Last Wednesday I took my three older boys shopping for new sneakers.
On our way there, in between answering questions about license plates, car models, and how long it would take to drive to Florida, I may have flippantly said something to Jack like yeah-sure-maybe-we’ll-go-to-Bertucci’s-for-lunch-we’ll-see.
But first, the sneakers. And on we went, to the overcrowded shoe store, teeming with parents and kids performing the famous back-to-school sneaker ritual.
Jack hates this store.
It’s very loud and confusing, and every single time he picks out a pair of sneakers he wants it seems they don’t have his size, so we have to start the whole process over again. This year, about halfway through the negotiations of neon orange versus scarlet red Nikes, we heard a dog barking. From inside the store. Apparently the owners got a new labra-doodle or whatever those breeds are called, and they keep him by the cash register.
Jack hates dogs.
At long last, each of the boys decided on the perfect pair of back-to-school sneakers and we left. On the two-block walk back to the car we passed a restaurant with outdoor seating. “Hmmmm…” I thought to myself. “That would be a nice spot to eat.” All at once, I badly wanted to sit outside with my boys and enjoy the beautiful summer sunshine. I wanted to drink a Paleo-friendly iced tea and listen to them chatter about the start of school and hear Jack point out different license plates as cars drove by. I did not want to go to Bertucci’s.
But Jack did.
As soon as I suggested stopping at the sidewalk tables for lunch, he went haywire. Already ramped up from a visit to a shoe store that didn’t have his sneaker size but did have a dog, it didn’t take long for him to reach what we call “the red zone”; a point of severe distress. He started jumping around and waving his arms, begging for “Bertucci’s! You said Bertucci’s!” I explained that I said maybe Bertucci’s but sometimes we need to be flexible, plans change, doesn’t this look fun?
(At that moment, it was looking anything but fun.)
While Jack pranced and stomped around the sidewalk, the other two boys quietly seated themselves at the black wrought iron table. Charlie watched Jack’s tantrum with his wide dark eyes, as Joey fiddled with his napkin and looked through the cocktail menu, probably wishing he was old enough for a Mojito. They’re used to these scenes, but they never really get used to these scenes. And neither do I.
When the server stopped by to take our drink order, Jack clapped his hands over his ears and hissed “Stop it. Now.” And then he started to rock in his seat and whine at a very high pitch. She looked unnerved.
I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to squeeze his arm and shake him until he stopped his hideous keening and settled down. I wanted him to stop it. Now.
Obviously, I was very tempted to pay for my caveman iced tea and milks and flee. To run to the minivan, buckle them in, and trundle over to the nearest Bertucci’s for a relaxing meal with my autistic son and his two wary brothers. The words let’s just go were on the tip of my tongue. It wouldn’t have been the first time we left somewhere early because Jack was distraught.
But then, Joey said something to snap the picture into focus for me:
“Mom. I think the school program shows Jack how to only have a disappointment-free life. You know, because he always gets to be first in line and stuff. It’s like he doesn’t know that life is disappointing sometimes.”
His comment couldn’t have been more timely. In that instant, I realized what I needed to do.
I needed to make an effort to flex Jack’s rigid mind, to help him grow and change, even if it means being uncomfortable myself. Lemony iced tea and a sidewalk lunch aside, I need to help him tolerate disappointment because, to quote a nine-year old, life really is disappointing sometimes. I am his mother and this is my job.
And so we stayed.
It wasn’t pretty; Jack continued to rant and rail against the injustice of outdoor seating and pleading his case for Bertucci’s. At one point he banged on the table hard enough to bounce the silverware. But I stood my ground, alternating between soothing him and pointing out the different cars driving by, the rarely-glimpsed Texas license plate in the middle of New Hampshire and the spoiler on the back of the Nissan Sentra. And slowly, through the course of the meal, he relaxed.
And then, a milestone.
For the first time, Jack verbally acknowledged a change in his mood and body; after a few bites of chicken fingers and a long cool drink of his milk, he said “I feel good now.” He started to shout out license plates at lightning speed; “Mom! Florida. I see Florida. On that Dodge Dakota.” I slumped in my chair, relieved the outburst was over and marveling at this small victory.
On the drive home, in between sound bites of “Georgia!” and “Massachusetts again?” I asked him if he had fun in the restaurant after all. Yes, he agreed. It was OK.
“But tomorrow I want to go to Bertucci’s.”