Image from Toys R Us
Toys R Us, Saturday
You can’t miss the posters. The puzzle pieces – now instantly recognizable – are everywhere. Every cashier wears a pin that says “Be A Hero For Autism.” It’s that time of year again. I am grateful. And torn.
Brooke and I have come to pick up one last birthday gift for her sister. We are waiting at the customer service desk while the manager searches out back for the particular toy we need.
The day is warm, so people have come out in droves. The store is packed – crawling with kids and their parents optimistically buying toys for the Spring.
A mom pushes an unwieldy Little Tykes box across the floor. Scratch. Drag. Heave. Scratch. Drag. Heave. A dad is talked into a pink scooter, complete with pink Hello Kitty helmet for his daughter. “Daddy, Daddy, it’s PINK and Joey can’t ride it cause it’s MINE, but he won’t want to anyway cause it’s PINK!” A deliciously happy five-year-old squeals with delight as he picks out his first big kid bike. The kick stand scrapes across the floor as he moves it again and again and again with his foot. Creak. Scrape. Squeal. Creak. Scrape. Squeal.
Brooke points to the door, frantic. It’s too much.
I tell her that we need to wait for the manager to return with Katie’s toy and then we can go.
A toddler behind us yells to his mom. Brooke grabs my hands and clamps them over her ears. She pushes them in, hard. I stand behind her and squeeze, hoping the pressure will help. I try to bring the manager back by sheer force of will.
A man stands next to us with a baby. Brooke asks the baby’s name. The father tells her, then asks her a question in return. She mutters under her breath. “What is Dorothy thinking about today?” I prompt her to answer the gentleman. She does, then returns to the Elmo’s World script playing out in her head. “Ya da da da!” The father is confused. We move on.
Brooke sees herself in the security monitor overhead. Her body relaxes just the slightest bit as she lifts an arm, then watches in delight as her video doppelgänger follows suit. I lift one elbow. Then the other. She giggles. We begin a series of moves – arm, arm, elbow, elbow. Right leg, left leg. Head goes side to side. Spin around! Squeeze your mama! Squeeze your baby!
We watch ourselves in the monitor. I am still holding her ears as we move. Our grainy images carry out their elaborate dance on the screen. We look absurd. I don’t care. She yells, “Again!”
The manager comes back, thank God carrying the toy that we came for. We thank her profusely and head to the gift wrap aisle.
Brooke hones in on an Elmo gift bag, launching into an inventory of Sesame Street friends that aren’t on the bag. “Where’s Zoe? Is she there? She’s sleeping inside the house. Where’s Abby Cadabby? Is she there? She’s sleeping inside the house.” We could do this all day. I gently guide her to something that might be a little more appropriate for Katie.
We get on line to pay for our purchases. The cashier is having trouble voiding something from the last sale. We have to wait while she sorts it out. AGAIN. Brooke has been a trooper, but we’re running out of rope.
A baby cries and she’s over the edge. She finally lets loose a loud, shrill scream. I crouch down and cover her ears. “Mama’s got you, baby, it’s OK. I’ll hold your ears again, all right?” By way of response, she pushes my hands into the sides of her head. The baby cries again and Brooke yells more loudly. She’s done.
I notice the cashier’s link to the PA system. I’m tempted.
Just a minute of your time?
Thank you for hanging the posters. Thank you for giving your money to help. Every bit helps to fund research and to provide support for kids like mine.
But folks, if you want autism awareness – if you REALLY want awareness, THIS is OUR autism. This little girl right here who is working so hard just to be standing in a God-damned toy store. This place that she loves, yet can barely tolerate.
This beautiful little girl who never would have lasted this long just a year ago. Who would have been outside in a melted puddle of tears by now – her mama trying desperately to soothe her frayed nerves. This incredible spirit who is determined with every last fiber of her being to overcome her challenges. This funny, silly, generous, brilliant little girl whose mama dances in security cameras and holds her ears and loves her with everything she has and everything she is but just isn’t big enough to chase away the demons and make it all OK.
This little girl whose mama would give anything to ease her baby’s way in the world – if only there were something to trade – some toll to pay.
THIS is our autism. Our autism is messy and it’s complicated and it doesn’t fit on a poster or a button or into a thirty-second PSA.
This little girl, who struggles to find the right words, but whose mama is so grateful – so damned grateful – because she knows that it is by no more than the grace of God that her baby HAS words. Because she knows so many more who don’t.
This little girl who has a team of people supporting her, teaching her, loving her. Who tries so hard to get by in a world that is so foreign.
Who tries so hard. Period.
THIS is our autism.”
I don’t, of course.
Instead we leave the store, having accomplished what we came to do. We celebrate our victory as we walk hand in hand to the parking lot. I revel in the fact that my girl can hold my hand. Nearly two years later, this small thing is still not small.
I take a deep breath. My baby smiles and leans into the wind. She is happy to be outside. She looks free. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
Thank you to Toys R Us for joining in the campaign to raise autism awareness. If you ever want me on the PA, just let me know.