I sat down at the pharmacy bench to wait the last fifteen minutes until our prescription would be ready. I checked my phone for messages, sent out a text, and looked at the time again. Barely a minute had passed. Just then, I caught someone in my peripheral vision. It was a heavy-set balding man with a dirty t-shirt and crooked glasses. He came over, set right beside me, and I caught a wind of a musty smell. I’d seen this guy around town many times and knew him to be very “different.” Just then, came the moment I was dreading; He started talking to me.
I always had tactful exit strategies for moments like this. Usually, a fake telephone call, last-second purchase, or just simply pretending I didn’t hear the first sentence. It’s not that I’m a bad person, I just don’t prefer having conversations with a stranger. Especially one who didn’t seem to grasp typical social norms. I knew that, if I didn’t immediately extract myself from this situation, I’d be knee-deep in uncomfortable and inconvenient chit chat for the next few minutes.
Then something completely unexpected took place. I turned to look at the man and my mind immediately shifted to my daughter, Cailyn. Instead of picking up my phone, we talked. Apparently, this was just the opening that he needed. He shared stories about himself and his extended family. He told me about his week and pretty much everything short of what he ate for lunch. As the minutes moved along, it became apparent that this guy didn’t get the opportunity to engage with other people very often. I started to ask questions and share some stories of my own. In that moment, I began to get emotional. I pictured Cailyn sitting next to me and thought back to the prayers of a parent, just hoping God would keep their socially awkward child from being alone. In those few minutes, he wasn’t.
Like so many others, I’m a naturally a person of self-interest. I veer into the direction of the least inconvenience and tend to avoid problems that come with interacting with others. I’ve always been good at keeping my eyes ahead, pressing towards my goal, and tuning out the world in the process. It was far easier to clear my mind by passing a few bucks to charity than to give of my time and comfort. That was before Cailyn came along. Before I caught people whispering when she would scream and bite herself. Before I witnessed Cailyn jump around and babble to a woman, who walked directly by without even a smile. It was a time where I was oblivious to a world that will acknowledge me, but completely ignore my beautiful little girl because she gets too close and stems when she tries to talk. This new revelation was a box-cutter to the heart.
Conversely, there have been a few people in our life (and we remember every one) who immediately drop to a crouched position, at eye level with Cailyn to say “hi.” They press her for eye contact and wait patiently for a response. It was this type of interaction that inspired me to develop a new habit. Now, whenever I see someone that I would typically avoid, I picture Cailyn.
One day, this came in the form of bringing coffee and remembering the birthday of a man who sold newspapers outside of a building downtown. I decided that I’d want someone to make my daughter feel special on her special day. Another day, it was simply a smile and “hi” to an extremely awkward girl, who seemed disturbed and was staring at her feet, as she walked. She seemed surprised, but her demeanor shifted as she smiled back and returned the greeting. I remember saying a prayer that someone would take the time to smile and make Cailyn feel valued in a moment she was in that condition.
I’m not telling these stories to boast. In retrospect, my interaction with individuals less fortunate than myself had been nothing short of repulsive. My human nature is judgmental, narcissistic, and apathetic. The greatest tragedy is that it took my child being diagnosed with Autism to change it. Once I began to personalize a seemingly endless sea of faces, I was able to see from the perspective of a father and a God that created each of them with value. This was a gift of immeasurable value from my three year old angel. It is the antidote to one of my greatest personality flaws and exposed a sobering truth:
The entire time I’d been trying to repair Cailyn, I was the one lying broken on the workbench.
I still get caught up in my own situations. I react poorly and lose patience more easily on Cailyn’s severe days. When they hit one of us particularly hard, Amber and I say we’re having an “Autism” day. This began as a reflection of Cailyn’s behavior but is now an indicator that I’ve lost perspective. When these moments hit, I reflect back to my view from the workbench and my prayer begins to evolve from “God, make my daughter better.” to “God, make ME better.”
Thanks to Cailyn, the work has already begun.