It’s an exhilarating experience when a father hears his son’s first “Da-Da.” But the experience can be crushing if a child stops saying it.
Garrett Kelty appeared normal in every way when he was born on Nov. 5, 1994 — a few months before his parents, Robert and Rebecca, bought Alpine Pastries in Evergreen.
At 18 months, Garrett had taken his first steps and said his first words. But after his 18-month immunizations for mumps, measles and rubella, he became deathly ill and unresponsive. He wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t walk. And, worst of all, he wouldn’t talk.
“I loved this boy — this was my little boy. I adored this kid,” Robert Kelty said. “I wanted to teach him how to shoot a BB gun, a bow and arrow, go camping and fishing and swimming — all the things that I did when I was a kid.”
Instead, Robert learned to play with puzzles — to connect the pieces of the life of a child with autism.
Garrett was 3 when doctors made the diagnosis, and the Keltys joined the rising number of families in America whose children are afflicted with the developmental disability.
What could they do to help this handsome child, who screamed often and refused their touch?
One restless night, when both father and son were unable to sleep, Robert lay down beside Garrett and played a cedar flute. It was a simple wooden instrument, one his daughter, Jennifer, had won in a contest at the Fort Restaurant in Morrison. But it calmed his son. And it stirred something inside Robert — a connection with a distant grandmother of Native American ancestry.
For a year, Robert played the flute for Garrett. Each time he did, he said, “I love you,” as the boy drifted off to sleep.
Then, one night, the boy said it back to him.
“He mimicked the sound of the words — ‘Ah, uh, ooh,’ ” Robert remembers. “We couldn’t believe it: There was somebody in there.”
As time went on, Robert expanded his flute collection and personal melodies. And his family learned other ways from skilled teachers to diminish their son’s anger.
One year, he met famed flutist Carlos Nakai at an annual Indian market in Denver. The musician was impressed with the flute bag Robert carried — one he had crafted himself — and Nakai asked him to play a tune.
Robert’s technique was “pure,” Nakai observed. To maintain that purity, Nakai said, Robert should play for children — because they are innocent.
And so Robert played for his son, to soothe him in darkness and at dawn. To relax him in a grocery store, despite the hurtful remark of a bystander when the child began screaming over food misaligned on a shelf.
The songs were prayers offered heavenward to gather strength for each new day.
A ‘well-mannered boy’
Garrett turned 13 in November. He is now a “well-mannered” boy. He learned at age 6 how to shoot a bow and arrow.
For an hour each week, he straightens shelves or cleans a floor at one of three mountain stores. Robert pays him $2 for each assignment — an effort to teach his son self-sufficiency.
“Do you help Mr. B?” the father asked the son in Aspen Creek Hardware & Home on June 6 in Conifer.
“Yes,” Garrett said, his diction soft and precise.
“Sweeping and mopping, yes; the floor, yes. Love popcorn — uh-hum,” Garrett added, explaining his frequents trips to the free-popcorn machine.
Garrett can also run the 100-yard dash in 16 seconds flat. He has won three gold medals and other ribbons at special athletic events. He swims with his mother and goes fishing with his dad. He rides an electric scooter and, last Friday, bought a bicycle horn with his hard-earned cash.
“I’m not a baby; I’m a big boy,” Garrett said.
Big enough for hugs and kisses, too.
“In the old days, it was tough ee he was violently mad. He wouldn’t touch anybody. Then, it was no talking,” Robert said. “Gosh, he’s come so far ee”
But Robert breaks into a “cold sweat” when he thinks about the future.
“I won’t be around forever to protect this kid. This is the fear I have.”
For now, he can. And he does — in his calm, earnest way.
Each morning at dawn, Robert beckons grace with his flute. Five nights a week he surrenders sleep to work a second job, to secure health insurance and meet other “responsibilities.”
Time spent with his wife means rolling dough for hamburger buns together at the bakery for local wholesale accounts. She oversees the pastry business and shuttles Garrett to class or the fitness center.
“People say, ‘I’m tired. I need a vacation.’ Boy, you don’t know tired,” Robert said. “I was exhausted last year; I am not exhausted this year. You just get accustomed to doing what you do and try to fit in the enjoyment time.”
Enjoyment most often centered on Garrett, despite the “No-no-no’s” from the boy when Robert’s idea of fun confounds his son.
Like a trip to the Evergreen Rodeo on Father’s Day weekend.
“Most dads can say to their kids, ‘Let’s go to the rodeo,’ ” Robert said. “I have to plan for eight months.”
Those plans include subtle associations such as: “Let’s learn to rope!”
“No!” says the son.
And the strategies also include bribery, luring his son to the mechanical bull competition with the promise of a shiny belt buckle.
“We went last year, and he fought the whole way. But when he saw those guys flying off that mechanical bull, he started laughing,” Robert said, hopeful that his son will laugh again this year.
Last week, Garrett bonded with a spiffy new cowboy hat at Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply, where his sister “Jenna,” now 21, works.
It was one more link to the rodeo for this father and son, and one more piece of life’s grand puzzle.
“You can put on a cowboy hat and say, ‘I’m a cowboy’ — but you’re not really a cowboy,” Robert said. “But when you are a father, you’re a father. You don’t walk away from that. That’s what you are.”