Friday, March 7, 2014

Dear lady at La Huerta

When we came into the restaurant, you were already there, a middle-aged woman in a booth across from two teenagers with their heads bent over a shared phone. We sat at a table nearby, not our usual spot, but the place was unusually crowded.

Archer was carrying on his usual lopsided conversation with his sister about videogames. I think he was talking about his plans for constructing a tournament in Mario Party 9 that we could all play together, with multiple boards over several days and a scoring system based on the ministars (or in the case of the Donkey Kong board, bananas) earned on each board.

Noel and I ordered and settled down to read the paper while Archer chattered away and Cady Gray gave the occasional response. Then you were suddenly standing by our table.

"I just wanted to tell you that your son reminds me so much of my son," you said. "My daughters noticed and were talking about it. My son is 21 and away at college."

"Just the way he's talking -- it's just like my boy," you said. I thought about mentioning the word "autism," but held back. There's no guarantee your son had a diagnosis. Maybe you just lived with his idiosyncrasies. Then you paused.

"Don't let anybody tell you ..." you said. Instantly we knew what you were trying to say. "Oh no, we would never," Noel said. "No, he's wonderful. We enjoy him so much," I said.

"Yes!" you exclaimed. "People don't understand how wonderful it can be." The waiter arrived with our food and you stepped back toward your booth. "Thank you so much," we said, and turned back to our meal.

When you left, as we were finishing up, you said "Take good care of that boy" and we all said thanks and goodbye. The waiter came to clear our table, and Noel asked for the check. "The lady at that table already paid," he said.

Lady at La Huerta, I wish I had asked about your son. One of the things we wonder about the most is what Archer might be like when he grows up. Your son must be doing well if he's away in college. I wish I knew more about him.

I know what it's like to recognize another autistic child in a public place. I sometimes want to say something, to empathize and make that connection, but I rarely do. It must have meant a lot to you, to do what you did. I wish I could tell you more about Archer, but maybe you saw everything you needed to see. You saw how his sister listens to him patiently. You saw how excited and articulate he is about what interests him. You saw how delighted he was to see something about March Madness on the TV, and to recite our March Madness motto: "Ten seconds is an eternity, dad."

Lady at La Huerta, you didn't look like you were noticeably wealthy. I'm sure $40 for our meal wasn't an insignificant expense for you. I apologize if I'm assuming too much, but I can't quite express all the ways your unprompted generosity touched me. The way you wanted to reach out, to show solidarity, to love your son by doing something nice for someone who reminded you of him -- it's so unexpected. And it seems to say everything about the experiences we probably share.

Conway is a small town. I'm sure we're not separated by six degrees; somebody I know knows somebody who knows you. Maybe this will make its way to you. I said "thank you" for your kind words when you passed by on your way out of the restaurant. If you see this, then I've got another chance: Thank you for much more, for your kind and generous actions. I hope that Archer grows up to be just like your son, and that I grow up to be just like you.