On the outside, this story is about a blond-headed boy with autism. But like a Valentine gift 10,000 times better than the wrapping paper it comes in, this story is really about something else.
Love. And falling in love with what life brings.
The first time I met Will Alford was at the beach. His family and mine were getting double scoops of ice cream. Sitting together at the wooden picnic table, I looked at him and was struck by his eyes.
So blue, as if someone had taken small drops of the ocean nearby and swirled them around in these 6-year-old eyes. His blond head of hair like sand.
The way those blue eyes stared.
"When he was 2, much of the behavior started," said Will's mom, Elizabeth Dudley Alford.
For hours, Will would sit at the foot of the family refrigerator and line up magnetic letters. He would read the same book over and over and over. He didn't cuddle, hated loud noises.
"This can't be normal," Elizabeth said at the time.
In the days to come, doctors diagnosed Will with autism. The therapy they prescribed helped, barely, and the tornado of doubt and fear grew within Elizabeth and her husband, Reece, like rot. You may know the feeling.
"Your son has autism," the doctors told them. "And there's nothing we can do."
Alford and her husband live in Florida, but she's a Chattanooga girl at heart: her mom, Jakie, and dad, Bill, live on Signal Mountain. He's been the pastor at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church for decades.
They could live on the moon, and this story still matters. It could be autism -- or anything -- that sneaks into our lives like a thief in the night and steals our plans, peace and expectations.
That's why we should skip to the end of the story.
"They bless us. These kids bless us," Elizabeth told me as tears like a wave rose in her own eyes. "We have hope. It is not a death sentence, and that's what I want other parents to know."
In the beginning, the Alfords were frightened, confused, angry. Now, they're confident, breathing deeply and laughing.
Will is still autistic. But what was once a monster -- his diagnosis -- has now become a blessing. What was once feared is now loved.
A few months ago, Signal Mountain Presbyterian hosted Emily Colson, daughter of Chuck Colson and author of "Dancing with Max," a book about her severely autistic son. Elizabeth gave the introduction that night, speaking about Will's first diagnosis.
"That day began a journey in which God would teach us to celebrate who he had created Will to be," she said.
An appointment with Florida doctor Jerry Kartzinel (he's now practicing in California) changed everything.
"He gave the best explanation. Every human being has a toxin barrel," said Elizabeth.
Some of us can smoke, drink and never touch a green vegetable. Picture George Burns. Others, like Will, have a less resistant system.
"A very small barrel," said Elizabeth. "Toxins enter his system, and his body is unable to flush them. His barrel starts overflowing."
Elizabeth believes environmental toxins -- in our air, products and food -- combined with an inherited gene helped create Will's autism. I ask about vaccines.
"We're not anti-vaccine. But too many vaccines combined too soon in their little lives and their bodies are unable to flush those toxins," she said.
They began a new diet for Will. All natural food. Vitamins. The idea was to heal him from the inside.
"Leaps and bounds," she said. "I'll get an unexpected hug. He's a popular kid at school."
And that's when she says it. Again.
"Lots of people don't know what a blessing these kids are," she said.
A blessing. Like seeing something for the first time. With perfect blue eyes.
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...