Help in a Flash: Receiving Help When We Most Need It and Least Expect It

To every stranger that steps in, especially in such unexpected ways …Thank you!

Max and I aren’t planning to go anywhere, exactly. It’s more that we’re planning to go everywhere. But now a days the criteria for doing so has changed. When I was a kid you could pack up your woodcarving tools, wheel them onto a 747, and whittle a spear mid-flight. But things are different now. The world is different now. To go anywhere, or everywhere, my 27 year-old son Max will need to prove his identity. And his recently expired passport will simply not do.


“I don’t know about the photo part of this,” I said to the woman behind the counter at the post office as I passed her Max’s passport application. Max’s expired passport lay open and I pointed to the old photo. “Last time that camera flash was really tough for him.” I tried to hold back my laughter as I looked at the photo of Max, his face grimacing and eyes squinting. It’s the kind of face that belongs to a guy with tattoo-covered muscles and an offender-tracking device around his ankle. But in truth, it’s the face of a sweet guy with autism who tried six times to keep his extra-sensitive eyes open for the flash and photo.

The woman walked us over to the familiar chair in the corner of our small-town post office. If you were ever sentenced to time out as a kid, you were sent to a spot just like this. Max sat dutifully for the photo. And then, as if signaled by a lunar satellite, Max knew to squeeze his eyes shut at the exact moment of the flash. The rule of a passport photo, however, states that one must show their eye color even if the rest of one’s face is completely contorted by the process and rendered unrecognizable. So we tried again. And again. I was fairly sure I was going to need blood pressure medication.

“Let me get my manager,” the woman said as she gripped the camera and slipped out the back.

Bringing Max into the community assumes risk. I’d say the experience is unpredictable, but by now it’s pretty much a sure thing. The risks are not as well defined as packing a weapon of mass destruction in one’s carry-on bag. Rather, it’s the risk of suddenly stepping into oncoming traffic, or disappearing unexpectedly to find a favorite photocopy machine, or encountering the subtle sights and sounds and smells that overload a sensory system. And then there are other risks, the ones I can’t possibly plan for, like the people we meet when we’re out in the world.

A moment later Kathy came from behind the long wall of mail slots.

“It’s the flash.” I said as she walked toward us. “Could we just take the picture without it?”

Kathy tried. “Too dark,” she said shaking her head.

“How about a little natural light? I suggested. “Maybe if we move the chair a little closer to those big windows?” With a giant screech we pulled the heavy chair, which I guarantee had not moved from it’s designated spot since we took a passport photo here 10 years earlier, and set Max up beside the windows.

Still too dark.

“Well, what if we just…um…” My words tumbled out before I actually had an idea. The squirrels in my brain started running desperately on their little wheel. We couldn’t go home empty handed, or worse yet, have to come back and do this again. And then I looked through those big windows. “What if we bring the chair outside … into the parking lot?”

I cowered at my own words knowing Kathy would certainly recite Postal Property Rule #457B, which states that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will permit one to remove the “time out chair” from the premises unless it is actually being mailed.

“We can do that,” Kathy said.

My eyes popped open and a rush come over me, so much so that I walked over and lifted the white backdrop right off the wall. I glanced sheepishly at Kathy, but she was already gripping the bulky wooden chair and heading through the door. We brought Max and the chair and the back-drop and the camera right out into the parking lot, into the soft white light of the cloudy day. We must have been a sight. I could now see the main entrance of the post office with a line of waiting customers stretching out onto the sidewalk.

But Kathy took her time, gently helping Max settle into the chair. I stood behind Max and took my cue to hold up the huge white backdrop, the way you hold up a beach towel when someone is changing. It swayed a bit in my hands, blowing in the cold winter wind. “Where are you going with your passport, Max?” Kathy called out. And then she added, “Somewhere warm I hope!” I laughed knowing he just needed a passport for an ID, when Max yelled hopefully, “Florida!”

After a few moments I heard Kathy whisper, “Looks great!”

“Did we get it?” I yelled from behind the white screen, my arms already stretched toward the sky.
We brought our props back inside to their appointed positions in the Post Office where they would most certainly remain for the next decade, dust and all. Suddenly Kathy whisked Max through a door marked “employees only,” and disappeared into the back room. “Let me give you a tour, Max,” she said, her voice trailing off as the door closed behind them.

A tour, I thought? Who gets a tour of the post office? Don’t you need to have government clearance, or know a secret handshake, or at least own a valid ID? I stood in the crowded lobby listening as Max’s voice boomed from the back room. “They have a backpack vacuum!” He yelled. “And a Ricoh copier!” No wonder they keep this stuff behind locked doors.

By the time they came back our photo had printed. It was Christmas card worthy, if I ever had time to send such a thing. “Thank you,” I said, stumbling to find words big enough to explain what it means when someone sets down their busy life to make life work for someone else. But Kathy barely looked up. I pulled Max close and thanked her again. “Your passport will come in the mail in about two weeks,” she reminded us in a business-like tone as she clipped together the paperwork. I nodded, knowing there was no rush. We’d already been somewhere special.

Keep going into the world my friends. It’s worth the risk.

Emily Colson is an author, speaker, and mother to Max, Emily’s 27-year-old son with autism. In her award-winning book, Dancing with Max, Emily and her father, Chuck Colson, share the struggle and beauty of life with Max. Emily brings a message of hope through churches and organizations across the country and has appeared on numerous media outlets.