Grocery shopping this morning, a mom and her son passed by me in the floral department. She is probably in her 50's because her son looked about 10 years older than mine... and yes, her boy plays for our team: Autism. Right down to the 6 foot 2 inches of young man flapping his hands next to the strawberries and "oooo--Wheeeeing" in the dairy section. I could tell before the stims though, it's amazing how quickly I can spot a person with autism who's in the same part of the spectrum as Jack.
When I see another family with a special needs child, I always try to smile — at the child, or the parent, hopefully both, to show that, even though I don’t have a stamp on my forehead or my son in tow, I understand a little bit about their life. I always hope that a friendly smile will make a person feel there is more good than ill-will in this world. I know there are days when I just hope that we can get through one single transaction without a struggle, and knowing that there are compassionate strangers nearby can make all the difference for me. But she wouldn't make eye contact with me, or anyone else for that matter, except her son.
And while I thought it was precious that she spoke to him so clearly, looking directly into his face, in an undistracted and meaningful way, I also found it a little distressing to think that perhaps she has had to block the rest of us out. I felt compelled to go over to her, and make some benign comment about her shoes to initiate a conversation, just to make sure she knew that there are those of us out here, who would help if we could, and know a lot of resources, and could take the cart if things got a little hairy in the parking lot (even though her son was doing an awesome job). And, let’s face it, I just wanted to take care of her. Which made me feel a little like a creepy stalker, because maybe she just wasn’t that social in the first place. I think what I really wanted to know is this: will I become like her? and will Jack be like her son?
Will I be so over other people staring at us by then that I will stop bothering to make eye contact? Will I look a little more resigned, but braver just the same? Will I look that tired, which is even more tired than I look now? Will my shoulders be that hunched? Will I look like I *really* need a break?
and will my son be pushing the cart? Helping a bit, pausing for a little stim, then back to the cart, not running anyone over, not running off? Will Jack still be with me, daily, when he's 20? 30? (and will he be that handsome?)
Jack wears a size 8 shoe already (that's a 10 woman's shoe in case you need a little frame of reference.) He grows taller and stronger and more like a young man every day. It's getting harder to pretend that he is going to stay a little boy forever when you're shopping for shoes that big. And like so many parents, the future seems so far away right now.
|photo courtesy of Moore & Warner|
There are so many things to worry about, to obsess over, to wonder, and so much to do, all the time. That day, of course, I went to the grocery store without a shopping list, came home with eight bags of groceries, and still had no plan for dinner. So perhaps I’ll start with feeding my family before I move on to the rest of my life.
A version of this essay was previously published on Salon.com, on February 11, 2011.