First this long flight to Paris, then onto Nice to meet my lovely Chloe, board « What’s Left? » and sail among the Greek isles for a month, being fed by my personal chef and massaged by my personal masseuse. I would put my ouster as CEO of e-atitall, inc., my own damn creation, behind me, though I was not unsatisfied with the golden parachute in which I had landed; I could be meeting a fleet of yachts in Nice and purchasing a few Greek islands for myself if I wanted to.
My thoughts were rudely interrupted by a jerking motion of the chair in which I was sitting. San Francisco International Airport had always been a frenetic stop for me but not like this: my seat – with me in it – was literally moving back and forth in rapid succession. Next to me sat a large middle-aged man with a white beard. His eyes were closed as if he were trying very hard to ignore the rocking of his own seat. Next to him was the culprit: a young woman behaving like a young child, rocking back and forth with all her might, elbows and arms flailing the air as if she were rowing a boat.
I leaned forward a little to see her. Though she was moving fast and almost a blur, I noticed her mouth, teeth protruding from both top and bottom, was open yet turned up at the corners in either a smile or a grimace. Her hazel-green eyes lit up with delight and excitement as she moved, dance-like, to some inner rhythm. As she rocked, she repeated in a shrill voice an eight note tune which I had never heard but reminded me of Mozart in its lightness, melody and measure. Her laughing, squinted eyes, fine features, small ears, impish smirk and short, wild brown hair gave her the appearance of a pixie.
Who’s with this girl? Who’s responsible for her?, I wondered, concluding she was certainly not normal, given her outrageous behavior. There was no one across from us, only the man next to me who continued to sit unmoving with eyes closed. Surprisingly, I was more amused and curious than irritated and, assuming the man to be her caretaker, wondered why he didn’t do anything to make her stop. After all, everyone, whom she totally ignored, was staring at her. I thought, he must be utterly embarrassed, so mortified he can’t do a thing. The girl increased her momentum even more, beads of sweat running down her face and her T-shirt wet with perspiration.
Finally the man opened his eyes and turned to her, putting his hand on the back of her shirt. Looking in her eyes, he spoke quietly but I could hear him clearly even through the din of the airport. « You’re drenched, Sarah. We need to change your clothes. » He felt the back of her pants and sighed. « Oh, Sarah. You peed in your pants. What’re we gonna do now? I should’ve brought you to the bathroom before. Why didn’t you tell me you needed to go? » I could hear frustration in his voice. The girl reached up suddenly and yanked his beard – hard. Too late, he smacked her hand away. « Don’t you do that to me, Sarah! That hurts! You keep your hands to yourself! » All she had done was just pull his beard a little and now he was angry. What an impatient jerk, I thought and gave him a disapproving look which caused him to close his eyes for a moment and breathe deeply.
The girl raised her head and looked him in the eyes quite seriously it seemed, then bowed slightly so that the top of her head was in front of his chin. He gently kissed the top of her head. « I’m sorry for getting mad at you, Sarah. I know you didn’t mean to wet your pants and that you’re trying to do the best you can. You’re a good girl and I love you. »
Everyone was watching them both and I felt embarrassed for them. She ignored everyone and he remained focused only on her, meeting no one’s gaze. They stood up. He was a little over six feet tall and big – wearing blue jeans, a print shirt and new brown walking shoes. She was small – petite – about five feet tall but her body revealed that she was at least sixteen or seventeen. As they walked towards the bathroom, she put her hand in the crook of his arm like he was her date for the prom. Then she lurched forward, walking on the balls of her feet, with her elbows in the air in front of her as if she were again rowing, all the while blowing air forcefully and loudly from her pursed lips. Her blue jeans were dark-stained all the way down to her shoes. People stared at them both. Some teenage boys laughed out loud. I gave them a « look » and they stopped, now giggling under their breath.
They reached the bathroom. The man was holding a small duffel bag with her clean clothes in it. I saw some diapers in there, too. Why doesn’t she go into the Women’s Room and change her clothes?, I thought. They just stood there, she in her wet pants and he looking towards the Women’s Room and then the Men’s Room. Women were filing in and out of the bathroom. He stood there with Sarah holding his arm, now rocking forward onto her left foot and then back on her right foot. He seemed to be studying the faces of women going into the Women’s Room, trying to make eye contact with someone. The women did not look at him but went around them both. Finally, he spoke to an older, kindly-looking heavyset woman who returned his eye contact. « Excuse me. I was hoping you can help us. My daughter here has wet her pants and needs her clothes changed in the Women’s Room. She doesn’t speak but she’s cooperative and will help as much as she can. » He was grinding his right thumb into his left palm. The woman smiled and he managed to smile back. She looked at the girl, who was now vigorously rocking from foot to foot, thumb in mouth, drooling all over her arm and shirt. « I’m sorry. I have to catch a plane and I don’t have time. » She turned abruptly and walked away, not even having gone into the bathroom.
The man sigh deeply, his jaw now hardened in place. Turning to his daughter, he said, « Sarah, we’re gonna go into the Men’s Room to change your clothes. I need you to be cooperative and quiet, OK? » She looked at him, then put her head down and he kissed it. « Don’t be licking the walls in the stall, Sarah. I really need you to cooperate here. » Another kiss on the top of her head and they vanished into the men’s bathroom. I heard an alarmed male voice command, « You can’t bring a girl in here! » and then the slam of a stall door. Two or three minutes passed. Another voice spoke: « What’s she doing in here? » and the man’s calm, firm response: « I have no choice. You’ll just have to deal with it. » They emerged smiling from the men’s bathroom.
As they slowly made their way through the steady stream of people passing in front of them, I wondered what I would do if I had a child like that? How could I possibly handle it, cope with it? How much patience and understanding would I have if my child was like this girl? What would I do if she began licking the bathroom walls? I thought, it must be difficult for her to be the way she is but what if I were in his shoes? Would I be willing to give up that much of my own life, my own wants and needs, just to take care of my child? How can he possibly do this?
I was strangely elated that they would again be sitting next to me, almost looking forward to her rocking again. I laughed to myself at this thought and smiled. When I looked up, the man’s gaze met mine; he too was smiling. I thought he had read my mind.
Then, suddenly, a step or two away from the seats, Sarah stiffened and leaned into her father. Her jaw rigidly protruded while one of her arms contorted with hand and fingers outstretched. The muscles in her other arm and her neck convulsed, causing her arm and head to jerk like a rag doll’s, back and forth. Her father held her tightly, both arms around her, supporting her as she jerked and stiffened, drooling all over herself and him. Her eyes were open but absolutely blank and she seemed to have no control or awareness of herself. Her father, to my amazement, was quite calm. He held her tightly but gently and quietly spoke to her, looking directly into her eyes. « It’s OK, Sarah. You’re OK. I’m right here with you and I’ll take care of you. Try to breathe, Sarah. See if you can take one breath. Let’s sit you down, OK? » I tried to move forward to help them but I couldn’t move; I was paralyzed. I couldn’t lift a finger. I don’t know if it was fear or what but I just couldn’t move.
He gently lowered her to the seat, turning her body slowly around so that she could sit and then moving her torso to help her relax, even bending her legs at the knees. He held her head against his shoulder as her awareness returned. She smacked her lips together, still drooling, and yawned. Her skin was quite pale and wet with perspiration. Her father leaned towards her as she repeatedly swallowed and gulped. He sighed deeply and brushed her hair with his fingertips. « Are you going to be sick, Sarah? If you are, please lean forward. » He took a sweatshirt out of the bag and put it in her lap. This time I jumped up, ran to the Men’s Room, got a big handful of paper towels and ran back to them. « Here, maybe she can use this instead », I offered. He looked up at me, calm but sad. « That’s very kind of you to do that, » he said to me.
Sarah yawned again. « Lie down here and rest a little, OK? » he said, but she reached out, took his hand and motioned towards the bathrooms. He rolled his eyes. « Don’t tell me you have to go to the bathroom now, Sarah. » Again, she took his hand. « Oh boy, » he muttered as he helped her stand to lead her to the bathroom. As they walked towards the bathrooms, his shoulders were slumped and he looked exhausted. However, as soon as they reached the Women’s Room, he straightened up immediately and spoke clearly and firmly to his daughter, looking directly in her eyes. « Sarah, I want you to go in the bathroom, find a stall, pull down your pants, pee and wipe yourself. Then pull up your pants, wash your hands and dry them and come back out to me, OK? » Her gaze had wandered after the third word to her perpetually moving fingers and hands. Her father knew it and shook his head. « OK, just go in, pull down your pants, pee and come out. » He looked a little desperate as he ushered her in through the door and she vanished. He waited right outside the door, again grinding the tip of his right thumb in his left palm. He seemed to be listening with a cocked ear for sounds to indicate what was happening.
I sat there watching him, feeling uneasy myself. Checking my watch at exactly the same time he did, I saw that almost ninety long seconds had passed. He moved closer to the doorway, almost looking in. Women entering and leaving glared at him but he paid them no mind. He spoke in a normal tone, « Sarah, you can come on out now. » No response. Then a little louder, « OK, Sarah, get up and come on out now. » Sarah did not come out. His voice, now louder and more insistent: « Sarah, please come out right now! » Still, no Sarah.
He immediately turned to a woman entering the bathroom, a very serious-looking woman dressed in business attire and clutching a briefcase. I didn’t hold out much hope for this one. He looked her in the eyes and spoke calmly and seriously, « Excuse me. I need your help. My autistic daughter is probably in one of the stalls. I’m sure the door is not locked. Would you help her pull up her pants, wash her hands and bring her out to me? » There was a moment of absolute silence as he and she stared at each other, her brow wrinkled. She was frowning but then her face softened. « OK, » she said. He quickly added, « Her name is Sarah. And would you please help her wipe herself well? She may have some diarrhea. » Silence. « She’s very sweet and cooperative. She’ll help you. But she doesn’t talk. » Without a word, the woman handed him her briefcase – which amazed me – turned and walked into the bathroom like a soldier going « over the top. »
A low, matter-of-fact female voice spoke, « You must be Sarah. Well, let’s check you. Yuck! Bend over. Good pulling up your pants. (A pause.) You wash your hands very nicely, Sweetie! » Now it was a higher, energetic female voice. Was this the same person who spoke a few moments ago? The woman and Sarah appeared at the door, both with big smiles. I couldn’t believe it was the same woman who had gone in. She had such a warm smile and her movements were now so animated. « Well, here’s your girl. She’s quite a hand washer. Gets more water on herself than on her hands. When I went in she was licking the sides of the stall. » The man replied, « That’s better than the toilet seat. Gotta be positive, » he laughed, obviously relieved. Sarah’s hair was a mess, sticking up all over the place; her shirt was partly out and partly tucked in and her pants were all twisted around so that the crotch was at her right hip with her underpants bunched up above the waistline of her pants. « Looks like she pulled up her own pants, huh? » he said with another laugh.
« Sarah, give this nice lady a high five for being so sweet and helpful. » Sarah, still smiling and now rocking from foot to foot, put out her right hand limply. The woman smacked it hard and Sarah squealed in glee. The woman turned to Sarah’s father. « She’s so beautiful. She’s an angel, isn’t she? » The father looked at Sarah. « Yes, she is. » He had tears in his eyes. « And you’re an angel, too. Thank you for your kindness. » The woman turned to Sarah once more, « Give me five, Sarah! » Sarah stuck her hand out again and laughed as the woman smacked it and walked away, forgetting that she had needed to go to the bathroom.
I felt wonderful, full inside. I wanted them to come back and sit down again. I wanted to say something, to do something for them, to be a part of them just for a moment. I thought of Chloe, of my upcoming travels, of my freedom, my money – my life. And I felt empty. I felt small. I who have whatever I want felt small in the company of these two. They returned, sat down and looked at each other. Sarah gently pulled her father’s beard down again, lowered her head which he again kissed. I envied this man in that moment. I wished I were him.
As she sat now quietly sucking her thumb, my departing plane was announced. I arose, walked over to Sarah and enthusiastically said, « Sarah, gimme five! » They both looked up at me in surprise. Sarah raised her hand and I gently touched it. As I walked to my gate, I had to put on my sunglasses – to hide the tears.