(Please forgive the fact that this post jumps around a bit. I just had major surgery this week so my writing ability is a little marred.)
April is Autism Awareness Month; however, I think I agree with many of my friends that there are few people who aren’t aware of autism- so why are we still focusing on awareness. Let’s focus on building quality lives for all our children. One of my friends is trying to change April to Autism Actions and True Friendships Month. Check out this facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NaturalTies This was one of Jay’s favorite activities- going out with the guys. It helped build friendships in the community that lasted a lifetime.
One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made in our lives was to choose to live with our friend Jay who happened to have autism. We learned so much from him and hopefully we enriched his life as much as he enriched ours. Every year at Christmas I share a story about Jay and this year I decided to save it for April. In 2009, we lost Jay to a sudden heart attack and this story comes from his last Christmas on Earth.
Jay did not clearly understand money for if you asked him what his house cost he would say, “One dollar”. Jay worked 20 hours a week as a mailman at the University of Kansas and he was paid the same wages as anyone else at the University. Hundreds of dollars meant nothing to Jay. So his check was deposited into his bank account and each day he was given eight one dollar bills if he did a good job at work.
Jay only liked one dollar bills and if you gave him a five, ten, or twenty it would promptly go into the trash because it didn’t belong in his billfold (lesson learned). This gave him enough money throughout the week to pay for his meals when he went out with the fraternity gentlemen on Wednesday night, dinner with his girlfriend and music therapist on Monday night, lunches out with friends throughout the week and dancing on Friday night at one of the local clubs. It also allowed him to go down and purchase a soda from the machine each day during his work break. These eight dollars meant everything to him. Jay loved opening up his billfold and pulling out his own money to pay for his meals.
Every once in awhile, Jay would have a not so great day at work. Whenever he chose to not be compliant at work, he was told he might not earn his eight dollars. This was usually enough to get him on the right track . One day, Jay was in the hallway without his job coach and I saw him focusing on a door. Jay had obsessive compulsive disorder and one of his major obsessions was that “things” were at a 90 degree angle. He did not like “catty wampus”. All of the furniture in our home was flat up against the wall and all of our towels hung at precise 90 degree angles. As you might imagine at a university with tons of busy professors and doctoral students, post-it notes are left on doors to send messages to each other. Jay did not like post-it notes that were not placed at 90 degree angles. He would fuss and fuss with them until they were perfectly placed. Unfortunately, as is with post-it note stickiness- it wears off.
I saw Jay messing with a post-it note on a doc student’s door. He kept straightening and straightening and then it happened. The post-it note started falling off the door and onto the floor. This would not do. Nothing belonged on the floor so I knew where the post-it note was headed. It was headed for the great toilet bowl in the sky. The other thing Jay loved was watching things swirl in the toilet bowl as they disappeared from sight. I saw Jay look around and start heading toward the restroom with the post-it note. I happened to know the post-it note was very important and the doc student needed to see it. I followed Jay. As he headed for the restroom door, I said, “Jay, it will be such a bummer if you flush that post-it note down the toilet. You wouldn’t be able to get your eight dollars today. Denise really needs that note.”
Jay stood still in his tracks and looked over his shoulder at me. I could see the wheels spinning in his head. “Oh yeah, she’s the one that means what she says. Crumb.” He stood there for a minute and then marched quickly past the bathroom door and straight for the trash can at the end of the hall. He placed the post-it note in the trash can and turned around and smiled at me. He said, “I’m getting my eight dollars today.” All I had said was, “If you flush it you won’t get your eight dollars.” He was so smart. He did get his eight dollars.
I did dig out the note from the trash and slid it under Denise’s door. (That would have bothered him to know because he would have asked all day, “When is she going to pick that up?”) He loved to pick up things off the floor. A trip to Wal-Mart was quite a coup for the Wal-Mart employees because Jay did their work that day.
So Jay’s eight dollars meant a lot to him. You might say it was one of the ways he felt as if he was the same as everyone else because he paid his own way with his own money that he earned. Jay never left work without earning his eight dollars.
My husband has a big heart and he cannot walk past a homeless person without giving them money. He can’t walk past the kettles at Christmas time and not add something to the pot. Jay witnessed this time and time again when we were out and about. He never said anything, but he was watching. Our last Christmas together was extremely icy in Kansas. One day, his job coach Shelby took him with her to the grocery store to run some errands for the Beach Center. Since it was icy and Jay was uneasy on his feet in normal circumstances, she decided to drop him off at the door and then go park the car. She told him to stand still and she’d be right back for him. As she parked the car and was walking up to the door, she witnessed Jay’s generous soul.
The Salvation Army Kettle Ringer was standing at the door with his big red pot. Jay opened up his billfold, pulled out all eight, one dollar bills and placed them carefully into the bellringer’s pot. The Salvation Army Employee had tears in his eyes because he knew Jay and he knew how much this had to mean to him. He gave away his last one dollar bill to help someone else.
As I reflect again on Jay’s life and what living with him meant to our family, I think about how much he gave us in friendship, his loving heart, and the kindness he generated in others. Almost 700 people came to Jay’s funeral and open house. I believe it is because his loving heart touched so many and he taught us what it means to give dignity to each person’s soul. Despite having his own issues to deal with, Jay had compassion in his heart for everyone. He loved everyone. He didn’t see race, religion, sex, or disabilities. He just loved you for being you.
So in honor of autism awareness month and in honor of Jay Turnbull, I ask you to take eight dollars this month and pay it forward. I usually ask people to do this at Christmas time; however, everyone is asking for help at Christmas. I thought a better way to spread Jay’s spirit is to ask now during Autism Awareness Month. So, if you can: give eight dollars to your favorite charity, put an extra eight dollars in the plate at your worship service, or pay it forward at Starbucks. If you can’t spare eight dollars, go to Wal-Mart and pick up eight items off the floor that don’t belong there in Jay’s honor.
Here’s hoping everyone finds the friendship of someone like Jay before they leave this earth. The best thing you can do to help others with autism is to understand them, to see their soul shining through and help them shine.
To read the memorial page for Jay click this link Jay’s Memorial Blog- the picture above is my daughter Jessica with Jay. Jay’s favorite song was “Kryptonite” by Three Doors Down. He loved it when she wore this shirt. The first blog post on the previous link is from my youngest son. Jay made a huge impact on our family.