It is Thanksgiving day.
We are not yet halfway through the long drive to Papa’s house, but the troops are restless. We learned long ago that low blood sugar and confined spaces are a combustible mix, so we’re looking for a place to get a quick bite.
We’ve pulled off of the highway in search of a McDonald’s. Katie has eagerly pointed out two Burger Kings, a Wendy’s, a Friendly’s and a Taco Bell, but we’re sticking to our guns. We know better than to venture from the tried and true. Not today at least – not when so much will be different for Brooke, so little familiar. We finally spy the golden arches and send up a cheer.
We scramble out of the car – Luau taking Winston to do his business while the girls and I head straight in so that they can do theirs. Katie offers to take Brooke to the bathroom while I order.
I don’t need to ask what Brooke will eat. A double cheeseburger Happy Meal, please - no cheese. Oh and no pickles, no onions, no ketchup and no mustard. Nothing on the bun but the meat, please. Seriously, nothing. Don’t test me, Ma’am; I have sent back scores of burgers and I’ll do it again.
The kids squirm into a booth while I
pour toxic-colored liquid over ice get the drinks. In the next booth over, a man sits alone.
His hair is heavy with grease. He is bundled into heavy layers, which he makes no move to peel off despite the relative warmth inside the restaurant. On his head is a navy blue knit cap that has surely seen better days.
The hat sits cartoonishly atop his head. He wears it too high above his ears, causing it to flop back over itself. A companion would surely have told him that it needed fixing.
I am self-conscious – feeling conspicuous and awkward sitting with my husband and my girls. I try to catch his eye, hoping to share a smile. When it doesn’t work, I look away. I am embarrassed, having realized that I was unwittingly staring at him.
I want to believe that he too is stopping for a quick lunch on his way to a Thanksgiving dinner somewhere else – that like us, he is headed to a place where he will be welcomed and cherished, loved, fed, nurtured and cared for. I want to believe, but my head calls my heart’s bluff. He is eating slowly, taking his time.
The girls dive into their Happy meals and Luau and I grumble and groan at the early kick-off to a day of disastrously unhealthy eating. Nothing like a plateful of grease to warm up for a plateful of starch. Oy.
I try again to catch the man’s eye as he deliberately lifts the lid off his salad. Again I am unsuccessful. I want so badly to somehow convey warmth, or solidarity, humanity, or – damn it, anything. I feel a need to connect, and though I don’t know how, I do know why.
How easy it would have been, I think, for our children in a different time – never diagnosed, never understood – to have fallen away, one by one, from families who would never have known why – why their son struggled in school, why their sister couldn’t hold down a job, why their cousin could never seem to make or keep a single friend, why their uncle insisted on speaking in such hurtful, unvarnished truths, why their brother could never look them in the eye when he spoke – shifty they’d have called him, untrustworthy.
How easy it would have been to have peeled away the layers of family, love and support as he or she alienated them one by one over the years, never quite knowing why it was so damned hard to just be like everyone else. How easy it would be to retreat. To decide that alone – as much as it may have hurt – was easier.
I flash to Michelle Garcia Winner’s conference where she talked about the depression that ensnares so many adults on the spectrum – how to a person, those she’s counseled have expressed their desire to connect with others, desperate to break down the myriad challenges that conspire against them doing so.
I think, as I so often do, of *that first neuropsych* who looked into her crystal ball and told us that our then three year-old daughter would live a solitary life – that as an adult she’d simply prefer to be alone. I feel the familiar anger rise – at an awful doctor peddling a dangerous load of cr@p. I push against it. Not now.
The man glances our way briefly but his gaze doesn’t rise above the level of the table.
We pack it up and get back into the car. As I help Brooke in, I give her a squeeze. We settle in for the long ride ahead – to spend the holiday with people who will make every effort to connect with my girl.
And as we drive, I fight the image of that man – someone’s baby – alone on Thanksgiving, wearing a navy blue hat, folded over, with no one to tell him to check it in the mirror.
And I quietly cry.