We were eating dinner, just the three of us. I peppered them with questions while they colored their respective kid’s menus. Circled hidden words in a puzzle relating to the restaurants fare – pizza and beer. I noticed a family in a booth nearby. Older parents (or grandparents?) on one side, two boys on the other. They laughed and entertained themselves. The boys giggling and wiggling as boys do. They seemed happy. Enjoying their pizza.
Paige asked to go to the bathroom, putting me in the awkward position of either abandoning our table altogether, or risking leaving William alone at the table in a busy restaurant. He insisted he’d be fine, so I guided Paige through the bustling waiters and patrons to the ladies room. Once she was situated, I went back out to glance across the restaurant and be sure Will was still there, un-abducted. He continued to color, unaware of this milestone.
After Paige washed and dried her hands, we made our way back across the restaurant stepping over what seemed to be a piece of equipment. It was definitely in the way. I worried someone would trip. Was it a dolly of some sort? For moving heavy soda cartridges? When we were seated, I kept glancing at it wondering if I should say something to the waiter. “he should move that thing, someone is going to get hurt”.
Our food came, and I lost interest in the equipment and the inevitable lawsuit it was sure to create. I began to cut pizza into manageable bites for Paige. William blew on his piece, testing it with his tongue, deciding it was still too hot. Then I noticed the nice family in the booth gathering themselves to leave. The gentleman moved away and returned again with a rolling walker and I suddenly realized that this was the piece of equipment I’d been worrying about. It belonged to one of the little boys.
William also noticed. He stared the way young children do. Unabashed by social decorum. I worked to avert my eyes, but it was fascinating. This boy managed that walker like a boss. He swung his legs around the booth, grasped the walker’s handles, and in one swift motion he was erect, bracing himself with stiff arms while he swishswishswished his feet along the floor. Once he was standing, I could see that his legs were thin and atrophied. His feet, swaddled in fancy high-top tennis shoes, touched the floor in a graceless shuffle. But dammit he was walking.
I saw all of this in flashes, out of the corner of my eye, because I started asking William directed questions. Prompting him to look in my direction, away from the child. Will’s stares were penetrating, rude. I didn’t want him to offend.
We finished our pizza and left the restaurant. Walking to the parking lot with full bellies and strong, functioning limbs. The boy with the walker was forgotten. William never asked about him, and I never brought it up.
I read a book recently about a quadriplegic man. How hard it was for him to be in a crowded place. Everyone politely averting their eyes so as not to stare at his handicap. Except, he felt it was the opposite of polite. Eye contact helps us feel human. He felt invisible. Dead, even. Which made his physical struggles even harder to bear.
As I tuck William in bed tonight, I plan to speak to him about the boy at the restaurant. About his physical limitations. About overcoming. And I’ll tell him about eye contact. Smiling as we would anyone whom we encounter. And I’ll remind him that we’re all handicapped in some way or another, some handicaps are just more visible.