When the kids were little I worried constantly about being judged and watched the other people watch us. I called them the Good Parents. They were the mothers at Target whose children didn’t run around the aisles playing tag. They were never called over the loud speaker to pick up their kids in the health club day care because they were refusing to share Legos.
The last time I went in to retrieve my children (Porter in the corner hoarding toys and Tyler directing him to give them up), the woman asked, “Aren’t you a psychologist?” Unfortunately, yes. The Good Parents knew the rules and raised small adults. They pleased other people by being on top of things. I didn’t and wasn’t. Partly because I had a disabled son with a helmet. The Good Parents looked at me nervously as if they thought I’d made him this way. This only drove me harder to show they were wrong. Grocery shopping was like a trip to the firing squad.
Not all of it. I loved driving to shop. It was thirty minutes in the day when all of the children were restrained. For ten miles we drove, Porter flapped his hands and repeated himself. I listened to music. This was the life.
“I like Pocahontas.” Porter said. Silence. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Jackson held his matchbox car and drove it over Noah’s arm.
“No Jackson,” said Noah.
“No Jackson,” repeated Porter. He repeated most things people said because of his autism. I turned up the radio but it I could still hear the hitting. I turned it louder. More hitting.
“No Jackson,” I said because I was tired of hearing them say no Jackson.
We got to the store, but didn’t make it in as Porter stopped at the automatic doors. When he saw what they did he jumped up and down like he was cheering for a winning team. He went through then ran backwards and stood in the middle as they whapped open and shut. Other shoppers took a wide detour around us the way you go in the other lane when passing an accident.
A Good Mother stopped looking concerned. I get this a lot. “He’s going pinch his finger in the door.” I looked at my son. It seemed worth the risk. He was jumping back and forth under the sensor holding has hand until the minute before closing. He laughed manically. She stared and didn’t budge. I’d been scolded for a lot less. I put Noah in the front of the cart with his feet sticking out of the little openings and Jackson hung on the back and Tyler pushed it ahead. I held Porter’s hand and he flapped with the other.
“I like Pocahontas.” He said.
“We KNOW.” Tyler said.
Jackson grabbed Tyler and she shook him off. “You can touch Mom, not me!” Jackson let go and sprinted ahead and grabbed a handful of cheese cubes from the sample tray. Then he took three more. I saw my neighbor Laura at the meet counter talking with the butcher. I crouched around and turned my back hoping she wouldn’t recognize me.
“Isn’t that LAURA?” Tyler said. I put a hand over her mouth and kept walking.
“What? Why aren’t I supposed to say hi to our neighbor?”
Jack had cleared off the cheese and stuffed more in his pocket. He bit the square off the toothpick then poked Noah in the arm.
“He poked me and the end is dangerously sharp.” Noah was the youngest by three years but had the best diction in the family.
“Touch the cart, but not each other and remember: WE DON’T ALLOW STABBING IN OUR FAMILY!” I stood up straighter.
Then I stopped. I adjusted Porter’s helmet and held Jack’s hand. He had the toothpick in his mouth and looked like Huck Finn. It seemed likely he would swallow it and need surgery. I left it there since Porter lay on the ground and I was pulling him by his arms towards the register. As we rounded a corner he kicked and knocked a row of chips down. Laura waved. I looked surprised like I’d just noticed her and waved back.
I thought about why I it worried me so much when other people stared. I knew from training in neuropsychology that brain scans show the exact same area of our brain lights up with social rejection as does when we break a bone. It doesn’t matter if they are friends or strangers, we are wired to want the approval of other people.
We made it to the check-out. I suggested we sing a song.
“The alphabet one,” Jack said. “That is the only one Porter knows.” We stood in the check-out lane and sang the A-B-Cs. Porter’s voice was high-pitched and off key. We ate the last cheese squares Jack had in pocket. We walked through the automatic doors three times. I held Porter’s hand. Tyler held Jackson’s and he pulled Noah behind him.
This rag-tag team is mine, I thought.