I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
After dinner on Friday night, the girls convinced me to take them across the street for ice cream. Truth be told, there wasn’t much convincing to do, but the convincing part has become just as much a tradition as the actually going part.
The ice cream shop is always a crap shoot. It is a long, narrow rectangle with a divider down the middle that manages the line when it gets long, splitting it in half and doubling it back on itself. When the shop gets busy, it turns into a very crowded and dangerously noisy place. We typically hit it early enough to be safe and then eat our ice cream at one of the small outside tables, avoiding the crowd. The evening had gotten away from us a bit, however (making Winnie sandwiches and all) and we arrived far later than we normally would. It certainly wasn’t at its worst, but it was filling up. Worse, it had rained all day and the outside tables were soaked.
We got on line and I prayed. Admittedly, that’s not the best strategy in an immediate sense, but it had been a looong day and I was pretty well tapped. I handed Brooke the Dr Seuss book that I had in my bag in hopes of distracting her. I didn’t think to give her the iPod that was right also in the bag. As a matter of fact I didn’t remember it was there until right now. Um, yeah. Moving on.
As the noise level rose, so went Brooke’s anxiety. As she bounced off the walls (and into the people around us), I tried everything. OK, right – except the iPod. Drop it, will you please? I’ll give you another tactical error to focus on in 5,4,3,2,1 …
As we got to the counter I noticed a sign advertising a new addition to the shop’s menu – Smoothies! Brooke LOVES strawberry-banana smoothies, so I drew her attention to the sign. I asked if that sounded yummy. “Yes it does!” she said. I asked if she’d like to get one instead of her ice cream. She furrowed her little brow and looked at me through squinted eyes.
“Brooke,” I began again, “would you like to get a smoothie instead of ice cream?”
“I would get BOTH,” she answered, proving she is her mother’s daughter.
“Sweetheart, we can’t get both, You can choose one. You can get a smoothie OR you can get ice cream. Which one would you like?”
“BOTH!” she said again. OK, shouted.
“Honey ..,” was all I could get out before realizing that the camel was long buried in a stack of straw. A toddler yelled, “Daaaaaaaddy!” and we were done for. Brooke shrieked sharply and began to cry.
Behind us on line, an older lady smiled warmly. Completely unfazed by the fact that Brooke was now crying loudly, she crouched down in front of her and gave her a big smile. She asked about the book she was clutching. She didn’t seem to mind that Brooke wasn’t answering her. Her tone remained sweet and even. She stood up as the line moved a bit, still smiling.
That smile was no less than everything – Acceptance, Compassion, Understanding, Pure, simple kindness.
Trying to wrangle Brooke and continue shuffling us forward with the line, I managed to mouth ‘thank you’. I wanted to say much more.
The line moved along painfully slowly. Brooke was struggling. When we finally reached the counter, I copped out and ordered a smoothie for Brooke and the ice cream for myself (shuddup). As I was paying, Brooke dropped her book and shouted in frustration. The same woman reached down and picked up the book. She held it out and when Brooke didn’t reach for it, she waited patiently for me to fumble with the ice cream and the change and then handed it to me. Again, I thanked her.
As we settled down and tucked into our ice creams (and smoothie) I saw the lady and her friends walk by the window. I told the girls I’d be back in a flash and I poked my head out the door of the shop. I had to say something. I had to explain to this woman how much she had given to me – to Brooke.
They were further along the sidewalk than I’d thought, having made significant progress while I told the girls that I had to step outside. I awkwardly yelled down the sidewalk, “Excuse me, Ma’am?” I had to yell again to get her attention, but I wouldn’t walk away from the girls, so it was all I could think to do.
I motioned her toward me, trying to look as little like an unhinged stalker as I could. As she got closer, I explained why I was tethered to the door, but that I really needed to tell her something. She looked understandably confused.
With one eye on the girls, who were contendedly slurping and eating I said, “I have all of a second and a half to say this because I have to get back inside, but I neeeded you to know something. My younger daughter has autism and moments like the one in there can either be disastrous or they can be just fine. And really, it can all come down to just one person’s reaction.” I was choking up, the dam threatening to bust wide open. I flashed to the pool and the God damned hot dog and the awful judgmental sneers. “I needed you to know how much your kindness meant. Thank you.”
She pulled me into my second completely unexpected (and very enthusiastic) hug of the evening. There I stood, halfway out the door and onto the sidewalk being hugged tightly by a complete stranger. Katie looked at me through the window and cocked her head. “I’m a social worker,” the woman said by way of explanation. “I have a nephew with Asperger’s. It’s OK. She was just fine.”
I kept looking back at the girls, waiting for the inevitable melt. As I tried to disengage, the woman grabbed my hand. “Take care of YOU,” she said. “She’s going to be fine. Make sure Mama is too.” I smiled at her, thanked her again and ran back inside.
I got in just in time. The noise was building to a crescendo. Brooke cried out and I scooped everyone up and out and we ate and slurped standing outside.
My heart was full.
One person. Just one. One person with an understanding smile, devoid of judgment. Sometimes that all it takes.