So last week, Romi and I went to grab some stuff at Trader Joe's (*cough*5 boxes of frozen pizza with spicy olive oil*cough*).
< Insert gentle harp string flashback music here. >
The Portland store - besides having a microscopic parking lot that brings on the anxiety of musical chairs from my preschool days - is flanked to the left by a loading dock, complete with a gigantic roll off dumpster that you can actually see inside. This delights Roman, and he runs ahead.
Trailing by a few steps, I see him excitedly jumping, finger pinching, then (shit!) starting to talk to a stranger. Lest you forget, the grocery store is where all the most "helpful" neurotypical strangers gather to pass judgment on your ill-behaved child and on your inferior parenting skills. I steel myself.
Roman's unwitting victim is a middle-aged woman, caught mid-step, ensnared in Romi's world of hydraulics, construction vehicles, conveyor belts, and trash. Romi touches her arm, talking rapidly about an orange garbage truck, which I know he desperately wants for Christmas, even though he already has two green ones. But she has no context, and zero idea what he's saying.
I see her familiar, scanning head turn as she wonders - is this child possibly here alone? A weak smile on my face, I step in, catch her eye and nod, wordlessly reassuring her that I'm here- she can go. Instead of leaving though, she lingers, listening to Roman. My hand on Roman's shoulder, I quickly say "sorry- autism," feeling like a traitor for slapping a label on him like that. But here again, I'm expecting her to make her escape- because this is where most people reply with a weird "that's okay" as if it weren't, and lumber off to their more normal lives.
Instead, she looks right at me, or through me, it seems, and asks "How can I help?" Bewildered, I stare back. "Pardon me?" She slows her speech, kindly repeating "What can I do now to help him?"
Tears immediately well up in my eyes, and I look down at Roman to hide my emotion. "Honestly," I say, "I'm not sure. No one has ever asked me that." Incredulous, she responds "Really?" Um. Yes. Twelve years of yes.
Weightless, my self-consciousness lifted, we form a little protective barrier around Roman. Both standing there, me with my arm around my little guy, listening to his scripts and animated dumpster speech. When he starts to slow down, I smile and say "Hey Romi, let's go get a cart so we can get our shopping done!"
Trance broken, "Well... thank you," I say awkwardly to the lady. And I hustle Roman away before my tears drop. Because even though this whole episode lasted no more than a minute, Roman is settled. His humanity validated by the undivided attention of a stranger, he's ready to go get some pizza. Right after mama visits the chocolate aisle.