Yesterday, H and I went to In-N-Out Burger for supper. It was after swim practice and I wanted to have some shared meal time seated across a table from him, even if only one of us was actually eating. H picked a spot right next to an older mother (maybe in her 60s) and her adult daughter. Neither one stood out in appearance but it soon became clear that the daughter was ”neuro-atypical” (the term of art for those with autism spectrum disorders). She was speaking very loudly and matter-of-fact-ly, about things that normally would be considered inappropriate in this setting, for any number of reasons. Over the next 30 minutes, she initiated dialogue with her mother about whether a man would ever willingly choose to be with her; whether her friends were real or fake; the details of her father's suicide by carbon monoxide asphyxiation in the garage of the family home when she was two years old and whether he had ever attempted suicide before that; and more. All the while, her mother ate and listened and occasionally responded, quietly. A couple of times, when her daughter's volume grew even louder, mom would hush her or try to redirect the conversation. I never saw the mother's expressions because I was next to her, not facing her, but I could feel her embarrassment and shame—given that my 7-y.o. could easily have overheard---and I'm sure she wondered whether I would become uncomfortable enough to comment or even passively change tables. To be honest, I was paralyzed, because the story I heard broke my heart and was shocking, if only (but not only) because it was so unexpected to hear it, at In-N-Out Burger in Marin, on that day, at that time, &c. My first thought went to H—how would he react and how would I respond? I gazed intently at him as he talked about this and that, trying to discern whether he was picking up on any of the daughter's words, waiting to see if he would turn and look at our neighbors, or do what any kid might do and ask me why this person was talking so loudly. None of those things happened, and he was mostly focused on his cheeseburger and fries and the poster behind my head, of an old-fashioned In-N-Out with original prices. He calculated that his meal would have cost $0.50 and I tried to explain inflation. Eventually, mom and daughter finished their meals and got up to leave.
If I could go back to one moment in time, I would go back to that moment, the moment just before they walked away. I would have looked mom in the eye, maybe put a hand on her shoulder, and said, "You're doing a great job. Happy Mother's Day."