On Sunday, I had a moment of revelation. To set this up, know ye that Monterey has a major recreational space called Dennis the Menace Playground. Check it out online! It’s as awesome as it looks.
When wife and kids and I sojourn to Monterey, we gravitate to this playground, because Dar’s brother loves it. Dar, meh. He can take it or leave it. He prefers water. Lots of flowing water.
The family had some free time in Monterey on Sunday after I completed my Open Water Certificate. Dar’s brother pushed for Dennis the Menace. Dar appeared quite happy in the hotel hot tub with Mommy. So we separated; I took Dar’s brother to the big playground, presuming to give myself a tiny autism break.
But that’s not what happened.
While Dar’s brother was playing on some structure or other, I heard a certain screaming. Now, this wasn’t the screaming of a kid who just fell off the top of a slide. This wasn’t the screaming of a child in the midst of a fight with another kid. This was the kind of screaming I know all too well. Siren-like screaming. Barely-pause-for-air screaming. Probably autistic screaming.
I looked over and saw a kid who looked to be either Dar’s age or Dar’s brother’s age, depending on how big he is for his age. He was a little chubby, with his belly hanging out of his too-tight T-shirt. Scream, scream, scream. I saw his (presumed) father trying to calm him down.
Dar’s brother distracted me, and I chased my kid to another part of the playground. After a few minutes, I forgot about the screamer. Maybe ten minutes later, Dar’s brother moved again, this time to the top of a large slide of rollers. Another kid lined up behind Dar’s brother, and then, behind that kid, came the screamer, screaming.
This kid seemed utterly non-vocal. I feel like at this point I can tell. When you’re that age, you don’t scream for that long without pausing to say “he started it” or something – if you can.
I saw the father again, saying to his son “Waiting.” “Waiting!” “Waiting.”
Reader, my heart melted. The world almost fell away.
I wanted to walk up and hug this dad. I wanted to say “My kid does that too. He’s eight and has never spoken. But he screams like this in public on the regular. I feel you man.”
But I didn’t say any of that. And honestly it’s one of the biggest regrets in my life. It’s right up there with spending the 1990s with an unsolicited letter of commendation from President Bill Clinton and not showing it to a single potential employer. (Was I supposed to staple the letter to the back of my resume? Maybe? No one ever gave me good advice on this. My bad, but damn I wish someone had steered me better.)
Instead I just stared at this dad and autistic child, while trying not to stare. So I became the kind of person that I always resent, the kind that stares at disability.
That really hit me. Maybe all these people who stare at me are really wanting to give me a hug? Maybe all these are actually parents of autistic kids whose kids don’t happen to be with them at that moment?
Yes, that’s absurd. On the other hand, I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have seen that kid and his dad. I felt: Hey, I’m not the only schmuck (and male schmuck at that) to be taking my autistic kid to public places. Ahhhhhh. I felt much less alone.
Also, this Dad didn’t seem all that bothered. I mean, he did and he didn’t. His body language was intense, but also somehow “this is all part of the routine,” kind of like me when I’m scuba diving. When Dar screams in a crowded place, it feels like a new existential crisis every time. Maybe it would help if I were to start seeing such moments like scuba diving. We can’t come up for air yet, but we can manage this situation without panicking.
One other thing caught me up short. The dad and his son were almost certainly Latino, probably Mexican. I can’t be sure, but they certainly looked it. I later wondered, would I have been quicker to say something comforting to this Dad if he had been obviously white? Or black? Or Asian? (Even though I speak Spanish?) Am I not only a stare-ist, but also a racist?
Well, anyway, it was a moment. A moment of clarity. A moment of seeing my world through another’s eyes. A moment of wanting to emulate someone. A moment of seeing someone else’s world and feeling less alone in mine. An unforgettable Monterey moment.