He was not, his parents say, a shy boy. No, indeed.
Freeman Bauerle knew how to assert himself, and he did it well. Too well, at times, his father, Bob, says with a grin.
An active, athletic young man, Freeman loved winning medals and ribbons in the Special Olympics. One year, when he didn't win, he stood on the awards platform and took a medal, anyway - just grabbed it from the woman giving them out and put it around his neck.
In Little League baseball, he shunned the regulation ball cap for a brown felt cowboy hat his grandfather gave him - and had his photo taken with bat in hand and cowboy hat on head.
At home, he was the one to decide when dinner guests had outstayed their welcome. "He'd try to take people's plates before they were finished eating and try to push them out the door," his mother Pat says, smiling.
Freeman knew what he wanted, and he had the confidence to take it. Perhaps that's why he lived so long - 20 years, longer than anyone expected, grabbing life and holding it dear at least five times when, Bob says, he should have died.
On April 29, he did die, in his sleep, after an evening of visiting with his dad and catching the ball Bob threw to him again and again. His death came as a surprise - and not. Bob and Pat had known for more than 14 years that something was not right with their son: A healthy baby and toddler, he began his childhood years like any other boy, but around age 3 or 4 the Bauerles saw his face grow abnormally fat, his fingers crooked, his eyebrows unusually thick.
A geneticist diagnosed him in 1987 with Hunter's Syndrome, an enzyme deficiency that prevents the body from metabolizing complex carbohydrates. Since the deficiency exists throughout all the body's cells, those unconverted carbohydrates store themselves throughout the body - in the skin, in the organs, in the brain. Slowly, the body is destroyed. Slowly, Freeman's brain and body lost their functions.
Among the last to go: His loving kindness. And his sense of humor. So loved was he, even as an older child going to school with younger ones, that his fourth-grade classmates bickered over which of them would get to accompany him to the playground during recesses.
"They just loved him," Pat says. "He was just a happy guy.
"He was always very loving," she says, "always giving hugs and kisses."
"He had more girlfriends at Big Sky High School" - to the envy of his brothers, Will and Chris, Bob says.
His laugh, which shook his entire body, would rise up spontaneously, it seemed, as he watched the films - such as Alvin and the Chipmunks - he so loved. "He would just start rolling with laughter," says Pat. More than once, Bob ran into the room at the sound of his titter-cum-belly-laugh, worried that his son was choking - only to find him double up in his wheelchair, overcome by some joke nobody else ever thought was funny.
He ushered a relative in to a closet, then shut the door and walked away. He picked up car keys and put them in strange places - the freezer, the garbage - then forgot that he'd even done it. He tried to push the riding mower into a pond on the family's Miller Creek property.
"Freeman once introduced us to a plumber who showed us how you remove a pair of Superman underpants from your sewage pump after a certain individual flushed them down," Bob said in notes written for Freeman's memorial service May 1. "Then there was the airport security guard to whom I had to explain that the gun which Freeman had packed in his carry-on bag was only a toy."
Parents caring for a child with such special needs are bound to learn, to change, from such an experience. The Bauerles are no exception: Friends tell them they've seen the couple grow into more patient people, for instance. Bob, however, admits to serious lapses in forbearance - when searching once again for those missing car keys, for instance.
Gone only a short time, Freeman, who could neither speak nor hear for most of his life, has nevertheless left a space bereft in his parent's hearts. The boy who loved to have his hand held, who loved walks outdoors, who loved animals and demonstrated so much compassion for others with disabilities, is gone.
"I miss just knowing he's there," Bob says, "to go and try to get him to smile, to hold his hand and let him know that you love him."