The World in a Cup of Coffee
May 23, 2012, by Prudence Baird
For Prudence, a chance encounter at the local co-op reveals a road less traveled and the journey ahead
I noticed the woman’s skirt first. Made from a stretchy black polyester from another era, the skirt brushed the tops of her shoes, which peeked out from underneath like two pointy black snouts. She stared at the gleaming push-top coffee thermoses perched just out of reach as she fidgeted with an orange paper coffee cup, turning it over and over in her hands.
“May I get you some coffee?” I asked.
“No, I can manage,” she said, and promptly dropped the cup, which rolled under her wheelchair.
Our eyes met and both crinkled at the corners.
“Well. I guess maybe you’d better.”
Even without the disadvantage of the high counter, the prospect of selecting a cup o’ joe at the Brattleboro Food Co-op is daunting. Organic Love Bug, Free Trade Moka Sumatra, Mocha Joe Downtown Roast, Peruvian Water Process Decaf…the list goes on. She selected the Pierce Bros. Fogbuster—my favorite locally roasted bean.
“Cream? Milk?” I asked.
My 17-year-old son, Casey, stood a few paces away, observing. I was happy he was there to witness this small and spontaneous gesture because our children don’t always have the chance to see their parents modeling anything more altruistic than buying a case of wrapping paper for a school fundraiser, sitting behind a table hawking hot chocolate for ski trip scholarships, or run-walking a 5-K for this or that charity.
Unpremeditated acts of compassion, kindness and charity are given lip service by just about everyone I know. But most people’s generosity of spirit is pre-planned, often with another agenda—such as a tax write-off or a round of applause from one’s peers—being fulfilled along with the act of giving.
“Casey, please hand Mommy the sugar.”
Casey handed me the organic turbinado sugar and I held the hot beverage while the woman poured in the right amount. I secured a plastic sippy lid and a cardboard cuff. The woman thanked us and, with the cup in one hand and her other working the chair’s controls, she was off.
Casey, who had been silent up until now, called after her in what most parents and teachers would term his “outside voice.”
“It’s always nice to help the disabled!”
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw several heads turn our direction. My eyelids held a blink a moment longer than usual—curtains coming down on a play that had been perfectly performed right up until the last act when the lead actor flubs his lines and then vomits on the patrons in the first row.
I opened my eyes to see the wheelchair slow to a stop.The woman’s eyes flickered over Casey’s face. Could she, I wonder, see the wheelchair on the inside, as autism is sometimes labeled?
Not everyone we encounter comprehends that my son’s brain functions differently, which often leads to some, shall we say, uncomfortable moments.
Despite the potential for embarrassment, humiliation or cost—or conversely, despite the potential for epiphanies and joy—like many families, we’ve chosen to live our lives “as if.”
As if he’s not going to trample every foot in the row as he makes his way to his seat in a crowded Broadway theatre. As if he’d not going to comment, magna voce, that so-and-so looks decidedly less wrinkled and old since the last time he saw her. As if all is well. And usually, it is. But sometimes, it is not.
Thanks to 17 years of practice, I now have somewhat thicker skin than that with which I was born. I can, however, still be taken aback by my son’s behavior or words. Or, to be more precise, I can still be taken back. Taken back to those first years when every day brought new, unsettling news, prognoses and angst as I came to grips with how much my life and the lives of my family would change with his diagnosis.
Again, I can remember each and every slight, every comment, ”helpful” and otherwise. Again, I can feel transparent and fragile; a paper doll of a mom, incapable of protecting my own child against ignorance, abuse and bullying. And not just by children, misanthrop adolescents and hillbillies with two teeth.
“Is your child a little ‘off?’” asked a father at Little League when Casey was all of five. How does one answer that?
“Yes. And your child? Is he off, as well?”
Or, “Yes! Isn’t it grand?”
Or, “Yes, he has been diagnosed with autism, a lifelong condition that impairs social interaction, communication and relationships.”
Any way you cut it, by the time I’ve gotten to “yes,” both my son, myself and even the rest of our family are dismissed as inconsequential. Damaged goods; not worth cultivating. And certainly not to be picked for anyone’s team.
We self-selected ourselves out of Little League about the time the parents of most players were taking the whole ballgame way too seriously. But even before that, we were already veterans of a world that defined “acceptable” in narrow terms; terms that did not include my son or anyone else whose differences slowed the trajectories of those whose children were destined to attend Harvard, live in the White House, earn Nobel prizes, have brilliant careers or win Olympic gold medals.
None was more blatant than the incident of the pre-Tiger Mom tiger mom, a social-climbing feline in the form of an overly aerobicized mother with a tawny mane who took a swipe at my child as he struggled to keep up with the class of two-year-olds at the tony Broadway Gymnastics in Santa Monica.
I was usually the only mother in the waiting room—a glass paneled room where German, English, Irish (and the occasional Asian) nannies and I perched on bleachers overlooking the gym. Besides me, a mother’s appearance was a rarity, and this particular one—the pre-Tiger Mom tiger mom—peered anxiously through the glass wall that divided the waiting area from the gym. Inside, Casey’s group of four children, toddlers really, attempted somersaults with the help of two gym teachers. Casey who was four, was assigned to this group because his gross motor skills were more like those of a two-year-old.
“Who is that boy?” Tiger mom jabbed a well-manicured finger at Casey, who as if on cue, toppled over sideways instead of executing a neat forward roll like all the other kids in the class.
“Which boy?” I asked weakly.
“That boy in the red shirt.” Aerobics-mom tossed her glossy mane of salon-streaked hair and glared at me. “He’s holding the entire class back. I want my daughter OUT of that group.” She stormed off towards the gym office.
Despite the absurdity of the situation—these kids were two-year-olds, after all—I fretted for days over my son’s differences, unable to sleep, unable to enjoy food, unable to imagine a world where he would be safe. A world where he wouldn’t be judged and punished for needing more attention, for needing more resources and, above all else, more time.
The scars of these encounters resurface in dreams and in all manner of deja vu experiences that remind in buzzing neon signage, you are different.
And if I let myself feel, if I let the flesh and the years peel back, I can feel frail and helpless, buffeted by every blow. It doesn’t take much of a reminder for that to happen. Like this day, when my well-meaning boy, simply stated the obvious. It is nice to help the disabled. We should know. Many have helped us along the way and to these individuals, I am grateful beyond what words, gifts or bounty of any kind can convey.
I hoped the woman in the wheelchair wouldn’t douse us with hot coffee, throw a dirty look, or lecture Casey. I hoped she would recognize Casey and me as fellow travelers on that other road—the road where travelers bestow a gift on all they meet; the gift of recognizing humanity in all its manifestations.
Her eyes flickered over Casey, then over me.
The corners of her eyes crinkled. “Yes,” she said. “It is nice to help the disabled.” And then, she rolled on.