Everywhere I go, I am reminded of how much Calvin is—of how we are—different, “other.” In the cafe or grocer, little children peel off of their mothers’ sides to come and stare—front and center, bug-eyed, sometimes sullenly—at my boy. As a kid, I would’ve responded sarcastically, “take a picture, it lasts longer.” But now, I simply gawk back at them just as curiously as their little, serious faces peer at Calvin. They’re probably thinking, what’s his problem? A kid once asked me that in the neurologist’s waiting room.At twilight several weeks ago, I stopped at the main intersection in the middle of town. Calvin was in the back seat pulling his usual shenanigans; biting his shoe, poking his eyes, happily flopping his arms to the music like a turkey. I noticed a driver in the SUV next to us ogling Calvin and looking vaguely repulsed. I gazed back at her for what seemed like five minutes before she noticed me, and then, when I caught her glimpse, I smiled. She didn’t smile back, just stared at me seemingly locked inside some paralytic, perplexed state of shock or disgust. Her handsome, oblivious teenage boy sat in the passenger seat with headphones stuck into his ears. Somehow, I felt sorry for her as she drove off.
Then, there are those who see us and smile. Some watch us fondly from inside the grocery store, Michael pushing a cart while I do damage control holding Calvin’s hands as he teeters drunkenly around displays of fruit and bottles of wine. They watch us bring our booty to the register where the clerk asks if Calvin might like a sticker and I graciously decline knowing he’d just try to eat it. They watch us move hand-in-hand through the wide automatic doors cheering Calvin along as he pigeon-toes across the parking lot cawing like some bird. They watch us load his screeching-drooly-spastic-sac-of-potatoes body into the car, buckle him up and kiss him. These precious few know something. I can see it in their compassionate eyes, hear it in their kind words. They’re the type of people you just want to embrace, or adopt and bring home, set them up in their own room with a warm blanket and a cup of tea. Often, they’re old with leathery wrinkles and moist, red eyes. Some are young and vibrant, oozing sparkling energy like a dewy chrysanthemum or a sunbeam. All of them touch me with their kind gestures that often bring a familiar sting to my eyes and a thickening in my throat. I see the same in Michael’s watery eyes sometimes, and it makes me love him that much more.
I’ve always felt different from the rest of my own family in most ways. Michael too. You know, the black sheep, the weirdos. And we like it that way. It feels good to see the world in somewhat unconventional ways, to see life through a sort of prism with all its refractory qualities, angles of light and color, shimmering, bending, dark at times. And now, with Calvin, life appears remarkably unlike anything we’ve experienced before. We’ve gone through another metamorphosis, see life through yet another filter, one that if our child were healthy, normal, we might never have known. Each year living with Calvin strips back another layer—like some withered bark or faded, brittle skin—of what we thought we knew but didn’t. Though life is hard, it’s always new and changing—we are changing—and it feels good, right. And in great part due to Calvin, we know and live “other” and embrace it.
There is a beautiful scene in the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life, set in 1950s Texas, where a mother takes her young sons to town. Crossing the street behind her, the boys pass a swaggering drunken man who tips his hat to them. The brothers mimic him laughing, cutting zigzags and bumping into each other as if inebriated themselves. Another stumbling man approaches, his body queerly arched to one side, his arms drawn up to his chest like a squirrel, dragging one foot nearly on its ankle. They stare but do nothing, noting the peculiar but sad circumstance of his disability and, perchance—in their minds—noting the sorrowful state of the drunken man. Lastly, the brothers skirt past a dirty, disheveled man in shackles. Their mother lifts a drink from her thermos to his parched lips. One son asks in a whisper, perhaps to himself, can it happen to anyone?
Yes, it can. I know. It can happen to good people and bad people, to adults and children, to saints and heathens. We can all end up being singled out, gawked at, mimicked and shamed, but by those who sadly, and for whatever reason, don’t have the sublime ability to look through life’s beautiful prism and see—embrace—the poignant beauty that is “other.”