This is a true story.
The scene is an urban hospital, in the surgical family waiting room. There is a cross-section of people anxiously hoping to have a nurse appear, call out the name of their loved one, and give a good report. It is equally likely that someone is waiting while her father electively has cataracts removed as it is that the person next to her is the girlfriend of a twentysomething year old being operated on for a gunshot wound. There are older men, teenagers asleep on knapsacks for pillows, and middle-aged women staring blankly at the news channel on the television overhead.
A very young mother walks up to the reception desk, toddler in tow, and negotiates an issue that can’t be overheard in detail but is obviously causing much aggravation for everyone involved. The toddler, bored and unable to see over the height of the counter, begins to fuss.
The mother interrupts the receptionist to silence her child’s whining. The child begins to cry.
“SHUT UP!!! NOT NOW!!!” The mother has gone past her ability to cope with any more problems. Not understanding this, the child cries harder and says she wants a snack.
“I SAID SHUT UP OR I’M GOING TO SPANK YOU, HARD!!!”
The child reverts back to whining, persistently whimpering between hiccups.
The mother leans down to the child and hisses something in red, hot anger.
The people in the waiting room begin to look back and forth to one another, sharing unspoken thoughts of discomfort and uncertainty. Nobody wants to witness this. Nobody wants to make anything worse. And, many do not want the noise. A good number, in fact, wish that both mother and child would remember they are in a hospital setting and please keep their voices down.
The child is quiet for a minute or two, then begins to cry again, loudly.
A woman, sitting alone and reading, puts her book down and slowly walks over to the mother. Everyone in the waiting room is watching, expectantly. Here is a volunteer who is going to speak what is on everyone’s mind and put this mother in her place.
The woman says to the mother, “How old is your daughter?”
The mother, surprised, says, “She’ll be three next month.”
The woman smiles. “I thought so. My own daughter just turned three, and boy, is she a handful. She could outscream your daughter any day. I’m glad I could leave her with my mother, because she would absolutely hate it here.”
The mother, looking exhausted, says, “You want to hold her?”
The woman smiles and picks up the child. “Hi! You’re hungry, huh. Me, too. I wish everything didn’t take so long. But it’s easier for me. I can see everything. You’re stuck looking at everyone’s knees, and that’s no fun. And this is a huge place. I bet you’ve walked a long way and just wish you could take a nap.” The child looks quizzically at the woman, who looks back at the mother and says, “You’ve got a tough job with a strong little girl like this.”
The child reaches for her mother, and the woman hands her over. The child snuggles into her mother’s neck, and the mother gazes at her child thoughtfully.
“Hang in there. It gets easier, especially when everyone is back home.” The woman smiles and sits back down. The receptionist hands the mother something which apparently satisfies the need at hand, and the mother leaves toward the exit with her child nearly asleep in her arms.
Oblivious to the buzz around her, the woman is back to reading. The receptionist calls out: “Ma’am? Ma’am? Excuse me?”
The woman looks up.
“Thank you so much. That was a miracle, what you did there. I was so scared for that little girl.”
Others start chiming in. “Yes, thank you!” ---- “You were so brave, I would have been afraid to approach her like that.” ---- “How did you do that? You’ve got a special touch!”
Everyone present agreed that a miracle had taken place. Hostility and exhaustion do not just melt away. The woman herself thought: yes, there has been a miracle. But not the miracle everyone else claimed.
This woman being hailed for such courage and kindness lives each day as a person with autism. Eye contact makes her heart race. Speech is a chore, and “shy” is the kind way to describe her habit of hiding wherever she goes. She struggles between the wish to be invisible and the longing to be known. Relating is hard work. No matter what she says, she second-guesses her wording, feeling more like she is performing than connecting with others. It is a labor for her to be here, but having a book helps drown out the noise and keep her eyes from having to look toward others. Small talk is torture.
In relating this story, the woman said with astonishment that she never, ever imagined doing what she did. She thought a moment more and added, “There was just something about both of them that said the same thing. The little girl was overwhelmed, like I feel most of the time, and so was her mom. The only difference is, people let little children cry when they can’t handle any more, but adults have to put on a strong show and keep going. Who was there for the mom? Who is there when I am at my lowest, except a bunch of people who look at me like everyone was looking at that mom? I didn’t even have to think about it. This time, it wasn’t a social skill I had been taught and had to practice just right. This was just being human, one struggler talking to another. No rehearsing required.”
The first two objectives of the Mission of Saint Thorlak are:
- To make people aware of our humanity: our human need to be known and loved
- To make people aware that these are also the immediate needs of those around us
The woman with autism in the surgical waiting area accomplished our second objective much more effectively in her observations and actions than any essay we might attempt to post.
Pray: Heavenly Father, give us eyes that see the human needs of those around us.
Contemplate: How would we treat people around us if we prefaced all of our actions by thinking, “These people are showing me, this very moment, their human need to be known and loved”?
Relate: Use that contemplation at least once in action, and see if it changes anything – an action, a reaction, an attitude, an outcome.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak