Just before Christmas N and I had gone to Walmart to buy a few last minute gifts. We were waiting, in a very busy store, in a very long line. This is the very stuff of autism shopping nightmares of years gone by. In similar circumstances, not long ago, N would bolt, to get away from the sensory overload – too much sound, too many things to see, too many smells of people and food, too much heat from winter clothes while waiting. Not long ago I would have had to abandon my cart full of items, to find him and coax him out from whatever rack he was hiding under, and get him safely home.
Now N has found a few ways to cope. He has a “comfort-de-jour” for the shopping experience, a comfort that changes from time to time. At present, to comfort himself N takes my head between his hands and gently pushes it down, and then he rubs his face in my hair. When he does this he says “wheeawheeawheeawheeawhee!” I repeat the sound back to him to let him know that I hear him. After we do this a few times, we make eye contact and we both smile, and I say his nickname which is “noonoo”. He is communicating “you are here to make this OK for me” in his own language. He is saying “I love you” in his own words. I am telling him “yes” and “I love you back”.
That day at Walmart two women stood behind us in the line. They were watching us doing our strange face-in-hair thing. I was aware of their attention, but I was not mindful of it. Then one of them spoke to me: “I hope you know, that is an angel you have!” I was taken by surprise. It was an unusual comment in the circumstances – that a stranger could observe our weird interaction briefly, and make a very remarkable observation. I responded that yes he was, or so I believed, and I wished them both a Merry Christmas. But I did not brush her comments off.
Amazingly, a similar encounter occurred at the Superstore a few weeks later, shortly after Christmas. Again there was a long line and the poor cashier was trying to make a difficult customer happy. N was fine because he had mommy’s hair to mess up. Repeatedly, N took my head between his hands and gently pushed it down, and he rubbed his face in my hair while saying “wheeawheeawheeawheeawhee!” I repeated the sound back to him to let him know that I hear him. He is saying “you are here to make this OK for me” in his own language. He is saying “I love you” in his own words. I told him in response, “I love you back”.
Today it was really taking too long, the difficult customer was beset with issues. It was I who was having trouble. With my hair looking rebellious and punk-style due to N’s devotion, I turned around to make a sarcastic comment to the person behind me. Unexpectedly, before I could express my frustration, the lady spoke to me first, in broken English: “Do you know, you have an angel?” She gestured at N. Stunned, given the recent and similar Walmart encounter, I managed to smile, and I falteringly said “yes, I know.” Then, apologetically, I confessed to her. “I did not realize it for a long time!”
She continued without judgement and with a heavy accent that I could not place: “you can see it in his eyes that he is an angel. You chose each other! You must be very strong, very brave, to choose an angel”. She smiled at me with a look of deep respect on her face.
I was taken off guard. That was an idea that never occurred to me. In spite of my belief that our spirits guide our destinies. We CHOSE each other? We chose EACH OTHER. Therefore I chose HIM? Did I choose autism?
This may sound harsh to you, that I would feel a kind of shock, to the supposition that I would choose my own child. It is because that I always wanted to do something important, and I believed that his needs prevented me from achieving my potential. The thought that he is an angel had occurred to me. My son, who cannot speak, who spins whatever is in his hand, who gets stuck under warehouse ceiling fans, who stims on his mom’s hair: he is a sweet innocent soul without the desires or cares of this world. He only wants to see, hear, touch, smell, feel what it is to be alive. Preferably one sense at a time. The shock and disbelief I was feeling, it was because at that moment it occurred to me, that maybe this actually was what I always wanted. To love and care for a very vulnerable person is something important. Maybe the very most important thing I could do.
“I do not know why he chose me” I responded, as my face flushed. But she insisted, “you chose him, you are very strong!”
Now quite red-faced, feeling all at once shame, for my lack of insight, and embarrassed at her praise, I think I made some feeble attempt at humour in response. And I turned my attention to N, who was dancing from foot to foot, teetering in and out of the personal space of the man in front of us, whose reaction was more typical. How the table has turned, when there is comfort in that.
I am still thinking about the similar, insightful words spoken by two different strangers in two different stores. Is it because it is something I want to hear, that my son is an angel? Or is it because there is a moment of truth for me personally, something about my own self that I have overlooked out of vanity?