effort and empathy

When we stop doing things for ourselves and expect others to dance around us, we are not achieving greatness. We have made ourselves weak.

―Pandora Poikilos, Excuse Me, My Brains Have Stepped Out

Yesterday, my nine-year-old disabled son Calvin and I did something we've never done before. We went grocery shopping using a cart ... but this time he wasn't in it. He was pushing it.

I positioned his slender fingers and thumbs around the bar, in the center of which I snapped two reusable shopping bags to prevent him from biting or bonking it. Then, from behind, I held my hands on top of his so that he wouldn't release his grasp and fall off balance. We shuffled like this from the berries to the apples to the bananas to the avocados. We were slower than the slowest of slow shoppers. My friend Tahnthawan appeared and kindly asked if she could help get some of our groceries—all of them, in fact. I told her no, that this was something we had to do, that I had to teach Calvin how, otherwise I'd never be able to go grocery shopping unless someone else came along. I saw her pained, compassionate expression in the form of a slightly stitched brow, and she came around later and lovingly commended me for being a hard ass.

Calvin and I began navigating slowly through the aisles from the coffee to the milk to the paper towels. He was the most obedient and patient that I've seen him for a while and we eventually managed to get everything on the list.

Then for five or ten minutes we stood waiting in line at the pharmacy, something I do all too often because of his epilepsy. Calvin whined and careened and scratched and pulled for me to pick him up. He batted my face and rubbed his head hard against mine clearly wanting to get going. I remained patient, a new promise I've made to him and to myself, and told him what a good boy he was being. The man behind us, while fishing into his pocket, asked if Calvin liked pictures. I replied, "not really, but thank you." Calvin squirmed and fussed for another several minutes as I signed for the drug then commenced our escape.

As I set Calvin's hands back onto the cart again, the man, a rugged fellow probably in his late fifties with rough-cut, short reddish hair and a gold loop earring, raised his hand in a high-five. As I slapped it he said, "I was in the military for years," no doubt in my mind a remark on knowing hard work. "I don't mean to be patronizing," he continued, to which I replied, "Oh, no, not in the least. I appreciate it." I went on to say that my father attended the Naval Academy, perhaps explaining my work ethic, to which the man tipped his head in solidarity. And as I steered Calvin and the cart away from the man while passing a line of gaping customers, I held back tears of pride and joy, sorrow and effort and the pleasure brought by a simple stroke of human empathy.

photo by Tahnthawan Coffin-Gartside