Saturday, November 07, 2009

Every smile a memory: Cassidy, Dierks, and the transformative power of friendship

Have I got a story for you.

You need to sit down, for two reasons:

First, it's a long story.

And second, if you've been reading this blog for a while, then my opening line is going to knock you off your feet.

Okay, are you ready? Are you sitting? Here it comes:

Bud met Dierks Bentley.

I know. I KNOW!

Bud!!!

Dierks Bentley!!!

I know!!!

But it's so, so, so much cooler than that.

So, let me back up.

Bud had a tough summer, behaviorally speaking. First it was tough. Then it was tougher. Then it was nearly unlivable. I'd been working closely with Bud's doctor all along, but when we reached "unlivable," our problem-solving kicked into high gear and we made some significant medication shifts.

And, at just about the same time, Dierks and Cassidy Bentley rode to our rescue.

Dierks was touring with Brad Paisley and had a show scheduled at a venue that's just a couple of hours from our house - an easy drive on country roads. The show was at a county fair, which, I knew, could be a double-edged sword: a high probability of a family-friendly environment, but also a high possibility of sensory overload, with crowds and rides and animals and activity. But still: Bud and I were stuck in a no-win cycle of troubling behavior (his) and inadequate responses (mine). I felt like we needed something to shake up the pattern.

Something big.

If there's one thing that I've learned as the parent of a child with autism, it's this: when somebody says "Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do," what they really mean is this: "Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do." Seriously. Lots of people offer support and empathy. Lots of people say things like "I don't know how you do it" and "My heart really goes out to you" and "That sounds really tough." And I really, really appreciate their support. But those people who say "Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do?" They mean it. Now, they might not be willing to give you a kidney, but they really do want to help if they can. Take them at their word, and - trust me on this one - if there's ever anything they can do, please let them know.

Luckily for me, Cassidy and Dierks are "Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do" people. Because this year, as the tour swung close to our house, I had a hunch that there was something they could do. I contacted Cassidy and, after acknowledging that I was quite aware that it's bad form to respond to someone's generosity with a request for more, I floated an idea. I gave her the background on the tour's proximity to our house, and I told her that I thought that Bud was probably not ready to manage the concert environment. But, I said, I thought he might be able to manage a meet-and-greet. And, I said, the reason I was willing to boorishly plow in and make the request was that I had a hunch that if Bud found himself face-to-face with Dierks Bentley, it would be an "Anything Is Possible" moment for him. And if Bud needed anything at that time, it was an "Anything Is Possible" moment.

Cassidy responded right away: "Yes. Absolutely." I told her that I wasn't at all confident that I would get Bud through the gate, that there was every possibility that we'd drive two hours and he'd refuse to get out of the car, that he would panic at the entrance and we'd have to call the whole thing off. She said that was fine, that Bud's comfort was the most important consideration, and that we could give it a try knowing that everyone would be flexible and take their cues from him.

I know. Incredible.

As the day approached, I watched Bud closely. We'd just made a huge shift in his medication. I tried to assess its effectiveness and predict his ability to manage a meeting with his hero. A couple of times, I nearly called it off. The night before our scheduled meeting, Cassidy sent me a reassuring e-mail, and I had the sense that, though she was back home in Nashville and wouldn't be there for The Meeting, she was still as nervous and excited as I was.

And then, the big day came. I woke to Bud's face in my face, his body curled up next to mine. "Can we go to the dinosaur museum today, Mom?"

"No, Bud," I said. "Not today. We're going to do something else today."

"Like what?"

"Well," I started, "today we're going to meet Dierks Bentley."

Silence.

I looked at Bud, whose face was buried in the pillow. His body didn't move. The silence continued. And continued.

I started to wonder if he'd fallen back to sleep.

Finally, when I couldn't stand it any longer, I said, tentatively, "Bud?"

He kept his in the pillow and replied, "I don't think so, Mom."

I paused a moment, weighing my options. To push or not to push?

"Oh, I think so, Bud," I said, trying to keep my tone casual. "Dierks is going to be at a fair near here, and he would REALLY like to meet you."

"I'll just stay with Nana and Papa," he said.

"Well," I said, grateful that we had several hours before we'd need to leave home, "let's just think about it. We don't need to decide right now."

We laid there quietly side by side, each of us trying to make sense of the situation and figure out what to do next. After a long time, Bud spoke.

"Dierks would like to meet me?"

"He sure would," I said. "Look, Bud, I want to show you an e-mail that Cassidy sent me."

I powered up my laptop, pulled up her e-mail, and read it out loud as Bud sat next to me reading along silently. Then, I highlighted the things I wanted him to think about. "Look, Bud. Cassidy says three important things. First, she says that Dierks' friend Chris will find a quiet place for us to see Dierks, so even though we will be at a fair, it won't be noisy. Second, she says that the most important thing is for you to feel comfortable. You can do whatever you want to do, and you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. And third, she says that if you want to, you can see Dierks' tour bus."

I waited. I knew that the tour bus was the ultimate carrot. One of Bud's favorite videos on dierks.com features Dierks giving a tour of his bunk on the bus. Bud loves it so much that he convinced me to string up a curtain by his bed so he could have a bunk of his own. I knew that the idea of seeing the ACTUAL bunk would be almost irresistible.

"I could see the bus?" he asked.

"That's what Cassidy said."

"I could see Dierks' bunk?" he asked.

"Well, maybe," I said. "His bunk is on the bus."

Bud didn't say anything. We finished up our morning routine, then headed down the stairs for breakfast. From the kitchen, I could hear Bud open the door to the room where his grandparents were sleeping.

"Hey, Bud," Nana greeted him. "What's up?"

"I'm meeting Dierks Bentley," he said.

Score one for the tour bus.

As the morning progressed, Bud's excitement grew, and soon he was dressed in a Dierks Bentley t-shirt, considering whether or not to bring along his guitar, and firing questions at me about what length Dierks' hair would be, whether or not he'd have a beard, and what sort of shirt he'd be wearing. In other words, Bud had found his groove.

I did my best to prepare him, though I wasn't sure what to expect myself. But I played it out this way: We would drive for about two hours until we got to the fairground. There would be lots of cars, and we might have to park far away and take a shuttle to the gate. We would wait in line at the gate to buy tickets to the fair (but, I was quick to add, we would not actually have to GO to the fair). Then we would walk through the fairgrounds to get to the area where Dierks was. Dierks' friend Chris would meet us there, and he would bring us to a quiet area. Then Dierks would come and say hello. I carefully avoided the specifics of what would happen when he met Dierks, so that I wasn't setting up false expectations, but in my mind I pictured 5-10 minutes of contact, during which Bud might or might not make eye contact, might or might not say anything, and might or might not let me take a picture of the two of them together. And of course, maybe we would get to see the bus. Then, we would head back through the fairgrounds, make our way back to the car, and drive two hours back home. And I knew that if our day was anything even close to that, it would be a dream come true for Bud.

My first indication that things might not play out exactly as I'd imagined came as we drove up the highway toward the fairground and my cell phone rang. It was Chris Alderman, Dierks' tour manager, calling to confirm our meeting time, to let me know how excited they were to have us visit, and to reassure me that they were all prepared to play it by ear. He told me that he'd put my name on the list for backstage parking so that we wouldn't have to worry about dealing with the fair crowds. At least 50% of my anxiety lifted in that moment.

"And, hey," he said, "why don't you guys plan on grabbing some dinner from catering with us as well? Then you won't have to worry about that either." I'd packed a peanut butter sandwich for Bud, but eagerly agreed to the plan.

I said goodbye to Chris and filled Bud in on the latest development. I was relieved to know that we wouldn't have to face the potential landmines in the parking/gate/fairground process. Then it occurred to me that there was another piece of information I should share with Bud, because if we were going to be in the backstage area eating in the catering tent, then...

"Hey, Bud," I said. "Just so you know, there's also a chance that we might see Brad Paisley."

Bud's response was immediate and decisive. "No. Just Dierks."

I knew what he meant. He likes Brad Paisley, but really, enough was enough. What was next? Hey! Watch me pull Kenny Chesney out of my hat!

"You don't have to talk to him," I said quickly. "You just might see him around. Walking by or something." I dropped it, but thought to myself, how is this my life?

Before long, we reached the fairground. Having no idea how to find backstage parking, I chose the gate furthest away from it. I texted Chris to tell him we'd be there soon, then wound through slow-moving traffic, talking to a steady stream of mostly kind parking attendants as I fumbled through an explanation of what I was trying to do. Finally, I got to the parking attendant stationed right by what appeared to be the backstage entrance. I don't know if he'd been getting a lot of stories like mine or what, but he was not buying what I was selling. Bud started getting nervous in the back seat ("But, Mom, where is Dierks?"), and I was just about to start to panic, when I heard a friendly voice approach the car: "Hey! You made it!"

It was Chris, who had a quick chat with the parking attendant, then motioned to me to swing my car around and through the now-open gate. Relief washed over me as I pulled through and Chris motioned to a spot just inside the gate. As soon as the car stopped, Bud and I climbed out, and I was about to start thanking Chris when a voice to our right said "Hey, guys!"

We were parked next to Dierks Bentley's bus. And Dierks' head was sticking out the window.

"Bud, look," I said. "Who's that?"

Bud glanced up, then turned his back to Dierks, stared down at the ground, and said "That's Dierks."

I looked back at Dierks, who motioned to me - Should I come out?

I shrugged and nodded (I don't know; I think so.), and in a flash he was with us. "Hey, Bud! It's nice to meet you!"

Bud kept his eyes down, but lifted his hand and said to the ground, "Hey, Dierks!" I wasn't sure how to read him. Was this moving too fast? Did we need to slow down?

I put my head next to his and asked, "Hey, Bud, what do you think about this?"

He answered softly, but clearly: "I think it's really cool."

We all exhaled, and I said, "It is cool, Bud."

Dierks asked Bud if he'd like to take a walk around, Bud said that he would, and then we were off. The ice was broken and we were all, surprisingly, getting comfortable quickly. We walked through the grounds, as Dierks and Chris gave us the lay of the land, pointing out tents and trucks and trailers until we were at the back of the stage area. As we approached the stairs, I saw a familiar face heading down them.

"And there's Brad Paisley," said Dierks, as Brad walked toward us and Dierks made introductions.

Brad said something. At least, I think he did. I know his lips moved. All I could really hear, though, was the voice inside my head yelling to Bud, "PLEASE don't offend Brad Paisley!" And Bud must have heard, because he answered the questions Brad asked him, then stood by patiently as Brad talked shop with Dierks.

When they were done and Brad said goodbye, we turned back to the stage, which was swarming with crew members wheeling equipment and instruments, shouting to be heard over cranking music. Dierks surveyed the scene in front of us and without missing a beat said, "Hey, Bud, would you like to see the bus?"

"Sure!" Bud replied, and they walked side by side, their comfort with each other already visible, as they headed back toward our car.



And then, we entered the promised land: the tour bus. Dierks gave Bud the all-access tour, opening cabinets and drawers to show Bud where they store the peanut butter and where they keep their shoes, a view of each guy's bunk, and - the best part for Bud - Dierks' bunk - the very bunk that Bud had seen on video so many times. Bud was delighted. Dierks explained that the other guys were out playing golf, but would be back soon, and then he asked Bud if he'd like to go get some dinner. Bud was quick to agree.

We made our way to the tent where the catering staff had laid out a ham dinner buffet. Bud looked at the ham, potatoes, veggies, and other decidedly non-Bud foods, looked at me warily, and said, "Mom?"

"You know, Dierks," I said, understanding Bud immediately, "Bud has a peanut butter sandwich in the car. He and I will just run and grab it, then we'll meet you back here."

"Why don't I just bring my dinner and we can eat on the bus?" Dierks suggested. "Would that work?"

"YEAH!" Bud cheered.

We headed back to the bus, and Dierks and Bud settled down at the table and started chatting.


It was about that time that I realized I could easily slip out and get my nails done and the two of them would carry on just fine without me. But I wasn't about to miss a minute of it, as I sat slack-jawed and watched my son not just respond, not just interact, but actually initiate real conversation by seeking out topics that he thought might interest his friend.

"So, Dierks, I was just wondering," Bud started, "what does Jake and George (Dierks' dogs) like to do with you?"

And then:

"So, Dierks, I was just wondering, does Evie like to watch PBS Kids?"

And for each question Bud raised, Dierks had an answer, and they bantered back and forth about all the topics that really matter - how great peanut butter sandwiches are (Bud's looked so good that Dierks made one for himself), what music was on Bud's iPod, and, of course, which country artists they liked. GAC was playing softly on the big-screen TV, and from time to time Bud would identify a face that popped onto the screen.

"Look, Dierks! It's Keith Anderson! Do you know Keith Anderson?"

"Oh yeah," Dierks replied, "he's great."

"Yeah! He's great!" Bud agreed happily. And so it went - Rodney Atkins, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney - Bud was thrilled to know that Dierks knew all the same guys he knew. Bud kept an eye on the TV even when other things had his primary focus, and every now and then he'd shriek "LOOK! It's YOU, Dierks Bentley!," and we'd all shift our gaze to see Dierks, larger than life, filling the TV screen.

After the peanut butter had been eaten and the country singers discussed, Bud thought of another question. "So, Dierks, I was just wondering," Bud asked casually, as though he had not seen several of them on the bus, "do you have a guitar?"

"Well, yes, I do," said Dierks. "Would you like to see it?"

"Oh, sure!" Bud said, with feigned surprise.

Dierks grabbed a guitar, sat down, and strummed.

"So, Dierks," Bud said, "I was just wondering - do you know a song, 'So So Long'?"

"Well, yes, I do!" said Dierks - which is not surprising, since he wrote it. And then he started playing it, while Bud shivered with excitement, and pounded his feet along with the music.

"Are you drumming, Bud?" I asked.

"No," he replied, incredulously. "I'm tap dancing!"

But of course.

And then, it was Total Request Live, as Bud shouted out songs and Dierks played them - "Settle for a Slowdown," "Sideways," "Wish It Would Break," "Midnight Radio" - even an encore of "So So Long." The hits just kept on coming.

Then Bud said, "How about 'I Wanna Make You Close You Eyes'?"

"Oh yeah!" Dierks said, "You mean the song I wrote for Evie?"

"Yeah!" Bud cheered.

"Wow, Bud, you were right!" I said.

"What?" Dierks said, off-handedly. "Did somebody guess that?" And then he launched into the song and, to Bud's complete delight, changed up the lyrics to make them unmistakeably about his baby girl. Bud even laughed out loud when Dierks got to the part about her leaving a trail of dirty diapers for him to follow.

When Dierks stood up to get something, Bud couldn't hold it in another moment. He stood up, too, threw his arms around Dierks and squealed "You're the BEST, Dierks Bentley!" (I have to say: I couldn't have agreed more.)

A short time later, we heard voices coming from the front of the bus, as the members of Dierks' band returned from their golf game. We all looked up as the first person walked on to the bus.

"Hey!" Bud shouted, "That's Tim Sargent! He plays steel guitar!"

Dierks and Tim both exploded with cheers for Bud's accurate ID, as the next band member joined us.

"There's Steve, Bud," Dierks said. "What does he play?"

"He plays drums!" Bud said, to more cheers.

But I knew that Dierks was setting the bar low. "Wait, Bud," I said. "Steve who?"

"Steve Misamore!" said Bud, spotting the guy on his heels. "And that's Robbie Harrington! He plays bass."

The guys were delighted, and though I knew there was one more band member yet to join us, I also knew he'd be the easiest one for Bud. He walked on to the bus, but instead of his trademark cowboy hat - the hat he always wears on stage - he was sporting a baseball cap.

Bud froze. He turned quickly to me, "Who's that, Mom?"

"Take another look, Bud," I said. "You know who that is. He's just wearing a different kind of hat today."

Bud looked again, then turned back to me more insistently, "Who IS it, Mom?"

I leaned over and said softly: "Well, he usually wears a cowboy hat, and he plays guitar."

"THAT'S ROD JANZEN!" Bud shrieked, and the rest of the bus cheered in response. Bud had officially won them over.

The guys made their way to the bunk area at the back of the bus, and Rod returned seconds later with his cowboy hat in hand. He plopped it on Bud's head and said, "Bud, I'll need this for the show tonight, but you can wear it until then." Then Cowboy Bud sat down next to Dierks for an impromptu guitar lesson.

Dierks suggested to Bud that they go back and check out the stage area, and Bud readily agreed. We left the bus, and the two of them fell into step together, chatting as they walked. I trailed a few feet behind, marvelling at how naturally they were interacting and at how quickly they'd become friends.

When we reached the stage, I saw that though some of the activity had died down, it was still very loud and fairly busy, and I realized I'd left our supply-filled backpack on the bus.

"Bud," I asked, "do you want your earplugs?"

"Yes, " he said quickly.

"Okay," I replied, not wanting to interrupt the easy groove we'd all fallen into. "You stay here with Dierks. I'll be right back."

I turned and dashed back toward the bus - and then realized what I'd just done.

Oh my GOD, I thought, horrified. I just made Dierks Bentley babysit!

I paused, and for a fraction of a second I thought about turning back and getting Bud, but since I was already halfway to the bus, I decided to just own my faux pas and apologize when I returned. I ran to the bus, grabbed Bud's earplugs, and hurried back to the stage as quickly as I could.

Bud and Dierks were not where I'd left them, though. I looked around, and saw them together in backstage area, comfortably checking out instruments amid the noise and confusion. I stuck Bud's earplugs in my pocket and went up to join them, as Dierks asked Bud if he'd like to try on his guitar.


As I hovered nearby doing the mom thing ("Be very careful with that, Bud! Gentle hands! Not too rough, buddy!"), Dierks casually walked Bud out to the front of the stage, where he stood, front and center, his hero's guitar slung around his neck, star of the day as he basked in the glow of the imaginary audience that filled the still-empty stands.

After Bud returned Dierks' guitar, the backstage tour continued as they checked out the inside of a huge equipment truck. As I watched Dierks and Bud together, I was struck by two things: 1) Dierks seemed totally at ease. Unlike many people who look to me for cues about how to respond to Bud, Dierks' responses to him were casual and natural, and 2) Bud seemed totally at ease. I realized that since we'd arrived, I hadn't heard any scripts from PBS shows or computer games. His responses to Dierks were casual and natural.

We headed back to the bus, where the guys waved me off when I tried to apologize for invading their home. Bud seemed to thrive in this guy-oriented haven. "Hey, Dierks," he said, when Jack Ingram's video for "Barefoot and Crazy" came on, "Look! It's Jack Ingram! This is a bikini video."

"Yeah?" Dierks asked.

"Yeah," Bud said. Then he added conspiratorially, "Bikinis are great." And the guy fun continued - Dierks showed Bud how to drive the bus, they compared muscles - I swear, if we'd stayed any longer I'm certain that there would have been a burping contest. In this instance, though, I was more than happy to fade into the background until I was summoned - "Hey! You gotta get a picture of this!" - to find that they'd climbed into bunks (Bud on the bottom and Dierks on the top) and were already smiling for the camera.

Moments later, the guys beckoned us back to the front, where the video for "Every Mile A Memory" was playing on GAC. The video is full of concert footage, and it was more than a little surreal to sit watching the band with the band - Tim on the big screen, Tim on the couch; Robbie on the big screen, Robbie in the aisle... Bud, for his part, was completely unfazed, but thrilled to see that his guys - because, by now, they had surely become his guys - seemed to like all the same things he did.

While Bud was hanging with Dierks and the guys, Chris found me and asked about the show, to find out what I was thinking now that we'd been there for a while: Did we want seats in the audience? Did we want to hang out behind the stage? I told Chris that I was still fairly sure that Bud wouldn't be able to manage the audience experience, and that I thought we'd just need to play it by ear. He told me that the passes we had would let us watch from anywhere, so we could do whatever seemed best at the time.

Then, it was time for Dierks to get ready for his scheduled Meet and Greet, so Chris took over as our official tour guide. He brought Bud and me to his own bus, where we got to meet some of the crew and saw a whole NEW set of bunks. We visited the Meet and Greet area. Bud climbed into the cab of one of Brad Paisley's trucks and chatted with the driver about NASCAR. (Bud doesn't know what NASCAR is, but he held his own well enough that I don't think the driver even realized that.) And THEN Chris brought Bud to Dierks' jeep, and Bud climbed in and sat in the very same seat that Dierks had in the "Free and Easy" video - the video that, for us, started this whole wild ride.

When it was time for Chris to go help manage the Meet and Greet, he ushered us into the trailer that housed his office, set up his laptop, and asked Bud about his favorite website. Bud told him it was PBS Kids, then sat down to show Chris how he could make Curious George juggle fruit - and, I'm telling you, Chris responded with so much enthusiasm that he had me convinced it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen. Once we'd settled in and Chris confirmed that we were all set, he headed out to take care of business. Bud's anxiety flared once or twice, but he settled down when I assured him that he would see Dierks again.

Bud must have been processing the experience, because he was quiet for a moment, then turned to me and asked "Mom? I'm 'With the Band?,'" the meaning of the phrase clear to him for the first time.

"Yeah, Bud," I said, smiling. "You're 'With the Band.'"

Before long, darkness had fallen and Chris came back to collect us and bring us back to the bus, where the air was suddenly electric with pre-show energy. The guys were dressed in the clothes they'd wear on stage. Crew members zipped in with microphone cases and other important-looking things. I worried that we were in the way, but the guys were as relaxed as they'd been all afternoon. Dierks and Rod sat down with acoustic guitars as they all gathered at the front of the bus.

"Bud," Dierks said, "We thought we should practice a couple of songs before the show. Would you like to hear them?"

"Sure!" said Bud, sitting down on the couch in the middle of the room. And then, suddenly, the crisp acoustic opening notes of "Every Mile A Memory" filled the bus and I thought I might have forgotten how to breathe, as the guys launched into the most incredible version of the song I've ever heard. As they sang, Bud tap danced in his seat in time to the music. Nobody missed a beat.

As soon as the song ended, the guys launched into another -Bud's favorite - "Sideways." When it was over, there was commotion at the front of the bus as more equipment was loaded in and I thought for certain that it was time for the guys to take the stage.

"So, Bud," Dierks said, as he walked to the front of the bus to collect a large box that had just been delivered. "The guys and I were thinking that we wanted you to have something so you'd always remember this day."

Are you kidding? I thought to myself. This child will never forget a MOMENT of this day.

But Dierks continued. "So we wanted you to have something special, that was one of a kind - something that nobody else had."

"Okay," said Bud, who clearly had no idea where this could be headed.

Then Dierks opened the carton and lifted out a beautiful guitar designed with a Dierks Bentley Feel That Fire skin.

"Wow!" Bud and I said together.

"So, we were thinking," Dierks went on, "that we could all write our names on it for you. And then no one else would ever have one just like it. Would that be okay?"

"Sure," said Bud. Then Dierks handed him the guitar, and he held it like a real musician as each of the guys stooped down and added his autograph.

I thought I might swallow my tongue.

I tried to gush. I tried to say something. But this moment was not about me. This moment was about them - all of them. And it was a truly incredible moment.

And then, as soon as the last name was on the guitar, it was time for the show.

"So, Bud," Dierks said, "will you walk us out to the stage?"

"Sure," said Bud. And then he walked hand-in-hand with Dierks in the middle of the pack as the cheers from the audience grew closer.

When they reached the stage, Dierks said, "Okay, Bud. We always huddle to say a prayer and a cheer before we go on stage. Will you join us for it?"

And he did.

Then, one by one, each of the guys took the stage as the audience went wild, until only three of us were left backstage.

"Okay, Bud," Dierks said. "I just need your help with one more thing."

Then they climbed the stage stairs hand-in-hand and Dierks grabbed a microphone, leaned down and said to Bud, so that the whole audience could hear: "Does anybody want to get Sideways?"

Then the band started playing, and Dierks took the stage, and the audience went completely out of their minds.

Bud and I stood in stunned silence for seconds.

And then, as the show continued, Bud totally lost it. In fairness to Bud, I'll skip the details on that, but if you live with a child with autism, then you can probably fill in the blanks. It might have been the incredible volume, or that it was already long past bedtime, or that he had to share his new friend with an enormous crowd of people, or simply that he had held it together so beautifully for so long through so much that day, that now that we were alone and it was safe to let it out, the intensity of his emotions spilled over in the only way it knew how, and he melted.

Luckily, because we all had a hunch that this might happen, Dierks had told me to feel free to head back to the bus if we needed to, so that's exactly what we did. From the bus, we could still hear the show in the distance, but Bud had some privacy to let his emotions escalate and play out. By the time the band was starting their final song - "Free and Easy" - Bud was spent, but was even again. I suggested that we walk outside to hear the last song, so we listened to it from behind the stage as I started wondering how in the world I was going to get Bud to leave Dierks without prompting a repeat of the emotional meltdown we'd just experienced.

When the song ended, the guys left the stage and headed back to the bus, and Bud and I lingered outside as I tried to develop a game plan. I decided to try to stay as close to our regular bedtime routine as I could, and hope for the best.

"You know, Bud," I said, "it's really getting late. It's about time to put on your pajamas and head back home."

We went back to the bus, where the guys looked about as exhausted as we were, and told them it was almost time for us to leave. Bud and I headed to the back, where he changed into his pajamas, took his medicine, and called his dad. Then I packed his clothes in his backpack and looked up to speak to him - but he wasn't there. Robbie pointed me to the front of the bus, where I found Bud and Dierks side by side, both looking like they'd had a long day.

I told Bud it was time to go, and he said goodbye to the guys and packed up his gifts - which now included the drumsticks Steve had played with that night, a guitar pick from Rod, and a couple of t-shirts from Dierks. Dierks carried the prized guitar out to our car, loaded it into our trunk and then loaded Bud into the backseat, where his pillow and blanket were waiting.

"I had a great time, Bud," Dierks told him. "Thanks for coming to visit. We'll do it again next time we're here."

"Thanks, Dierks," Bud said. And that was that. We pulled out of the fairground, and Bud was asleep before we hit the highway.

When I got home, I found two new e-mails from Cassidy in my inbox. She'd sent the first one in the afternoon, twenty minutes before we were scheduled to meet. "I'm really hoping it goes well," she wrote, "but no matter what happens, I'm really glad you guys are trying it." And she'd sent the second after we left the fairground: "Just got the play-by-play... wanted you to know that my heart is so happy..."

The next day, Bud was in a daze, as though he couldn't quite believe that it had all actually happened. But in the days and weeks that followed, it became clear that the experience had been powerful for Bud. He moved with a new kind of confidence. In the early weeks, he'd often ask "Dierks is my friend?," but as time passed, so did his perspective, and now, almost daily, out of the blue, he makes a declarative statement: "Dierks is my friend."

It may seem like a small thing, until you realize that Bud has never really been interested in having a friend before. We refer to the other kids at school as his friends. They call him a friend. But he's never really been interested in having a friend. He's refused the idea of playdates and, when asked, he's named his friends as Mom, Dad, Nana, and Papa. Until now. Now he has Dierks. And Chris. And Rod, and Tim, and Robbie, and Steve. Now, he calls people friends. Now he knows how cool it is to have friends. And, my hunch is, now he is probably on track to want more of them.

I've thought a lot over the past weeks and months about the transformative power of friendship. I've thought about the kind of friendship that Dierks and Bud developed - the kind of camaraderie that's created when two strangers "click." I've thought about the kind of friendship I have with Cassidy - the same kind that I have with so many of you, who I know only through my computer screen, but to whom I feel connected at the heart. And I've thought about how those friendships affect us, anchor us, empower us, change us.

I've also been reminded about the power of kindness - about the power of doing something not because we must, but simply because we can - about how when that kind of kindness goes out into the universe, it doesn't just add up; it doesn't just multiply. It compounds exponentially. It transforms.

So.

That's the story. It's astounding, right? I told you it would be. Thanks for sticking with it. Thanks for sticking with me. Thanks for sticking with us.

Now, please - go download some Dierks Bentley music.

And, really - I mean it. Believe me when I say this, and then go out and say it to somebody else:

Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do.