No, Giancarlo didn’t have a meltdown at Maxi (yet). It’s been years since I’ve ventured into a grocery store with him. I actually have a trip planned there during March Break and his special educator will come to observe and help – that’s how well I anticipate it will go. I have been lucky enough to be able to schedule my errands so that I go alone. In peace. And it was peaceful until I heard someone’s child losing their shit. I could hear it a few aisles away, and the tightness in my chest got worse as I approached. So did the looks on other shoppers’ faces. The eye rolls, the whispers between couples. Maybe they, like me, were wondering what set the kid off, or maybe they were judging the mother. Mostly, though, everyone just wanted to get on with their groceries undisturbed. As I pushed my cart closer to the hollering child, I tried not to make eye contact so as not to make the mother feel like she was being watched or judged. In my peripheral vision, I could see the child’s feet kicking and arms flailing as his mother kneeled on the floor beside him with a hand to his chest in an effort to either restrain him or calm him. Shit. Ok, Jenny. It’s not your kid. Breathe. Just go get the orange juice you need. Breathe. His mother will take care of him. Your kids are with their grandparents, they are fine. Focus on your breathing. But I can’t. The kid’s “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” pierces my soul and shakes me to the core. I turn around and walk towards the mother and I see her telling her son “c’est fini” (it’s all done) while doing the sign for it with her hands, and then she looks right up at me apologetically. There it is. I had known it from the 3 aisles away, but now it was confirmed to me. This is an autistic meltdown, not some bratty tantrum. I try to give her my most compassionate look as I too kneel down beside her son. I asked her what I could do to help, but she was too busy apologizing. I put my hand to her arm and tell her I am an autism mom too and I understand. And then she starts bawling her eyes out. My heart breaks in a million pieces. As I am trying to figure out what to do next, I notice the boy standing beside me asking his mom for his hat. I get it for him because his mother has the same spaced-out look I get after Giancarlo snaps out of his fits. I don’t know at what point the boy stopped screaming and stood up, it just happened in a split second. The mom was visibly shaken but just thanked me, dusted off her pants, took her son by the hand and led him to the cash with her head down, avoiding eye contact with anyone who had been watching the scene.
Why do we, as mothers, feel so ashamed when something like this happens? Why do people tend to act annoyed by it, or choose to ignore it? Why is it so shocking that someone would try to help?
As she struggled through the self-checkout with her son touching everything and unpacking the items she put into the bag, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She looked like shit. Eyes bloodshot and teary, trembling and trying to hard not to snap, I was overcome by admiration for her. I would have left without my groceries. In the past, when I was in her shoes, I have. And I have sat in the car hyperventilating and crying as Giancarlo, unphased, babbles happily. He is so sweet post-meltdown. I hope her son is too. I hope the worst is over for her and that little boy. I wish I had told her that brighter days will come again. I wish I had told her she had nothing to be ashamed of. I wish I had told her she is brave.