We were in Costco. It is where we go once every three or so months to stock up on food and other supplies. Our ritual is to go in and eat at the snack bar first, and then go shop. Let’s be honest, the snack bar is inexpensive, the eating area is busy with families and well, it’s just fun to be around people who are happy and enjoying the day. We stood in line behind a set of blond headed triplets, two girls and a boy who were allowed to handle their own money and order alone for what may have been their first time. Their Dad was standing near, keeping a watchful eye on the giggling trio that looked to be nine year olds.
At one point the little boy turned around and gave John a once over up and down and then poked his sisters to show them he could copy John’s odd body posture and movements. The three burst into fitful giggles, and their Dad was quick to step in, pull his son to the side and give him a stern warning. The girls poked each other and laughed because he was in trouble, only to be warned as well. The group stopped giggling, but still glanced back at John more than once. I did not care; it made John smile to be the center of attention.
At the table, we spread out plates of pizza and a couple of hot dogs. The atmosphere in the eating area was up beat and families with children buzzed about refilling drinks and going to get more napkins. I could not take my eyes off a toddler across from me as he dozed in a stroller. I miss my children being little.
Suddenly there was a loud clap. The rhyme of the clap came from a local restaurant, it is the clap done as waiters and waitresses walk up to the table to sing their version of happy birthday. Suddenly the clap stopped; just at the point there the song should begin. “Phew, I thought someone had a birthday song coming!” My husband said as he grinned remembering the day we had a group sing to him. Suddenly, the clap started again. It was loud and hard and full of enthusiasm. “Someone is having a great time today.” My husband said.
I was busy feeding John. It did not occur to me that the clap was a stim, and I doubt it did to others as well. The triples now sitting near us burst into a fit of giggles as they turned to watch where the sound of clapping came from. Again the Dad gave them a stern warning. I had to wonder, what now. My husband Marshall handed me a hot dog and told me to go put mustard on it for him, but what he was really doing, was giving me a chance to see where the clap was coming from.
As I pumped mustard onto a hot dog, I observed a family. There were six boys, stair steps or maybe friends mixed in with the group. Parents at each end of the table were laughing and sharing with the pack. In the middle of the boys was one different child. He heard his own drummer, he had his own agenda. He was alternating between finger painting with the sauce from his pizza and clapping out he first notes of the birthday song with great gusto. When the clap ended one of the group would say, “Nobody has a birthday today Rod, sorry, wrong restaurant.” And with that, one of the other boys would hand him something off their plate to eat, making sure he ate, as his pizza was going the way of great art work. The rhythm of clapping and eating went off every two minutes like clock work. Everyone at the table was having a blast; nobody was confused or upset by the actions of Rod the finger painter.
I went back to my table, all smiles. I knew and I am aware of the unique actions of children with autism. I understood a stim and I understood the confusing thought that every time you go out to eat, you should hear the birthday song sung. My smile grew wider with each cycle of the loud clap. The triples had grown used to the rhythm and had lost the need to giggle.
We finished eating and began to clean up our table. When we stood up, Marshall handed John a napkin and ask him to find the trash can. John smiled, took the napkin, and made a trip across the eating area and toss in the single napkin. Marshall and I both smiled and said “Good JOB!” as John came back looking for something else to toss in the trash can.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Mom at the table of six boys smile big and poke her husband. He nodded and smiled. I noticed both had their eyes glued on John and knew without anyone saying a word, that John too, was a disabled individual. John made three trips to the trash, each one a great effort on his part and each one a victory in my heart. The Mother smiled at me. We locked eyes for a second and I knew she knew, joy in little things is the biggest kind of joy. I nodded at her, winked and took my grown son by the hand and headed off to shop.
A few isles over I found myself staring at a beautiful little girl. This dark eyed, dark haired beauty was a breath taking beautiful. I took a deep breath; I always enjoy watching little girls at play. The Mom of sons and the girl with only brothers, I missed out on the girl bonding. Suddenly the little girl reached for a large stuffed animal and giggled wildly as she brushed its soft fur. I saw her Mom reach down to pick her up and whisper something to her. I smiled but my smile was not returned, rather I was given a cold hurtful look. I understood, this young Mom was used to people looking at her daughter, because she has Down Syndrome. I however, was only seeing her beauty and for a minute, wished I too had a daughter.
I blinked and said nothing; I did not let my smile fade, but rather reached out and took John’s hand. It was at that minute the young Mom’s cold look softened, as John came into view. His awkward gate and stumbling walk, funny somewhat goofy grin is a dead give away that he too, is not what others consider normal. I led John past the young Mom then turned around and said, “I know you hear this all the time, but your daughter is such a beauty, she needs to be on the cover of a magazine.”
“Oh thank you!” The young Mom gushed with pride, “Yes I do think she is pretty, but you know us Mom’s we all think our children are pretty.” I saw the love of her daughter in her face and I watched as the little girl reach out and patted her Mom’s face with love.
“Yes it’s a trait we don’t outgrow either, I think I my son is a lady killer, fun isn’t it to enjoy your child.” I said as smiled at the little beauty queen.
“Your son is a handsome young man; I know you are very proud of him.” The young Mom said as she looked at John. John smiled back at her. John and I walked on, but I noticed as we walked off the Mom had a happier look on her face and greeted shoppers with a big smile. Down the next isle I heard someone say, “What a pretty little girl!” and I knew, the Mom got it now, some of us, just see the beauty, not the disability.
I caught up with Marshall; he was busy talking to a family with a grown Downs son who was busy telling Marshall about cows. Marshall was deep into conversation with this young man and I stopped to meet him as well. We all chatted for a minute then went our different directions. I said nothing as we walked toward the fresh fruit area. We were quite as we selected apples. I looked around the store. I saw only happy families enjoying the day. I saw the bouncing blond triples still giggling as they tried on hats and gloves. I saw the family of six boys, Rod no longer clapping but walking along, flicking his fingers in front of his eyes. Somewhere in the store was a young Mom with a beautiful daughter and somewhere was an older family with a son who works part time on a farm.
I took John’s hand. I smiled at my husband. We are family, we are normal in our own way. Nothing can take away John’s disability, but at the same token, nothing can take away my pride in the young man that he is. It feels good to be normal in public now, normal, because wherever we go, there is always someone else who understands, normal is just what is relevant to your home.
Costco, today I found more than savings in bulk supplies, I found happy families where different levels of disability have not taken away the joy of life. If you are in a family with a member coping with a disability, know you are far from alone. If you have never dealt with disability, it might surprise you to discover, we have more in common with you, than not. Smile at us when you see us in public, for we will be smiling at you.