Last weekend Dar went to the zoo. If you’re a smart, perspicacious parent of a neuro-typical child, you look at something like a zoo outing and you think: here is something educational and fun that has been set up for my child, how nice, I will take my child here for as many years as s/he is interested, and then someday s/he will no longer be interested, and then on a more distant day we will fondly share our zoo memories.
If you’re me, however, you think: how many more years can I walk this screaming child through this public place? When he was smaller, I could trust that everyone understands a screaming four-year-old, but now that he’s going on nine, people are looking at this screaming boy and wondering, should I call the police?
Last weekend’s zoo trip was occasioned by a friend of Dar’s brother’s whose dad offered us free passes to their Earth Day event. (Yes I know Earth Day is April 22, not April 14; tell that to the Oakland Zoo.) I also took the opportunity to give wifey an afternoon without the boys. I wondered how the dad in question would feel about me chasing Dar while he basically watched Dar’s brother and his own kid. I told myself that Dar’s brother and his friend are basically reliable at this point – yes, that’s what I told myself. I noticed that the dad in question showed up with both his kids, including his toddler in his arms. So we made a bit of a sight that I sure as heckfire didn’t see anywhere else in the Oakland Zoo: two dads managing four kids under the age of nine.
Dar has this thing lately where he doesn’t even want to get out of the car, and instead screams as we walk him to things – things he used to love, like the Rose Garden or the Beach. I figured the zoo would go the same way, and at first, it did. The people around the entrance gave me a look that I’m almost starting to get used to, a look that art historians call early-post-modern “is that what a child abuser looks like?”
But then Dar kinda settled in. Well, sort of. I got him to the giraffes, which is just barely far enough into the zoo that I knew he wouldn’t be able to easily identify, or attempt to drag me to, the way out. I never noticed it before, but the giraffe enclosure contains a lovely water feature, a bit of stream flowing over rocks, and it was on this that Dar fixated. Lucky me! He took my hand and said “uh-puh!” That’s good for him! Too bad for him that me throwing him into a giraffe enclosure is pretty much the dictionary definition of “not available.” I told him “not available.” He circled around the area, looking for a way in, and not finding it. Instead he watched the water. Ah, peace.
Hey Dar look at those giraffes! Nothing. Hey Dar look at the nearby antelopes! Nada. I know Dar has seen our dog. Other animals, I can’t speak to that.
Just next to the giraffe enclosure, Dar’s brother, his friend, his friend’s sister, and their dad waited in the long queue for the gondola. I thought to sneak me and Dar into the line at the last minute through a little fence separation…and we would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for a meddling…park employee who waved us off. That left the long way…hey, you know what’s fun? Cutting in front of dozens of people while saying “Excuse me, my family is up ahead” while the kid whose hand you’re holding is screaming? Actually, it’s not fun.
But then we got to the gondola. Remarkably, Dar didn’t have a problem getting on. More remarkably, he loved it! As the ski-lift-booth-like gondola rose above the zoo, rose to a panorama of the Bay Area, Dar smiled from ear to ear. I hadn’t seen him that happy during the recent week we were in Hawaii. I would have recommended an entire afternoon of gondola rides, except that he would have freaked during the 15-minute queues.
And then, something even rarer, and more wonderful. The gondola takes you to the Oakland Zoo’s new perch, or whatever they’re calling it, but anyway you get off and take stairs or an elevator up to a cafeteria. Dar’s brother loves elevators. While we were in this one, just after that gondola ride, Dar reached out to me and…hugged me. Just a big hug around my legs while he looked up at me and smiled. That…has almost never happened. Maybe never. I almost wanted to cry.
One other thing. At the cafeteria, I had to watch Dar like a hawk, because he will simply take other people’s food without asking. He approaches people so quickly…his days in such places may be numbered. And then, while the rest of us were looking at the view, Dar made this move where he tried to grab a kid’s doll. This kid was maybe 18 months old, one of two in a double-stroller, and to her credit her grip on that doll was like a vise. But the dad pushing the stroller looked at me like Dar had slapped his daughter in the face. He literally made his mouth move into the deepest possible frown. I was so busy pulling Dar away, I didn’t even make time to say more than “sorry” – no “he’s autistic” or similar.
Later that day, when I was juggling plates trying to keep Dar near his brother and our others – sometimes that was easy, other times it was torture – I thought I saw that Dad out of the corner of my eye. And then still later, when Dar was doing his usual dirt-digging, that Dad walked past me with the double-stroller and gave me this big, very knowing smile. It was like, he had spent the last few hours figuring out Dar’s condition. And now he wanted to give me some reassurance. I thought it was a very nice gesture.
I know Blanche Dubois wrapped up by saying “I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers.”
I can’t rely on that. But it’s nice.