Noah and I went out to eat this week. It was really just something to break the monotony. Actually, we were a little down and I thought it might cheer us up. He loves to eat in restaurants, especially new ones. Yeah, I’ve got one of the only autistic people in the world who likes to travel to new places and do new things. So I figured it would be just the pick-me-up we needed to push through our week. He loves Chinese, mainly chicken wings and rice, so we tried a new place.
It had been a long day for us both. I was glad not to be cooking and just to spend some time talking to Noah. But he wasn’t even close to being in a conversational frame of mind. I could tell he was tired because he was flapping with one hand and holding an object close to his face with the other. When he stims like this, it is a glaringly obvious sign that he is physically and neurologically over-taxed. I corrected him twice and he responded with his typical, “Sorry Mom. I’ll try harder.” After a few times of that I just thought, “Screw it…I’m tired too. Flap if ya gotta flap!”
It was a little early for the dinner crowd, so we had most of the dining room to ourselves at first. But just after we ordered our meal, a well-dressed couple was escorted to the table beside ours. Just as the lady sat down, Noah flapped. Then I heard it – a gasp-grunt. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her flag down the hostess. She said, purposefully loud enough for me to hear in an otherwise quiet dining room, “We can’t sit here. We’ll have to be moved.” Well, my head spun around on my neck because I thought there must be a leak in the ceiling over her table or rat droppings or something to put her nose so out of joint. But when I turned around and met her sneer, I realized that her problem was us. Noah continued to flap (this whole exchange lasted maybe 45 seconds) so he missed her subtle eye roll in my direction.
I felt like I had been slapped hard across the face. Now, I’m not completely unaware when we are attracting attention to ourselves. I work pretty hard at making Noah aware of his behaviors and try teaching him to curtail the completely unacceptable things he might be prone to do. So I can honestly say that, as disturbing behaviors go, I’ve seen lots of “normal” kids behave worse in a restaurant. But this wasn’t about being around children in general, because they were sat by a family of 4 in the far corner of the room. No, it was about our “differentness”.
This has happened before. But it was a long time ago. I had forgotten the painful sting this brand of rejection leaves. Honestly, I could barely breathe. The waitress, who had seen the whole thing unfold, was quietly sympathetic. She spoke kinder than was necessary to Noah. He, of course, returned her kindness with over-the-top manners he must’ve picked up from watching re-runs of some Father Knows Best variety television show. He said things like, “thank you for being so sweet to us” and “I hope you aren’t tired after work tonight” and “aren’t you kind”. The more he tried to show thanks for simple kindness, the more sick to my stomach I became. When I knew she would watch him while I went to the restroom, I quietly excused myself. Once safely in a stall, I cried my eyes out. After washing my face in frigid water to get the swelling down, I returned to the table.
Just when I thought the worst was over, I felt someone else staring. From over the top of the partition, I saw the hostess catching a peek. As if on cue, Noah began flapping again. I sighed and put my head in my hands. When I looked up, I saw the hostess escorting another couple to the other side of the restaurant. It was now the dinner rush. I watched family after family come in only to be seated as far as possible from Noah and I. We had been quarantined.
At some point Noah noticed because he glanced around and said with a grin, “Well, I guess it’s just us huh? Kind of romantic.” I smiled a watery smile and choked down a bite of dinner. Its funny how even the moistest of food can turn to sawdust in your mouth. But then Noah began to tune into the worst thing he possibly could have – me. He read my distress and responded with, “Mom, I love you.” I answered that I loved him too. More than anything. No less than ten times during our meal, Noah told me that he loved me – more than anything.
At this point, you may be wondering why I collapsed instead of responding in my usual snarky flesh. All I can say is: Sometimes, even the feistiest of us loose our snark under the strain. It did occur to me later that I could’ve hollered across the room to that first woman, “Hey lady! Did that lump you came in here with tell you he loved you during dinner because this kid that wasn’t good enough for you told me about ten times!” I thought of TONS of horrible things I could have said. Luckily, I was just too beaten down to come up with them at the time. But then I had a thought that I’ve been prompted to consider through some reading and preaching I’ve been listening to.
What would Jesus have done? Not WWJD – “What would Jesus Do?” But, what would Jesus have done if he were me living my life in that very moment. The process of trying to picture Jesus as the parent of an autistic child proved too much for me that night. But I did wonder this: What would Jesus have done if he had just happened into that restaurant that very night and seen everything unfold? Believe me, I was praying desperately to feel him at that table. The rejection was so, well, violent.
Normally we think of violence as a physical act of aggression. But I think I experienced a subtler and deadly form of violence, and perhaps one more common than even physical aggression. We were simply rejected precisely for who we are. There was no second chance at redemption. We weren’t offered an opportunity to explain our exceptionality. We were just cut off and discarded as broken beyond repair. We were an embarrassment. Our awkwardness and inelegance brought shame and isolation. We were invisible.
We were each story of every marginalized creature Jesus came upon during his ministry. We were ostracized and in need of inclusion. We were diseased and in need of healing. We were unclean and in need of justification and cleansing in order to be made whole again. And we aren’t the only ones.
As alienated as I felt that night, and for several days afterward, Noah and I are not alone. More and more frequently, I am becoming alert to hurting and broken people. Often we are tempted to think that people are experiencing a reality they had complete responsibility for influencing into existence. Often times, as with us, that is not simply the case. Even the most sinister of objectives have unpredictable conclusions. Likewise, the most innocent of best intentions can be catastrophic. There is not always a simple answer for suffering. And even if it appears there is a simple answer, the root causes for some issues are too complex to explain away in an attempt to systematize pain and suffering. I’ve noticed when we work so very hard to explain affliction and distress that we are doing so in an effort to exclude ourselves from a possibility of such tortures in our own experience. In other words, if I can explain how that person got into his or her situation I can keep myself from suffering similarly.
But we are missing the point.
I don’t think we need to explain it away. I don’t think we are ever called to figure it out. As a matter of fact, I believe we’ve been mandated to act in light of the fact that we cannot comprehend it. I don’t think love takes the time to evaluate suffering that way. Love simply acts in the face of the uncertainty. Love moves in the midst of the mess. Christ’s kingdom on earth wasn’t meant to assess every risk and liability associated with agape love. If that were the case, no one would take a risk on Noah and I because we don’t look that good on paper. No, kingdom doesn’t work that way. It isn’t logical. Very often it is counter-intuitive. It runs toward instead of away. It embraces instead of alienating. It takes on the suffering of the world. It takes those we wish were invisible and brings them into glorious, healing light.
Where was Jesus in the Chinese restaurant? He was a young woman who appeared to be about 5 months pregnant who was waiting tables. Her eyes were tired and she looked dead on her feet. I’m sure she didn’t understand the complexity of Noah’s neuro-diversity. She probably didn’t have a certification in Autism Spectrum Disorders. In all honesty, I think she was probably a college drop out. But she didn’t seem to feel the need to place us on the continuum of acceptable risk. Instead, she was kind. And it didn’t cost her a thing.
I ended up bringing most of my dinner home. I even packed up the fortune cookies because I just couldn’t stay in that room one more second. A few days later Noah pulled his off the counter and opened it. It read: “You will influence many people with your words and travel far.” Ironic, but no less so than mine which read: “You are cherished.” Neither fortune seemed appropriate that night because I forgot that kingdom is often found in the small, least likely of places – like the face of a waitress who wasn’t too tired to be kind to a child who appeared to be retarded on the surface but could meet kindness with kindness. And in the words of that same child as he comforted his mother with the words: "Mom, I love you more than anything."
Maybe our fortunes weren’t so wrong after all.