The House Guest

The House Guest

It was July 30, and the first day of relief from a record- breaking heat wave in the San Francisco Bay Area. I stood anxiously by the escalator at the Oakland Airport waiting for my 20-year-old son Matthew to arrive from Pennsylvania. Matthew is autistic and has been attending a special residential school there since he was 15.

He flew home for a five-week break. Worried that he would be lonely and adrift as in summers past, I hired a companion who worked at his school to travel home with Matthew and stay with us for three weeks.

His name was Kim, a 25-year-old from South Korea who had joined the staff of Matthew’s school just a year earlier. I had heard good things about Kim, but felt nervous because our communication through phone and e-mail, though cheerful, had been awkward. I had a hard time understanding his English and wasn’t sure he understood the notion of “friend to hang out with” rather than “policeman.” Matthew was painfully aware of his own disability and need for support, but despite his innate social ineptitude, he craved independence and friendship, and wanted to be viewed by the world as a regular 20-year-old.

I had hired “friends” for Matthew before, but always had the benefit of meeting them first to judge the potential for chemistry. When Kim and Matthew rolled to the top of the escalator, I saw no chemistry. My son, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, rushed ahead of his smiling companion.

“I’m not with him,” said Matthew, frowning in earnest. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“He’s not a babysitter,” I said, shaking hands with the stranger in front of me. “Kim is our friend!” Matthew rushed ahead to the baggage claim. “Did you have a nice flight?” I asked Kim, who shrugged and smiled.

It was going to be a long three weeks.

Matthew avoided Kim the first few days of the visit, while the rest of the family (my husband and I and our two other teenage sons) tried manically to make Kim feel useful and at home. We talked to him, struggled to understand his English, invited him for walks and meals, and asked him to help with the dishes. By the third day, I was exhausted from smiling, talking and suggesting activities for Matthew and Kim that fell flat.

“Do you want to go to the movies with Kim, Matthew?”


“How about a hike?”

“No hikes.”

Feeling like a prisoner in my own home, I left Matthew and Kim alone together while I took our four-month-old Labrador puppy, Cali, for a walk. When I returned, a police car sat in the driveway.

“He’s stalking me!” Matthew told the policewoman who had responded to his 911 call. Kim smiled nervously and paced around, and the officer looked confused. I explained the situation and apologized profusely. She said she thought she’d seen everything till today.

“Look, Matthew,” I sighed. “Kim is our friend. Will you please be nice to him?”

“Probably not,” was his response.

I could not endure this kind of grief for three weeks, and I wondered if I should just pay Matthew’s “friend-for-hire” the full amount promised and ship him back to Pennsylvania. But then I glanced at Kim who was stroking the puppy, and I could see he was a person who smiled even when he was hurt. I resolved to make his visit a success.

“Matthew has some yard work to do,” I said. “Could you do me a big favor and wear this puppy out?”

Kim nodded eagerly, and the two fled to a walking path around the corner. Later that evening, Kim took Cali for another walk, and came home looking exhilarated. Did we have any movies he could watch on his laptop? he asked. As I reached for The Sound of Music, my 13-year-old handed him the first season of 24, a cult show among teenagers about the dangerous adventures of no-nonsense counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer. The next morning Kim slept in, and admitted sheepishly that he had been up half the night watching the series.

“That’s OK,” said my 13-year-old. “We’re addicted, too!”

By the fifth day of his visit, Kim had settled into a happy routine of dog care and other chores, amiable family dinners and evenings with 24. On day six, a Saturday, Matthew knocked on Kim’s door, and asked him if he wanted to walk downtown and get some pizza.

“I decided that I might like Kim,” said Matthew when they returned, and I heaved a sigh of relief, grateful that my web of reverse psychology woven out of desperation had snagged Matthew. I stopped counting the days until Kim’s departure, as the two bonded over daily walks downtown.

The morning of Kim’s departure, Matthew told him not to be sad—he’d see him in September. But Kim had a hard time saying goodbye to Cali, and knelt down to cuddle her one last time. He was still smiling, but I saw a tear cascade onto the puppy’s shiny coat.

“You are going to miss Uncle Kim, aren’t you, Cali? Let’s take your picture with him.” As Kim lit up for the camera, I was grateful that the painful scene at the airport three weeks earlier had unfolded so magically. By turning our constant focus from our autistic son to the needs of our houseguest, we left Matthew free to befriend his “friend-for-hire” in his own time and in his own way.

The next morning, an e-mail message from Kim arrived. It remains on our refrigerator along with his picture with Cali.

So much thank you for you, and family, and my niece Cali.
It was a great 3 weeks for me . . . my best summer in life.
Thanks a lot for giving me such a nice memory.

Laura Shumaker has contributed her essays to KQED Perspectives, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times and to the Wednesday Writers’ new anthology, Something That Matters: Life, Love, and Unexpected Adventures in the Middle of the Journey.


Bubble Fairies | by Laralynn Weiss Rapoza

Tennis Camp | by Toni Martin

Your Epidermis Is Showing | by Veronica Chater

I Was a Teenage Angler | by Jill Koenigsdorf

The House Guest | by Laura Shumaker

The Last Summer | by J.H.B. Chambers

Aunt Edith’s Lemon Meringue Pie | by Linda Joy Myers

Camp Wishi | by Sarah Lavender Smith

The Summer of Love | by Christine Schoefer

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