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.

“No.”

She hesitated.

“Sugar?”

“Yes, please.”

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.

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30 Responses to “The World in a Cup of Coffee”

  1. penny Says:

    As I said in my re-post to FB, this is one great piece of writing. So much, captured in this small event.

  2. tim Says:

    lovely. lovely lovely. but its not nice to make your spouse cry this early in the morning.

  3. Carrie Says:

    Beautiful. As a teacher of children with Asperger’s syndrome, I feel your pain. And your joy. I thank God every single day that everyone in the world is not born perfect. Differences are put here to be celebrated. The smallest achievements are put here to be shouted from the rooftops. And what about all those snotty hyperactive overachievers (I call them Power Moms) who choose to fight over the best spot in the best preschool, or the fanciest jerseys for the snootiest soccer team? They, who cannot see beyond their own preconceived notions of what comprises a “good” family? They are the losers in the great game of life, and I feel sorry for them.

  4. Cathy Says:

    I second Carrie’s comment — differences are to be celebrated and embraced.

    Pru, your “unpremeditated act of compassion, kindness and charity” serves as a shining example for your child or any human being for that matter. Bless Casey and his thinking out loud unedited brilliance. I’m so happy that the woman in the wheelchair “got it”. You and Tim remain strong and steady embracing both your boys for their unique selves. They are lucky to have you. Thank you for a poetic glimpse into what it’s like to be the parent of a child with autism.

  5. Julie Lineberger Says:

    Beautifully thought, written and shared. Thank you, Pru.

  6. rosemary Says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  7. Proinsias Faulkner Says:

    Great writing, Pru.

  8. Cheryl Says:

    Darling, you know how i feel about this…perfectly written, of course. When does the heart stop aching?

  9. Reticula Says:

    What a lovely story. I’m so glad it ended the way it did. It doesn’t matter what abilities or disabilities our kids have, their pain is magnified in our hearts. This story is a good reminder that we need to be gentle with every mother’s child.

  10. Carine Fabius Says:

    Casey is so lucky to have you, Prudence.

  11. Julie Schumacher Says:

    Thank you Prudence~ I shared this wonderfully written work of art on FB. I cried in my cup of coffee while reading this beautiful story.

  12. Jayme Says:

    OK, this should be required reading for everyone. An amazing life lesson recaptured brilliantly.

  13. Nina Haft Says:

    Stunning. thank you.

  14. dearpru Says:

    Thank you for your wonderful comments, everyone!

    Here is a strange happenstance that if you’ve read this far, you may find curious.

    Yesterday, I took Casey, his friend Jefferson from Shanghai and one of my students from the high school where I work, to Keene, New Hampshire for the afternoon.

    There, on the quintessential American Main Street of small mom-and-pop stores, banks, coffeehouses and churches, we passed a man propelling himself down the sidewalk in a transporter wheelchair–the kind with four small wheels. He managed this forward motion by touching his tiptoes to the pavement. His clothes were worn and baggy on his thin frame and he leaned precariously to one side. He held his hands, with their long fingers twisted into knots, defensively near his face. His hair was greasy, his face unshaven, but his eyes were clear and intelligent.

    I herded the children past the man, but turned to look back at him and our eyes locked; I felt drawn back to him and returned to his side.

    I cannot replicate how he managed to force the words from his mouth, except to say that each one erupted with a great deal of facial contortions over a period of perhaps a minute, which is a long time to say, “Would you buy me a cup of coffee?”

    And so, in some kind of strange homage to the incident written about above, I did just that.

  15. Reticula Says:

    Serendipity! Don’t you love it when you can see the way your life is connected?

  16. dearpru Says:

    Yes, Reticula! I’m thinking I have now carved out a niche for myself!

  17. Reticula Says:

    And what a warm, uplifting niche it could be. Imagine the stories you might collect — as you already have. You never know where a small kindness will lead you.

  18. Sally Rubin Says:

    Wow! I so related to this, Prudence…
    A stack of memories flooded my brain.
    I can’t go there here.
    But, one thing stands out.
    One day, at Occupational Therapy…a little girl, flaccid, unable to hold her body up. Unable to speak. But she could smile. She was laying on the mat with her arms outstretched. When my son, Sam, entered, she smiled at him. That’s what she could do. Smile with her pretty smile and smiling eyes.
    Sam, my son with autism, the one they said couldn’t — make that, “would never be able to” — relate to people…beelined for her, laid down next to her, stretched out his hand to touch hers and just smiled back.
    The room of adults fell silent.
    It was a holy moment.

  19. Marsha Says:

    Your nuanced writing put me there with you & Casey, inside the co-op, seeing all of you in this scene so clearly, feeling your heart miss a beat as Casey says something that can be felt as cruel, yet this woman understood that it was best to re-frame it, so that she could would not be crushed by the confrontation of her physical limitations. Thank you for reminding all of us that little kindnesses demonstrated for others is returned to us in greater love of ourselves. It is self care when we do for others. And Casey gets it.And so do I. Thank you for sharing your moments with us with such clarity & affection.
    Yep Pru… You Rock!

  20. dearpru Says:

    These comments are overwhelming. Thank you, Sally and Marsha, and everyone, for your insights and kindness and love.

  21. Mellimel Says:

    And Sam Rubin…keeps on doing and achieving huge things….brilliant little man that he is.

    What this brought home for me in a beautiful way is the fact that there are stories behind the eyes of people that we cannot fathom. And we can’t possibly know the stories, so often the ones we tell ourselves based on outward appearance are so completely wrong. But we can SEE a person. Acknowledge their existence on the planet and you tell us two stores of just that. And Casey SAW the woman with the pointed shoes, and you, and Sam SAW the little girl who could only smile. And I make it a practice to try to do the same each day. Some days it comes more easily than others but I feel the effort is rich with things I will never know or see.

  22. Buzzy Says:

    Wow Prudence… I have the chills. A wonderful story and the synchronicity following… it’s amazing once you open your eyes to love how it floods in. Thanks so much for sharing!

  23. tim Says:

    once in the same local co-op, we saw a teenaged boy, long haired, scraggly, struggling to use his knife and fork. prudence stopped what she was doing, walked over to the self-conscious kid, and asked him quietly if he needed help. he said he did. so she cut up his food while chatting with him, putting him at ease. over in my seat, i was never prouder of anyone in my life, or luckier.

  24. Conz Says:

    Most of us never have the opportunity to explore the real depths of love. To get down and dirty into it’s crusty surface and then to dig into that soft gooey center takes heart ache and hard work and buckets of tears. Salty sweet. That combination always works.

    A beautiful post, Pru.

  25. Nancy Says:

    What a wonderful essay! You put 17 yrs into an emotional and insightful story that started with a cup of coffee at the Brattleboro Co-Op . You should think of publishing this, so you can touch more people.
    Miss you, Dear Pru.

  26. dearpru Says:

    Awww, miss you, too, Nancy!

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