Even on the cloudiest of days, Kathy Bourgeois can count on a ray of sunshine during her 30-minute daily drive from Lecompton to Baldwin City.
Her son calls her every day as she drives to her third-grade teaching job in the Baldwin City school district. Often the conversation begins or ends with a song: “You are My Sunshine.”
Bourgeois gets more than a serenade out of the routine. She gets something most mothers can hardly fathom: daily interaction with her 31-year-old son.
I guess it could go without saying that other mothers don’t have Cole Browne as a son. At 6 foot 5 and shoulders built like a blocker’s, Cole could be described as a hulk of a man, if hulks had tender, childlike voices.
But in Baldwin City, where Cole grew up with Bourgeois and his father — Gary Browne, Bourgeois’ first husband — no one is likely to describe Cole as either a hulk or a blocker. He’s the boy they’ve known since birth — sitting on the curb waving at the buses of people at the town’s Maple Leaf Festival or caring for the equipment of his beloved Baldwin Bulldog football team.
Yes, Cole has cerebral palsy, but that’s not likely how they would describe him, either. That’s not the attribute that makes him special.
“He has a real way about him because he knows how to say what is true and honest,” Bourgeois says.
That indeed is sweet music to a mother.
• • •
As almost any mother can attest, that truth and honesty thing cuts both ways.
“I always lived in fear of what he would say on Sunday in church,” Bourgeois recalls.
Leave it to a mother to worry.
And, of course, there was worry when Cole at the age of 2 was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects motor skills, and in Cole’s case also has impaired some cognitive functions.
But at 8 years old, Bourgeois watched her father die at a family picnic, so she knows there are worse conditions in life than having a 31-year-old son who lives on his own, has two jobs — one at Cottonwood Inc. and another at The Hampton Inn — and calls her every day.
Plus, Cole’s condition has created one of the great family talking points for Bourgeois, something the family calls “Coleisms.” Like the time as a younger child when Cole got the local newspaper to publish his letter to Santa. He asked Santa for a jar of peanut butter. For weeks, the family would return home to find several jars of peanut butter left on the front porch.
There are additional challenges, though. Last week, for instance, Bourgeois took a day off work to fill out a 21-page form needed to simply keep Cole enrolled in a housing-assistance program. It is just one of many.
“The way you feel about filling out your income taxes, I get to do that about four times a year,” Bourgeois says.
Bourgeois accepts that she is Cole’s advocate for life. And she also has had to do the unpleasant thinking of how that role will be filled when she is no longer here. Cole’s older sister, Lauren, already has signed up for it.
“She is more than wanting to be his guardian,” Bourgeois says.
But as Bourgeois tells the story, she stops and reflects that maybe none of that makes her family that much different from others. Let’s face it, there are many mothers who are advocates for their children until their last breaths. And despite what we say, there’s a part of us that loves that our mothers still worry.
What may set Bourgeois and her family apart is that they’re just more conscious of it all.
“I think it probably has brought us closer together because you just know that at some point the other person is going to need you,” Bourgeois says.
Bourgeois still tells a story: Before Lauren graduated from Baldwin High, she rounded up a whole crew of brothers of her friends and made them promise to do what she wouldn’t be able to do in the halls of the high school anymore: keep an eye out for him.
A family that has each other’s backs: Indeed, there are many families that can attest there are worse conditions to have than that.
• • •
To watch Cole work to complete the simple task of folding a bed sheet “is more than you can handle,” Bourgeois says. And then there is his favorite food: Peanut butter. The mess left behind from Cole making a peanut butter sandwich makes you wonder whether George Washington Carver invented peanut butter or the H-bomb. (Answer: Neither, in case you are ever in a trivia contest.)
“You just have to adapt a lot,” Bourgeois says.
Cole has advice for families on that front, too.
“Be calm, cool and patient,” he says.
Adjusting to the little messes are one thing. Adjusting to larger realities can be tougher. It was evident early on that Cole was never going to be president, was never going to be the all-star shortstop.
“There are those moments when you mourn the loss of the dreams for your kids,” Bourgeois says. “But, if we’re honest, I think all parents go through that.”
With Cole, there always has been a way to ease those moments: Just look at him.
“He’s a happy kid,” Bourgeois says. “He’s always been a happy kid.”
Happy goes a long way, or at least it should.
It also goes both ways. That mind that produces a song every morning has a simple but powerful thought about his mother.
“I came into her life to make her very happy,” Cole says.
But through song? It is only natural to wonder why there is a song every morning.
Cole gives me a sample of it as he moves to the rhythm in his driveway; his mother smiles and soaks it all in.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine/ You make me happy when skies are gray/ You’ll never know dear, how much I love you/ Please don’t take my sunshine away”
“It feels great,” Cole says, “to share with people how you feel about them.”
Today would be a great day to share — but you’d better ask Mom if you are allowed to sing.
Happy Mother’s Day.