There are times when I do things that make me wholly ashamed of myself. Recently, I had one of those times.
We were at a local park with 3 of the grandkids, having them run off some energy before dinner. Steve and I were a team, one of us with Kyra at all times, the other one in charge of visual reconnaisance of the two boys. If you’ve ever had to simultaneously watch 2 young boys in different areas of a playground, you know it’s like watching a tennis match.
I had been pushing Kyra on the swing, and Steve came over to tag me out.
I joined the boys for about 5 minutes, until I realized that neither my upper arms nor those monkey bars were going to support me for long.
So I played the “supervision” card and was scanning left, right, left, right from a pavilion that gave me an unobstructed view. Only a couple of minutes passed before a young woman entered the pavilion with a wheelchair bound, obviously developmentally disabled child. I smiled briefly and went back to straining my neck.
The child did not speak, but made a series of almost coo-ing, gurgling noises. The young woman spoke calmly to the boy, about calming down, about Grandma coming soon. I ventured another glimpse, and watched her stroke the child’s hair while she spoke. Muscle rigidity seemed to be prevalent, with his toes pointed downward, wrists turned inward, and neck far to the right.
I am not a stranger to children or adults with unique conditions, whether they be physical, developmental, or mental. So, why am I uncomfortable?
Why am I feeling totally self conscious?
It’s because I’m treating this child and his mother differently due to his condition. If this Mom had shown up pushing a stroller instead of a wheelchair, I would have spoken, talked to the child, complimented his smile or his eyes. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. If the child had turned up in a cast, I wouldn’t have hesitated a moment to ask how the injury happened. If the boy had a bald head and missing eyebrows, an obvious hint of chemotherapy, I still would have spoken, and asked about the shirt he was wearing or the toy he had with him.
Why was I reacting differently here? Not because I was turned off or freaked out by the child; not in the slightest bit. It’s because I didn’t know how to start a conversation that wouldn’t sound A) patronizing, B) too forward, or C) sympathetic. The thought of the Mom feeling like I was paying attention to the child because I wanted a better look, or wanted an explanation on his condition, horrified me. I suddenly had ZERO confidence in my sensitivity skills.
Steve was still pushing Kyra on the swing, and I looked back at the other playground just in time to see Matthew sneaking off toward the creek. That boy doesn’t miss a moment’s opportunity. He must have felt my eyes on the back of his head, because he did a sudden about-face and darted back to the monkey bars. I’ve got the Grandma- vision, and they know it.
The worst part is, when you don’t know how to start a conversation, and definitely don’t want to give off an awkward vibe, you have to be quite careful in not making eye contact. You know what happens when you deliberately avoid eye contact?
That’s right, boys and girls, you look like an idiot with a flashing, neon “I’M AVOIDING EYE CONTACT” sign on your back. UGH.
Aban, flushed and sweaty, headed towards the pavilion for a well deserved drink. He looked at the boy, walked right up to him, and said “Hi.” No response. Aban looked at the Mom and said, “Is he sick?” She said, “No, he just has to stay in the chair because he doesn’t walk yet.” Aban is perfectly content with that answer. “Oh. OK. Well, have fun, buddy!” Gulped his juice and took off again.
Well, there’s my segue! Aban had broken the ice. Just jump on in there. Get chatty. I turned towards the duo, and…… nothing. Nothing came out of my mouth. A weak smile kind of spilled across my face, but that’s it. No words.
What I wish I could have said is “I’m so sorry you have the bad fortune to be stuck in this pavilion with me. I don’t know why I’m behaving like a total moron at this moment, but I most certainly am. I suck. I’m not often an ignorant doofus, well…..not regularly, anyway. I didn’t even know I had this level of doofus in me, but, yep, here it is. I’m sorry. You deserve a much better pavilion companion.”
I was continuing the speech in my head about what an imbecile I am when the promised Grandma walked up with hugs and kisses and greetings, and off the trio went on the walking path. I kind of hope that the Mom ranted a little bit about me, but I imagine she’s so used to fools, my 15 minutes of doltishness didn’t even register on her radar. I watched them walk around the park, wondering if possibly they would come back to the pavilion on their way around, maybe give me another chance to act like a human.
Alas, it was not to be. I’m sure it didn’t matter an iota to that woman or her child. I’m fairly certain I thought about her and her son scads more than they thought about me. So let me just say this to that Mom out there, or any other Mom who has encountered a bumbling buffoon like me:
I would love to interact with you and your child. I imagine that raising a child with disabilities has a special set of challenges, and also some amazing rewards. I apologize for my awkwardness, and desperately hope you don’t interpret it as a negative reaction to your child. I’m often inept, and you saw that clearly today. I promise, my disappointment with myself is considerably greater than your disgust with me could conceivably be. Really, if I had some ashes and sackcloth, I’d be all over that option right now.
What I CAN tell you is that if anyone had sneered, pointed, or shown any ugliness towards your child, I would have been all over them like salmonella on unrefrigerated chicken.
If there is a class, a book (maybe one of the “Dummies” series?), or an online list of tips on how I might avoid my social paralysis in the future, someone please let me know. Maybe Aban can teach me. For parents of children that have some sort of disability, please know that I can’t be the only one who bungles these interactions. My behavior may have come across negatively, but the opposite is true. My heart and my admiration go to you.
Sometimes, I suck.
There is an epidemic out there of people like you and me. Maybe there will be a vaccine soon.
Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing after all. You did allow them their time in the park without destroying their peaceful time of just being outdoors and enjoying their quiet time. It’s hard to know the right words to say, since you don’t have an inside track of how they think or how they want to be treated by others that they don’t know. So quit beating yourself up and give yourself credit for your feelings for others and of wanting to be nice to people who may be different than you. The mother of the child might have been wondering if she should say something to you, and likewise wondering if she would be disturbing you, as you watched your grandchildren play.