For years, he trudged down our street. Tall, paunchy, and stooped, he walked like a two-year-old walks: a little too much scuffing the sidewalk, and as much side-to-side movement as forward movement. As if he was begrudgingly following his mother. But he was always alone. I couldn't say how old he was. Definitely past his 20s. But 30s? 40s? 50s, even? His idiosyncrasies made it hard to tell.
He walked to get coffee. Every day. I saw him at the local coffee shop, both hands around his paper cup. I was never around when he spoke, but he must have told the barista his order. He sat in the same chair at the same table, looking at something invisible a few feet in front of him.
I watched him with a disengaged bemusement, perhaps even a little disdain. How odd he was. How could one man walk so slowly? Was that paunch getting bigger? Was it safe to walk so near him? I remember crossing the street to avoid getting too close to him on the sidewalk.
We moved away from that area three years ago. But today I stopped in the grocery store near that neighborhood. I ordered an iced Americano at the in-store Starbucks. And then I saw him at the small set of bistro tables. The same glassy stare, the same sloped shoulders, the same gripped coffee cup.
But a different flash of recognition startled me. He's now familiar to me in another way. I see it now: He is probably on the autism spectrum, perhaps with some intellectual disability. This could be a glimpse of Soren's future.
I surprised myself by how different my view of him became in a split second. I wasn't filled with disdain; I felt compassion, even a weird camaraderie with him. And I felt ashamed of the way I viewed him for so many years.
I'm mad at the person I was. She was judgmental and haughty and as much of a bully as any seventh-grade tormentor on the school bus.
People like this, like I was, are probably all over my community--in stores, Starbucks lines, watching out their homes' picture windows. They stare, judge, maybe internally mock my Soren. They wonder if he's violent and cross to the opposite side of the street. I can feel their judgment. I pray that Soren doesn't pick up on it.
And then I know there are others in our community who take the time to see us--not just the flapping, the wiggly body, the grunts of protest as we wait in lines, but the whole picture. They acknowledge us as a family that might be having a hard time navigating public spaces, or maybe as just a family that is a bit different. They may feel pity or maybe just empathy, but their first thought isn't disdain. I know that there are these kind people because once in a while I see their smiles or knowing nods. I can feel the difference; I know they see us, not just our quirks.
Coffee man, I'm so sorry about the old me. I see you now. You must live close to here. I bet you like coffee as much as I do. This coffee shop makes the best cup, don't you think? Man, you're tall. I have a little boy who is tall, too. Maybe he'll be as big as you some day.
I left the grocery store with this plea, to no one in particular: Please, dear stranger, be bigger than I was. Be better. See our children--and the adults they will become--with gentle eyes.