“Vivi, put that down.”
"Don't touch that."
“Hold my hand nice.”
“I told you to come back here!”
If their mother and I are together, we each take a child and we seem to manage. But the last time I took both the kids for an errand by myself, I lost it. It started when Isaac attempted to serenade the entire Super Wal-Mart to the theme song of Veggie Tales. I tried to ignore it and discreetly shush him and focus on the list Laurie had given me. But every time I left the cart unattended for more than a second, Vivi wiggled out of her seatbelt and stood up in the shopping cart. After this had happened no less than ten times, I’d had enough.
“Vivi, siddown! And Isaac, HUSH! You don’t scream that loud at home.” This was a lie, but I felt the eyes of the other shoppers on me and said it anyway, loudly hoping as many people as possible heard me.
“But Dad, I always sing loud.”
“No you don’t.” Of course, he does. But it was all I could do to regain my reputation to a bunch of strangers.
“That’s how they always act in public,” Laurie told me once we got home. “Wherever we go they tag-team me. It’s either one or the other driving me crazy. One of them runs off and as soon as I catch them the other one’s getting into something.”
I thought about all the times I’d come from work and asked her what she did with the kids that day. “We just stayed home.” I felt I understood why she doesn’t take the kids out very much. I don’t think it’s that she doesn’t want to go out. Nor is it that the kids act badly all the time. Even if they’re in good moods, they’re energy is exhausting and I can see her weighing the questionable value of getting the heck out of the house versus rolling the dice that the kids won’t annihilate everything they see.
I got to view this from a different perspective the other day when Isaac and I spent some time together just the two of us at a used bookstore. We’d already visited my section and were now in the kids’ section, which is our usual system at the bookstore. The kids’ section is a large corner in the back and is decorated with bright colors, cartoon posters, and a big carpet made to look like a maze. I’ve learned the hard way that if we visit the kids’ section before we go to my section, he’ll pitch a fit when we leave. Then, while I’m looking at my books, he’ll drive me crazy whining, “Dad, these books are boring.” However, if I look at my books first, then I’ll take him to his section if he is patient and calm. It’s not a bad system as long as I overlook him climbing up the shelves, rolling around on the ground, and pretty everything else he does while we’re in my section.
On this particular day, he’d behaved pretty okay while we were in my section. In other words, he’d run the step stool into only two other customers. We moved onto the kids’ section and I was standing by the entrance reading a book when a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, brushed past me. If he bumped me it was only slightly, barely enough for me to look up to see if I was blocking the entrance. I looked back down at my book without giving him another thought when a woman rushed up to me and said, “I’m so sorry.” I looked around, unsure that she was talking to me. “Please excuse my son. He’s autistic.”
I was about to tell her he hadn’t even touched me, but her bluntness caught me off guard and all I could get out was, “Um, it’s okay. I hadn’t even noticed…” but she’d already moved on.
“Randall, come back here. Please be careful not to bump into people.”
I silently begged the mother, Please don’t make him apologize to me. Had he head-butted me or slapped the book out of my hand, I would have understood her need to apologize. But as it was, she had nothing to explain. And I worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey this to her.
I watched her lead the boy around the corner and out of my sight. Before the incident with Randall and his mother, I had been ready to leave. I was about to give Isaac a two-minute warning when his mother had approached me. Now I worried I might hurt the mother’s feelings if I left now. I stumbled to think of something casual to say, something that would reassure her that her son hadn't done anything inappropriate, but she walked away too quickly, like she was trying to escape something. Finally, it got to a point when saying something would have elevated the awkwardness. It would have been overcompensating, which is exactly what she had done when she apologized.
I wondered what kind of conduct her son must have had in the past to make her so apologetic, so ready to jump in and explain to total strangers why her son’s behavior stood out so much. I imagined her going home to her husband. “How was the bookstore?” he’d ask.
“Awful, like it always is. Randall bumped into this guy.”
“Did he bump into the guy hard?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you say something to the guy?”
“I tried to apologize but he just stood there and didn’t say anything.”
I wanted to say something to her. I wanted to explain that, on behalf of strangers everywhere, that Randall is free to lightly brush past us. He can even read books and walk the carpet-maze with our children. We’re not judging you as a mother. We’re sure you’re a great mom and that you’re doing the best you can.
After staring blankly at the same sentence in my book for close to five minutes, I finally told Isaac, “Put your book back on the shelf, please. It’s time to go.”
“Okay, Dad,” he said calmly, and did what I told him.
What do you mean ‘okay?’ I thought. Aren’t you going to ask me to buy it? Or at least argue with me or whine or something? As we walked through the parking lot, I couldn’t resist kissing Isaac on top of his head. “I’m proud of you, Bubs.”
“I’m proud of you too, Dad.” I’m not sure he understood what he said. More than likely, he was just mimicking me. But in my world, where parenting is difficult and I judge myself too harshly, I allowed myself this one little indulgence that as a parent I’ve got my act together.