Her son had autism and she needed help—fast.
I sat at the kitchen table in my bathrobe, bleary-eyed, looking down at the steaming cup of coffee in my hand early on a Saturday morning back in the spring of 2002. I had been up most of the night with my 18-year-old son Joel, who has autism. Life had been a roller-coaster ride since Joel hit puberty. There were many nights he slept only two hours, and days when he threw one tantrum after the other. My husband, Wally, and I never knew what might set off an explosion.
We can’t do this on our own, I thought again that morning. It’s too hard. Wally and I couldn’t even enjoy church. Carol and Bob, the couple who used to teach the special-needs class, had moved on. I’d hoped someone else might volunteer, but no one did. Now we couldn’t sit through a service together without one of us having to take Joel out of the sanctuary because of his agitation.
We prayed about moving Joel into a group home with staff that could better care for him. The county had even put him on an emergency housing list. But at the last minute we just couldn’t let Joel go. It didn’t feel like the right time.
Now I took a long sip of coffee and looked out the window, wondering if Wally and I had made the right decision. I was exhausted, exhausted from being a mother and caregiver 24/7. I had almost given up on my prayer that God would send us someone to care for Joel, someone who could understand my son, could understand his need for life to unroll at a predictable, well-ordered pace, who shared our faith and could even come to church with us on Sundays. I’d lost track of the number of county-provided support staff who didn’t work out, who just couldn’t handle Joel. A new person was coming over from the agency later today, but I was running short on hope. Help, Lord, I prayed again. We need someone for our son. Finally I got up from the table and trudged upstairs to get dressed.
A couple of hours later there was a knock at the door. Joel stood by my side while I opened it. “The agency sent me,” a handsome young man said. He was soft-spoken with an accent I didn’t recognize. There was a soothing quality to his voice.
“Come in,” I said, glancing at Joel and hoping he wouldn’t start acting out right away. But he didn’t. In fact, he seemed almost calm. We sat down in the living room. “My name is Mohamed,” the man said. “I’m from Mauritania, Africa. I cared for my mother in my country until she passed away, then I moved here because I have always wanted to live in the United States.”
Suddenly Joel got up. Oh, no… I thought. But he went over and sat beside Mohamed. “You have a new friend,” I said, a bit surprised. “Joel doesn’t normally sit next to strangers.” Mohamed turned to Joel and started asking him questions.
“Joel,” I said, “why don’t you get your photo album to show Mohamed?” For the next hour I watched the two of them together, paging through the book. Mohamed pointed to one picture after another. “Who’s that?” he’d ask Joel or “There you are with your dad at the zoo, right?” or “Is that your dog?” Joel responded happily with a simple shake of his head or a quiet yes or no.
I was relieved at how well they seemed to get on together. “When can you start?” I asked when Mohamed finally got up to leave. “I can start this week,” he said. Joel and I followed him to the door and watched him as he walked away.
Later that evening I told Wally about Mohamed. “I liked him immediately,” I said. “There was something so calming about him when he greeted Joel and me.” “Well, he certainly sounds terrific,” Wally said. “Maybe our prayers for a caregiver have finally been answered.”
“Of course, we’ll probably still have to find someone to help us out on Sundays,” I said. “I wonder if I could ask Mohamed.”
The transformation was so amazing that it sometimes took my breath away. Around Mohamed, Joel’s anxiety began to ebb and his tantrums became almost nonexistent. The peace I had felt from Mohamed the first time I met him was a completely calming influence on my son. Under Mohamed’s watchful care, Joel became that lovable boy he had been before the tantrums started. Now if only we could find someone to help us out on Sundays too.
“Why not ask Mohamed?” Wally said. “Joel really likes him. It might just be a great solution.” A couple of days later when Mohamed came over to take Joel to the zoo I asked him, “Do you go to church?”
“I’m a Muslim,” he said. “I worship at the local mosque.”
“Oh…” I said. “Wally and I need help with Joel in church on Sunday mornings,” I continued hesitantly. “Would that be a problem for you?”
“That would be fine,” Mohamed said, and smiled. “I can worship God in your sanctuary as well as in my mosque.” Of course, I thought, why would God send us someone who couldn’t help us on Sundays?
Five years down the road Mohamed is practically a member of our family. “He’s my brubber,” Joel says at least once a day, pointing to a picture of the two of them on the refrigerator door. And when Mohamed slips into the pew next to Joel at our church on Sunday mornings, Joel grabs his hand. I’m struck by the beautiful contrast in skin tones and by the mysterious ways of this God we love. Mohamed was not the answer to prayer that I’d expected. But he was the one that we needed.
This story first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Guideposts magazine.