There is a secret garden where miracles and magic abound, and its available to anyone who makes the choice to visit there. - Dr. Wayne W. Dwyer, "I Can See Clearly Now"
Tucked off of Barbara Jordan Boulevard in Austin is the Ronald McDonald House. For most people the image of Ronald McDonald musters images of the clown who serves as the spokesperson for the McDonald's restaurant chain. Hundreds of people drive past the House every day, rarely give any thought to the people, that are at that moment, calling it home. The families of children, from birth through 21 years of age (or 18, depending on the House), who are being treated at nearby hospitals and medical facilities, are eligible. Twenty eight months ago, my wife, daughter, and I called the House home for three of the longest days of our lives, while across the parking lot, Peyton fought a losing battle for his life in the PICU at Dell Children's Medical Center.
The House itself looks like a small mid-priced hotel. The rooms each have a sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom. There is a common area with dining tables and a kitchen. The kitchen is available for all to use, but at least two times a day, a stream of volunteers come in and prepare simple meals for the residents. A play room contains a variety of toys to entertain, or distract, brothers and sisters. Outside, there is a play set to help kids burn off energy and stress, benches to sit and relax, a grill, even a putting green. There are statues donated in memory of loved ones sitting among the landscaping. Among the various plants, what would appear to be nothing more than ordinary bull rock used for landscaping across the state. Upon closer inspection, each of the rocks has the name of a child, but not just any child. The rocks memorialize a child that passed away while their family was staying at the House. Each rock is made by a local stone mason who donates his time and materials.
Nestled among those rocks is one that reads "Peyton J". This is Peyton's rock, and because he was cremated, it is the closest thing I have to a gravestone. I first laid eyes on it two years ago when we traveled to the State Swimming and Diving Championships held every year in Austin. We thought it would be a nice to have the swimmers pay a visit and donate some toiletries I had collected. While they were taking a tour of the house, I walked outside and found Peyton's rock. I knew it was there, but I didn't know what to expect. It sat among the Madison's, John's, Sarah's, Bobby's, and Baby Boy Smith's. I slowly approached and knelt down while my heart did a Neil Peart drum solo in my chest. When my fingers touched the rock, my eyes filled with tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as snot bubbles ran from my nose. I talked to the rock telling it how sorry I was that I had failed him, how disappointed he must have been in me as a father, that I would still trade places with him to let him live his once promising life, and begging his forgiveness for my short comings as a father.
After ten or so minutes, I pried myself away from the rock, dried my eyes on my sleeve, put on my sun glasses to hide my cryin' eyes, and headed back in to the House to collect the swimmers and head to the hotel to prepare for a weekend of action at the pool.
Over the years, this is a ritual I have repeated every time I visit the Austin. I try to make a delivery of toiletries to the House to justify my presence. I search the garden, find the rock, kneel down and lose my shit for the duration of the visit. it is a cathartic and cleansing ritual for me. Because Peyton was cremated, it is the closest thing (in addition to a tree planted in his honor at his former school in Round Rock), that I have. I can kneel down, talk to him, hold the stone, and enjoy the quiet and beauty of the garden around me, even if just for a few minutes.
Compared to the rest of the state of Texas, Austin is a freak show. Not in a bad way, but it is different. Where as most of the state is known as a bastion for conservative values, Austin tips heavily liberal. While Dallas strives to be sophisticated, Austin prides itself on keeping weird. Houston is known for fine dining, but Austin for its food trucks. San Antonio prides itself on its Hispanic heritage, but Austin is the cultural diversity capital. From food, to architecture, to music, to the people, Austin stands out, and is a great place to live and visit. However, for me, the number one attraction is the unassuming building on Barbara Jordan Boulevard that is home to Austin's Magical Secret Garden.