Without a word, a small boy takes my hand, and pulls me gently to where my backpack sits. I pull out a red plastic cup and he takes it to the water’s edge. John fills the cup with water and brings it to his elbow. Slowly he pours the water down his forearm and watches it flow off his outstretched fingers. He repeats the cycle, again and again. He smiles. His smile is broad, his pleasure is pure, his hands flap in his trademark euphoria of unbridled pleasure. His communication is simple, yet so effective, in a way only my little friend with autism can do.
Sadly, John, a native of Laguna Beach, passed away suddenly Friday, Aug. 23. He was 10. But, what a great 10 years! Ten very busy, very loving, very active, very fun years. Maybe it is possible to fit a lifetime into 10 years if one is blessed with John’s enthusiasm. His 10 years included so much travel, so many grand experiences. The ocean and the mountains were John’s favorite places. At home in both, he was a lucky boy indeed.
John communicated without words much more clearly than most people do with words. If John wanted a hug, he hugged. If John wanted a hand, he took yours. If John wanted a snack, he would eat an entire watermelon! So many watermelons! If John was happy, he flapped his hands. If John wanted his comfort space, he took a bath. If John wanted quiet time, he turned to his Leapfrog, or his iPad, where he laughed with glee as he repeated the interactive process. John didn’t need to talk about things, he just did them.
Ski season never arrived early enough for John. John was a favorite among the Disabled Sports ski instructors. The DSES dedicated instructors seemed to thrive on John’s enthusiasm and gave their all to keep him safe – a tough feat since making turns seemed an unnecessary detail in John’s theory of downhill skiing. One of John’s DSES instructor said, “John was my little buddy and I looked forward to every ski day with him. No matter the conditions, he wanted to be outside playing.” Another instructor described skiing with John for the first time as, “I could do nothing but go along with him, and cut him loose. I will never forget that ski day. He took me on his chairlift circuit, leading the way. It was a harrowing experience (skiing behind him), as he was dodging skiers, trees and obstacles by a very narrow margin, while looking back and grinning. I knew he was doing this on purpose and testing me all the way.”
Not all of life can be in pursuit of recreation. There is also school. John attended Mammoth Elementary School where he was a boy of few words; hugs and kisses were John’s language. The autism that had a hold on John’s communication in no way constrained his spirit. His sweet demeanor and zest for athletic activities- especially skiing- made John a favorite among school personnel. John brought out the best in his teachers, aides, and therapists who all worked to try to unlock the mystery of the cognitive processes of this delightfully complex fourth grader. With an angelic smile that warmed our hearts, John was a constant reminder to us that contentment is indeed possible.
The close-knit mountain community of Mammoth Lakes will greatly miss John. We will miss seeing John’s joy as he skis at great speed straight down Mammoth Mountain. The bike paths will seem lonelier without John’s shouts of “AHHHH” as he zooms along. The mountains will seem a little empty without John enjoying every activity a free spirited boy could possibly take part in. The community will miss John’s incredible love for life and affection for people. We will miss his generous hugs and infectious calm and happiness.
His kisses taught us how to love, his hugs taught us compassion, his smile taught us to enjoy every second we had with him. He is gone too soon but his legacy will live forever in our hearts.
John lived in Mammoth Lakes with his sister Meaghan and his loving parents Chris Thompson and Shannon Bagshaw, who continue to maintain a Laguna residence. He was deeply loved by grandparents John and Peggy Bagshaw, and Michael and Sarah Thompson; as well as the families of his uncles Peter and Robert and his aunt Andra.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to John Thompson Memorial Fund via Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. Those who are interested in contributing to a donor advised trust in support of epilepsy and autism research can get details at www.johnjeffreythompson.com.