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