children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly


Since You Never Met Al

April 23, 2019 by

sketch of Al Rhoads by Nancy Clement
Sketch of Alan by the author

I want you to know about Alan, a young man whose eyes could gleam with mischief, whose language was dancing, and whose suffering – I believe – earned him a free ticket into the Kingdom.

Alan would’ve turned twenty-three this June. I know, because his birthday always meant mine was coming. Born just a few weeks apart, we were classmates in that stage of life where time is measured mainly by long-anticipated birthdays and Christmas. Alan’s story isn’t really mine to tell – I only knew him for three short preschool years, and then our lives parted ways.

Plus, he was just Al to me. As his peers, our class knew he couldn’t do everything we could, like eat or walk or talk, but that didn’t make him so different. It just meant we took turns pushing his very cool red trike, helped him wipe his runny nose (which wasn’t gross like ours sure were) and held his feeding tube up behind his chair at lunchtime. I always wanted to give him ice cream to taste – just a little bit, just so he’d know – but Al couldn’t swallow. He could dance though, and in percussion class we all knew Al’s rule: the louder the better. We agreed. His delight in the racket we made with our bongos and wooden sticks would bust through the barriers his body imposed on him and he would dance with his arms flung out, swaying back and forth.

We were so proud that Al was ours.

Yet, to my shame and loss, I didn’t always remember Alan in the following years as we both grew into adulthood, and that’s why his story isn’t mine to tell. I wasn’t there for the moments that ached with tears and laughter and frustration; the moments Alan softened hard hearts with his helplessness or upheld fragile ones with his strength, the moments he was just Al at home. Those belong to his family and caregivers.

Still, I can’t picture my life without him, and I think hundreds of people could say that. See, Alan was born into a context of incredible completeness, a team of men and women who wouldn’t have had to care about Alan, but who lay down that freedom daily in order that he and so many like him might be integrated and cherished. Had it been otherwise, I may never have known Al; never would’ve helped him put on his brown bike helmet, or drawn with red Sharpie on his cast when he broke his leg, or walked proudly beside him in that parade, three-hundred-strong, for his fourth birthday. I might never have seen that different doesn’t mean worse; that different, in fact, is something to defend and embrace.

birthday of Alan RhoadsAlan on his 4th birthday with the author (right). June 2000. Used with permission from Alan’s family.

Maybe Alan was so beautiful on the inside that his earthly body had to tone down the radiance with all kinds of brokenness and seizures and sickness. Al went home this year, leaving a gaping crater in the hearts of everyone who loved him – but he went home to the One whose strength he made perfect.


About the author

Nancy Clement in New York City

Nancy Clement

Nancy Clement is twenty-two and lives in Bogotá, Colombia, where she is majoring in literature at the Universidad de los...

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  • So well phrased and presented. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. Interesting the wording is see. Did Al have sight limitations? No more Thank you for your humanity and perspective

    Bill Dale
  • Do we care enough?

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  • What a beautiful story. Our spoken words are only a very small part of communication.Al shows that beautifully.

    David Waters
  • I love the story of Alan. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!!

    Betty L. Collins