Porter strolls past the crowd stark naked. The woman near me steps backward. She wears a tee shirt that reads, “Live, Love, Tolerate.” She looks hostile. Someone gasps.
It’s obvious the other mothers wonder how this pool party was marketed.
“Back to the bathroom,” I say loudly. I pick up Porter, and he slips out of my arms because he’s spied the water. He gets away and runs full speed for the deep end. He jumps in. People stare and grip the edge of the pool. One girl smiles because she wrongly thinks this is as bad as it gets.
I lean over the side to grab him. My firm voice is canceled out by his hysterical laughter.
“Let’s get out and put a suit on,” I say. I try to sound authoritarian and he finds my tone hilarious. My firm tone is hilarious. It sounds fake. I point a finger at my son as I try to convince the other parents I’m on top of it. I make a serious face. I want to be clear that I don’t think it is a good idea to have my child skinny dip in public. Porter looks euphoric. He channels his inner stripper and twirls in the water.
I say again, “Get out of the pool RIGHT NOW.” Porter grins and dives under, in a gesture that is both graceful and slightly pornographic.
Tyler runs over. “What’s wrong?”
“Porter’s naked,” I say.
“Not again!” she says back. I turn to Jackson, age 4 and fully dressed. “Run to the car and get Porter’s pants. Do you remember where we parked?”
“Mom, I know this place like the back of my head.”
I am not convinced, but I like the confidence. I go after Porter, jumping into the pool, grabbing him and hauling him away. This is our routine. We try to do normal things and something happens and we get out of there. It’s like the rapture—one minute we are part of society and then whoosh—we disappear.
I try to look determined as I carry him off, but I’m a tad uptight. I want the spectators to approve of my parenting. I can’t tell you why. I have never met them. Then the justifying kicks in. It’s not like the police came. I’m also experienced handling judgment. This is the thing about my son’s brain injury and autism. It’s not as sympathetic as other ailments. People support you when your child breaks a leg. I wish we had a cast they could sign.
As we walk to the car I tell myself it was inevitable. Porter saw the people and he heard the laughter and ran toward it. Joining pretty much anything makes him exuberant. This may be one reason he glides through life smiling. Porter has more diagnoses than anyone I know but is the best adjusted one in our family. He understands that connecting to other people makes things better, and he approaches strangers the way you open a gift-wrapped present. His face says: Something good is in there. I can’t wait to find it.
Porter also knows that connecting with people is the secret to life, even if he doesn’t get the social conventions. He is right. Building strong ties with other people is more than a way to feel good. Research shows that it directly affects our health. Feeling isolated triggers an array of problems including high blood pressure, altered gene expression in immune cells, and depression. It is estimated to raise the likelihood of premature death by 14%.
But, connecting with other people can be hard. One of the biggest blocks to relating is a fear of rejection. Brain scans show that physical pain and emotional rejection are processed nearly identically. Compounding this is the fact that we remember emotional rejection more clearly than physical injury. My neuropsychology training backs up what I can feel as a human: Being judged feels terrible. This makes most of us err on side of safety and miss the possible connections all around us. For a lot of us, our brains say, “don’t put yourself out there, it’s not safe.”
Disability fixes this dilemma and that is both the difficult thing, and the great thing too. When things fall apart it is stressful, yet it creates the space to drop the façade. We get to the car and I strap the kids in. Someone knocks on my window.
“You forgot your goggles,” the woman says. “And don’t worry about the strip show—people need to loosen up a little.” We smile and she holds out her hand and gives me a squeeze. These hard moments are painful, but they bring in healing too.
As we drive away I think of a line from a poem from Rumi, “The wound is where the light enters.”