Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry. He has autism.
Well, that doesn’t mean he gets to go ahead of us! He has to wait his turn.
It was a hot summer day, and the line was long.
Most of the kids were waiting patiently. Sure, there was the occasional fidget and whine about how much longer it would take to see the animals, but for the most part
Then there was a boy—about seven years old, if I remember right—and this boy, well, he wasn’t like the other kids.
He was flapping his hands.
He was darting around and talking to himself and reaching for other people’s cups of ice cream.
His shirt was untucked and his face was sticky with cotton candy.
He was disruptive, and loud, and moving very fast.
That boy was my son.
His name is Jack.
He had autism.
He was so excited to see the lions, that’s the thing.
At least, I think he was excited. It was always hard to tell with him.
But when we went through the social story—you know, the tool we use to prepare him for unexpected situations—and told him we were going to the zoo and we’d see elephants, and giraffes, and lions, he clapped his hands and shouted, “LION!”
For days, he repeated it over and over again.
lion lion lion lion
You were standing ahead of us, and every once in while Jack bumped into the back of your legs, or shrieked.
You turned around to glare at us a few times and I tried to get him to calm down and I felt hot and tired and aggravated and judged.
So I glared back and hissed that he had autism and then you said it didn’t mean we could cut the line but I never wanted to cut the line. I just wanted you to see him.
I wasn’t asking for special treatment.
I was asking you to see him.
I was asking you to see my son.
He was seven at the time.
He couldn’t hold a fork, or button his pants, or explain why he screamed every time we took a right out of the driveway inside of a left.
Waiting in long lines was very hard for him, even to see the lions.
Jack is seventeen now. He still has autism.
I’ve thought about our exchange off and on for almost a decade.
Neither of us were our best selves that muggy afternoon—me, all narrowed eyes and gritted teeth, you and your determined march toward equity and fairness.
There is no such thing as fair.
First there is grief. For me, grief is like a box of feathers I keep in the back of my closet.
Every once in a while, when I’m feel sad or low, I let the feathers out of the box. I let them float free, and wild.
Next there is hope—the bag of rocks I strap to my back, and carry all day long. I’m not going to lie, the bag is heavy. It weighs me down sometimes. But I refuse to let it go.
Then there is grace.
Grace is the last frontier, the final fan in the stands, the moment before the orchestra packs up its instruments for the night.
It is the note before silence, the setting sun in a dusky sky.
Grace comes after the rocks and the feathers. This is the order, and you cannot change it. It is the moment where we lock eyes, and understand one another.
We never got to that part, you and I.
If I could turn back the clock, I would do it differently.
I would look past me, and see you.
I would maybe smile and shrug and ask about your baby and your hat and if you also felt hot and aggravated and tired.
Then I would tell you.
I would tell you about my son and our journey and all the heartbreak and joy and delight and wonder it holds.
I would tell you how he collects license plates and the way he hates yogurt but loves jello.
I was hurting. That’s the truth.
I was hurting because I had this boy and he wouldn’t even look at me and he wouldn’t let me hold him or kiss him or hug him.
I had no idea what I was doing.
The problem is, sometimes my hurt takes up all the space between grief and grace.
He is seventeen now.
He is better at waiting in lines.
He has waited his turn.
We are waiting our turn.
He isn’t like the other kids. He never was.
His name is Jack.
He is my son.
I love him fiercely.
I had no idea what I was doing. Ten years later, I still don’t.