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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

I’m usually not one to push the envelope so here goes nothing: super mailboxes have my stamp of approval.

And while I admire the pristine bank of mail receptacles adorning the lobby of the downtown condominium our family recently moved into, I do miss the weather-beaten box perched on the edge of the suburban street we once called home.

I’ve heard the hue and cry against them: Slots so slim that you can’t hope to penetrate the dark abyss without using a pair of barbecue tongs (and your imagination)? Cubbyholes so cramped that extricating any oversize parcel intact devolves into a take-no-prisoners tug of war you’re bound to lose (along with your dignity)? Doors frozen so fast in winter that stubbornly twisting your key inside the ice-encrusted lock only risks breaking it (and your spirit)?

I understand these postbox pet peeves. A pox on this postal pariah! It’s an infernal nuisance, neighbourhood eyesore, trash and traffic magnet. It really has no saving graces.

Except ours did.

The turbulence unleashed by COVID-19 has left everyone craving reassuring routines to help them persevere. Such stability is crucial for my wife and me since we have an adult son with a developmental disability who finds the familiar and predictable particularly soothing. Even the subtlest deviation from the norm can be traumatic for Thomas, never mind the upheaval of a Bizarro World where curbside pickup passes as cultural pursuit and contactless delivery approaches art form.

Thomas is a connoisseur of miscellaneous pamphlets and brochures, magazines and catalogues – often transported reverently in a bulging tote bag, his personal bookmobile. He may not be able to read but he’ll pore over pictures of favourite people, places and things for hours on end. Our downsizing of residences to a different city meant culling his weighty archive to save on space (and chiropractic bills) but stacks of these prized possessions dotted his old bedroom floor like face masks in the checkout line at a home renovation centre.

Though the grand sweep of Thomas’s holdings would have dropped jaws at the Library of Parliament, the conscientious curator in him always had an eye to enhancing his collection. Perhaps a postcard ad from a landscaping company displaying images of riding lawn mowers. Maybe a department store flyer featuring illustrations of hunting and fishing gear. Possibly a promotional circular for local businesses highlighting visuals of electric fireplaces. He was incapable of articulating why and we couldn’t always interpret how, but each item sparked some positive connection – a fond memory or cheerful wish – to be savoured again and again.

Your junk mail was his Shakespeare first edition.

Mom and Dad were quite content to indulge their man of letters. Thomas turned the mail carrier’s oath squarely on its head: “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these recipients from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Nor did once-a-day delivery or lack of weekend service deter our faithful lad from monitoring deposits more religiously than a bank CEO.

But here’s the thing: the ritual counted for as much as the result. This was a supermailbox pilgrimage filled with promise and possibility yet immune from disappointment. For though empty today, what riches might flow from the magical chest tomorrow?

Our daughter ordered a subscription to a glossy boating periodical as his birthday present, tethering big brother to kid sister despite stay-at-home orders keeping them apart. Meanwhile, deprived by lockdown of spoiling Thomas silly on out-of-town sleepovers – her stockpile of photo-filled literature is so eclectic it could inspire a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack – Grandma took to shipping fresh volumes every few weeks. We reciprocated with snapshots of a beaming grandson proudly exhibiting his latest acquisitions.

As an extraordinary contagion ran roughshod over so much that’s held dear, an unremarkable errand preserved tender bonds until brighter days dawned.

Truth is, the emotional fallout from raising someone with special needs has an insidious way of contaminating one’s noblest “every cloud has a silver lining” sentiment. Like the convulsion of inadequacy that wrenches your gut when your fragile boy is inconsolably in crisis, scouring those cherished papers for one irreplaceable missing piece. As his sweet passion mutates into an all-consuming obsession he’s powerless to repel – and which can methodically debilitate a marriage – it leaves you racked with guilt for resenting him. Add to that the anxiety and isolation of a pandemic (so heartbreakingly beyond Thomas’s comprehension) which aggravates the stresses and strains of providing constant care to a challenged individual, forever dependent on you for all of life’s necessities. Suddenly, you’re fighting off a more virulent variant of soul-sapping infection.

Yet whenever our resistance waned and my wife and I began succumbing to self-pity, that humbling walk to the corner injected a booster shot of perspective into our privileged arms.

The images remain imprinted on my mind: Thomas gestures at one of his pictures and points out the window, vocalizing expectantly. We help feed him a snack, use the bathroom and put on his coat and shoes, step by practised step. All systems go, he blasts off down the street! He tries to recall the right compartment, struggling to insert and turn the key. We redirect him, assisting hand-over-hand. Then he discovers some modest delight within, clutching it tightly to his bosom all the way home.

I pray we never to lose sight of the great gift he bestows rain or shine: a disadvantaged son’s authentic embrace of the simplest pleasures, is his parents’ bulwark against pretension and entitlement.

So, hail to the postal paragon! Repository of hopes and dreams, chamber of warm reminiscences, precious family touchstone. It really is replete with redeeming qualities.

If only Thomas could speak, he’d tell us: “You gotta think inside the box!”

David Lenarcic lives in Toronto.