Sometimes, the world spins exactly right.
My favorite breakfast/lunch spot is First Watch. I love the people there–without exception, they are hard-working, kind and wonderful human beings.
One of my fellow regulars is a boy I will call “Tommy”. Tommy is almost 30 years old and has autism; however, his experience with it is different. He has no filter. Anything that pops into his mind comes out and at a high volume. Tommy is pure and unfiltered. Also, he is FILLED with love for people. Tommy is especially loving toward children and will give them hugs and call them by their names and say repeatedly “I love you”.
Now, I do not claim to know anything about autism. Tommy is forthright about announcing “I have severe autism” and “I am afraid to swim”. His father and his caretakers accompany him and are good folks. They indulge Tommy–it is impossible NOT to love this kid. I, candidly, did not know that autism could manifest itself this way. I can’t say I really know what his disability is all about, and, in a very real way, it simply doesn’t matter to me or the people working in the restaurant.
There are some older people who complain about Tommy to the manager. Sometimes, I overhear their complaints. The general nature of their concerns are (a) his volume and (b) his behavior. One man even confided to his companion: “That kid shouldn’t be allowed in public.” I am not surprised by this. A lot of people from that man’s generation regard mental or emotional disabilities as a source of family shame. Happily, Tommy’s family does not.
In the last two weeks, I had individual lunches with my sons while Christmas shopping. Nicholas was first, because Jeff had finals. My Nick is shy, but enjoys attention. He is acutely aware of people around him. With strangers, Nick is very reserved. Nick is 12 years old.
Tommy was seated across the restaurant. As Nick and I left, we stopped by Tommy’s table to say “hello” to him and his father. Tommy looked at my son.
Tommy: “What’s your name?!”
Nick: “I’m Nick.”
Tommy: “Come here, sweetie! I love you!” [reaches for Nick and hugs him tightly]
Nick: [returns the hug and smiles at Tommy]
Tommy: “Where are you going with your dad?”
Nick: “We are going Christmas shopping for my mom.”
Tommy: “I love you!” [give Nick another hug]
A few moments passed where this continued. Nick just rolled with it and returned the hugs and smiled genuinely. I hugged Tommy and said goodbye. As we walked out, I wanted to shout: “BEHOLD THE PICKLE–GREATEST BOY IN THE WORLD!!” I never expected him to handle the situation with such kindness and acceptance. Yes, I underestimated my boy.
A few days later, Jeff, my 15 year old bear-of-a-boy, went Christmas shopping with me. We stopped by the restaurant for breakfast. We made a list and checked it twice. Tommy and his caretaker came in a few minutes after us and were seated directly next to us. I said “hello” to them both. Tommy looked at Jeff.
Now, it is important to note that Jeff is very much like his shy, introverted mother. He REALLY doesn’t want attention from anybody. In fact, just to screw with him, I will sometimes try to embarrass him with the people that work there, by telling them how strong, wonderful and intelligent he is. Jeff always lowers his head and mumbles, “Shut up, dad” through a half smile. Jeff did NOT play football this year, because–in his words–there were too many people. He did not want to put himself out there to get to know 40+ new people. Jeff lectures me (as any teenager will do in a withering you’re-so-stupid tone) that I just don’t understand introverts.
Tommy keeps looking at Jeff, trying to decide whether Jeff is a boy or a man. Candidly, it is hard to tell. Jeff is huge and has a deep voice, but he has a boyish face. I, personally, think he is as handsome a kid as there ever was or will be, but there I go being an embarrassment to my teenager AGAIN.
Tommy clearly decides he must know who Jeff is.
Tommy: “Who are you?”
Me: “This is my son, Jeff.”
Tommy: “Oh! Hi, Jeff! I love you!” [Stands up and walks over to hug Jeff]
For me, time stood still. What would my teenage boy do? Dudes his age don’t even like it when their own mothers hug them in public! How is this going to play out? The restaurant was packed.
Jeff: “Hi.” [Stands up and gives Tommy a big bear hug]
Tommy: “I love you. Will you help me swim. I am afraid of drowning. Can you help me in the pool sometime?”
Tommy: “I love you. You are so big and strong. I am afraid in the water.” [Hugs Jeff again; Jeff hugs him back]
Jeff: “I will help you.”
My heart–already filled with the death and losses of the year–burst. A few poignant tears leaked out. I quickly wiped them with my napkin. Jeff spent the rest of lunch rolling with Tommy and making light conversation. I hugged Tommy goodbye, received the last “I love you’s” of the day and said goodbye to his caretaker.
I walked out of the restaurant. I decided that, no matter what may come, Melissa and I did a pretty damned good job with these boys.
Jeff turned to me: “Dad, what would you like for Christmas?”
Peace & Love,