Father & Son

A Michigan father and son's weekly swim strengthens their bond of love.


Each Sunday, Dennis O'Brien and his stepson, Sean, walk side by side across the pool deck at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Sean clutches his father's arm as he guides Sean to the deep end of the pool. Sean then carefully steps to the edge of the cool, blue water, turns around, and falls backward with a splash. He grabs onto a lane divider and starts swimming freestyle along its length.

Sean goes for a swim at the Ann Arbor YMCA every Sunday with the help of his father. Dennis O'Brien helps Sean with everything, from getting in the water, to getting dressed in the locker room after the swim.

For the next hour, Dennis sits at the pool's edge with a copy of "Reader's Digest," occasionally calling out to line Sean back up in his lane. Sometimes he reminisces with Sean, between laps, about their last 40 years together as father and son.

In 1975, Sean's mother, Leilani, was living alone and working at a warehouse in California. Stocking and delivering packages and parcels, she found herself carrying her first child at the age of 22.

That child was Sean.

Between pursuing her dream to become a musician and taking gigs performing at local venues, Leilani cared for Sean almost completely on her own. That's why it was so frightening when Sean developed a bad rash on his bottom.

After taking him to the doctor, Leilani sat waiting in the lobby, worried about the news she might receive about the red spot.

"When (the doctor) came back, he was less worried about Sean's rash, and more worried about his eyes," she recalled.

That's when Leilani learned that her son was blind. 

Sean, left, and his mother, Leilani, stand and wait to cross the street while walking in downtown Ann Arbor.

As Leilani came to grips with the news of her son's condition, her attitude changed.  She looked down at him in his crib and said, "You are perfect, Sean. There is nothing about you that I don't think is perfect."

After that mental shift, she began asking herself what she could do to move forward with these circumstances.

"I was thinking, 'What do we do now?'" Leilani recounts.

After Dennis O'Brien stepped into a fatherly role for Sean, Leilani and Dennis pulled Sean out of school and toured the country with their band. They even included Sean on a few gigs.

After a couple years on the road, Leilani, Dennis, and Sean settled down in Texas.

Sean's stepfather, Dennis O'Brien, poses with Sean at a carnival they attended together when Sean was a teenager.

Sean struggled with independence, and 'had a hard time socializing," Leilani said.

"He would talk to people, but wouldn't have the appropriate response, or he'd blurt out."

Doctors soon diagnosed him with autism.

It was hard for Leilani and Dennis to separate symptoms of blindness and autism, which was relatively unknown in the '70s when Sean was born.

"A lot of blind behaviors are similar to (those of) autism," Leilani says. "They tried to tell him he was retarded. We knew it wasn't true."

Sean has an incredible memory, able to recall the smallest details from distant events, she said.

But due to Sean's differences, he has required support from his family throughout his life. Now, as years have turned into decades, Dennis and Leilani have been dedicated to taking the best possible care of their son.

"It's kind of like a synergy between the three of us, we just do it. We like the way it is, and if nothing changes, we would be fine with that," Leilani said.

Sean O'Brien gets dressed while his mother, Leilani O'Brien puts clothes away in his dresser on Sunday May 27, 2018. At home, Sean is mostly independent, with a little help from his parents here and there.

Sean listens to "Toy" by Cannonball Adderley & Bill Evans in his parents' outdoor spa in Ypsilanti on Sunday, May 27, 2018 after swimming at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

The love and dedication that Leilani and Dennis have for Sean is palpable in their home. Dennis and Leilani have worked out a weekly routine to empower Sean to get out of the house and live as close to a normal life as possible.

When he wakes up in the morning, he'll typically run on the treadmill, practice drums, or play music alone, or with Dennis or Leilani. He also helps out around the house, washing and putting away dishes. One of his favorite things to do is listen to some jazz while soaking in his parents' jacuzzi. Often times he'll wrap up the days activities by taking a trip to the Ann Arbor YMCA with Dennis.

At the Ann Arbor YMCA, Dennis leads Sean to the pool on the weekends, and the weight room on weeknights.

Sean holds onto his father's arm as he guides Sean out of the pool.

Dennis helps Sean get on a weight machine at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Dennis helps Sean set up a stair-stepper machine at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Dennis O'Brien gets Sean's clothes out of his backpack as Sean gets ready to shower after swimming at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Leilani also takes Sean out on the town. Every month, Leilani drives Sean to meet his father at a drum circle at Crazy Wisdom bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. Attendees hand him instruments, and Sean uses his proclivity for music, having grown up in a family of musicians, to drum along to the beat, and sometimes, even lead the drum circle.

He smiles when his turn comes for a drum solo, and enthusiastically improvises a rhythm on the drum in front of him.

Sean and his parents, Leilani and Dennis O'Brien, play a song together in the drum circle at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore in Ann Arbor. The family has a band called Seven Come Eleven that has been playing together for decades, and they play a song, "Iko Iko."

"We of course, thought Sean would grow up and move out, then it became apparent that wasn't going to happen." Leilani says.

Despite Sean's dependence on on his family, "When it comes down to it, he's taught us an awful lot as well. He's taught us patience, we taught him socializing," Dennis says.

After a long hour of swimming laps at the YMCA, Sean begins to tire, and his father, helps him out of the pool. Sean's first walk across this pool deck was 7 years ago, and Dennis hopes he and his son will still walk those decks 7 years from now.

Sean holds Dennis' hand while holding his breath at the Ann Arbor YMCA pool.

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