It is a beautiful sunny Sunday. In the morning we have been to Church, followed by a walk and a snack. We are waiting outside the restaurant for my husband. This impromptu lunch, in a family-friendly restaurant where we have eaten before, not far from home, is a rare treat for us.
Because my daughter struggles with noisy environments and new situations, we only eat out on average six times a year. Our lives are dominated by a weekend routine which includes early rise, supermarket shopping at quiet times (which she likes), church, playground, park, walks, early morning babycinnos. Mostly me and my girl, or the three of us together.
I see sometimes the places we go and the people we hang out with as ever decreasing circles, keeping us in our place, which we desperately try to push away, to widen our world. But it’s early days. It’s easy to forget that she is only five, and the road ahead is long.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter to bits. She is the light of my life, the missing part of me that completes me as a human being. I am blessed with a loving, little family. All the other things that are not right in life, the long commute, loneliness, bouts of low self-confidence or my inability to string thoughts into spoken word the way thoughts flow when I am writing, come second. Because no human being has actually a perfect life (and who would want to? What would we dream about then?)
And yet, some days, I ache to be free, to go through a day when autism is not a consideration, to go on dates with my husband at the drop of a hat or weekends away, to walk into a shop and choose clothes at my leisure, to hang out with more friends because nobody keeps the distances the way many people do with us. To have a typical, ordinary and exciting life.
We are sitting at the restaurant. I chose the one pasta dish she likes there and know I will share with her (she won’t eat from my child’s menu). While we wait we are presented with a colouring sheet and some crayons (we hide them five minutes later, once they become projectiles to express to us that she’s not having a good day.) We tell her the food is coming soon. Before the food is there, she picks up an apple core (the snack she had just finished before we walk in) and throws it across the table. It hits me on the shoulder. I can feel several pairs of eyes following us. There are two other families sitting on the same family room of this family-friendly restaurant. Although their children may misbehave later, they are typical and likely to sit down during the meal and not throw objects around. But it is not the children who stare at us; it’s their parents. And there’s no understanding or recognition of their part, just a question about our ability as parents and educators to control a tall, seemingly unruly five year old.
What to do? I don’t want to tell them; I don’t need to tell them. I started by telling nobody about my daughter’s diagnosis, then moved on to telling everyone (for a short, disastrous while) – then realised I only needed to share this with people who were bound to be a consistent part of our life or if something seriously wrong had happened in public. I had to develop a thick elephant skin in the process.
So to the parents who stared in the restaurant, I said nothing.
To the woman who accused me in a shop of spoiling my daughter, I smiled back a half-fake, half-sad smile, and walked out before I changed my mind.
To the could-have-been friends who retreated and disappeared into the distance, I never dialled their number or emailed them again.
When the food arrives, my daughter is happy. I am forcing myself to eat my wedding anniversary lunch quickly, because I don’t want her to finish before me. I know full well that once again dessert will be at home, in the garden, her domain. And when the ice cream pot and the spoons come out, she will already have taken her shoes off and her face will be beaming with happiness and love.
And it is those ordinary and beautiful moments that make up for all the bumps along the road.