We celebrate one of the last summer afternoons at the ice cream shop.
Addie digs her fingers in. Before long there is ice cream everywhere. Because she is my second born, I do not fret about her messes. Her poor older sister had to endure the reflexive freaking at every potential drip, the scrubbing of every actual drip, the constant ordering of the most innocuous colors/flavors to avoid stains.
But thanks to 2nd child enlightenment and faith in oxy clean, Addie gets chocolate.
I watch her and pay little attention to anything else. Her communication device is in front of her, but she does not care to commune with anything outside of her frosty treat in its crunchy cone. The ice cream, at my request, was placed in a cup with the sugar cone on top. She likes to alternate between ice cream and cone; we learned that the hard way. She used to just bite into the side of the cone with the full dollop of ice cream eventually toppling from its perch.
Her back straightens and curves at intervals as she works on her project of devouring the sweet. Every so often she chuckles the chuckle of the deeply satisfied. One can imagine the same private restrained guffaw from a fat cat counting his riches in an ornate leather office. She feels lucky. And so she is.
Every once in a while she looks up at me and checks on my progress with my project. I’m doing ok with it, but a little distracted. She steps up her speed. While I don’t know this for certain, I believe she knows her mama and that if she finishes hers first and then laser focuses her rounded baby blues on my dull browns - which she knows are just caverns that lead to my heart and the button that says “YES” when pushed by baby blues - she will end up with the last bites of my crunchy cone, as well. She’s not wrong. Her experience fortifies the belief.
Every once in a while her eyes arc up to one corner and she lets out one of her joyful howls. I can hear other patrons behind me, but I pay no mind. So she makes noise. An ice cream shop is a kid’s place. All kids make noise. Not going to worry about that here, not this time.
School starts soon and the rigors of 2nd grade will now allow her much unstructured time. I just watch and let her shape our visit. Abruptly, she declares herself finished by pushing her chair back and getting up from the table. Her face, shirt and shorts are now tye-dyed chocolate. She dance-steps over to the small space between the freezer and the ordering counter. Luckily no one else is browsing the flavors or it would have been cramped in there. She takes a few shuffling steps and stops, looking around to ensure her position is right. I know what’s coming. I move my chair a bit so I can see her to my right, but also watch the entrance to my left in case others come to order. I’ll have to get her to move if and when that happens. But for now, the space is hers.
Before she begins, she bends her knees, crouches her back and straightens her arms behind her. It is matched on cue with a grin so powerful her eyes shut completely from cheek pressure. The third part comes in on time, too – a low to high growl which rises closer to a screech at the end. It’s loud. I offer a half-hearted shush, but I’m laughing at her happiness. People express joy different ways and I get tired of hushing hers just because it’s atypical. When we are at kid places, she needs to just be free.
She begins the next level of ice cream shop trip enhancement by laying her head slightly to one side and spinning in a circle. Her eyes bounce slightly and her lips are tight with focus and pleasure. She will spin until I intervene. I will not intervene until and unless others need to enter the space.
As I make my quick reconnaissance of the door to check for others seeking a treat, I see a girl stand up from her table just inside the door, cone in hand, to get a better look at Addie. She slows her consumption as her eyes widen and lock blinkless on my girl.
Ok. Back to work for me. A child loaded with a sudden lump of curiosity is not Armageddon itself, but as a mom of a kid with differences, I must treat it like a suspicious package, at least. I suit up to detonate it in a controlled and contrived situation so it does not explode into something dangerous, something with casualties – avoidance of my child, prejudice against those with disabilities.
I size up the situation: she’s about 6 or 7 and is flanked by a mother focused on a tiny sibling. That’s good – working with a child’s curiosity from under the tight grip of a mortified mother who just told their child it’s not polite to stare is doing double-battle. I am glad the mom does not notice. I was caught unawares in my rapturous observation of my daughter’s joy, so one at a time is better. The girl’s expression reveals nothing at all as she watches taking slow, rhythmic laps of her ice cream.
What I know: she means no harm. She did not expect spinning and noises from an 8 year old girl at the ice cream shop. She may even have seen Addie’s communication device at the table and wondered about that. If her actions are treated as rudeness, there is risk that she will be reluctant to acknowledge differences of any kind in the future. My daughter and others will become invisible to her. No, she is reacting in a natural way to something unexpected.
I realize I need to acknowledge that in a light quick way and then get to what her questions might really be. But I cannot introduce her to Addie, Addie is busy now. If I go to talk to her without Addie’s involvement, some of the opportunity to close the gap is wasted, for Addie can make her own self known. How can I bring the two of these girls on opposite sides of the room together either literally or figuratively? Even a slight wave of acknowledgement from me might feel like reproach to her and I’ll have squandered the question in her eyes now.
I look back at Addie. She spins and squints with love of the moment. She isn’t dizzy; she knows how to control the speed. I think in single words and phrases as I watch – beautiful, joy, perfect, whole, lover-of-life… I glance back at the starer and wonder what words or phrases flash through her mind as she bears witness to the same scene as I do.
I see her mouth open as she turns to her mother. “Hey mom, look at that girl!” Loud and hearty, assured her mom will be impressed by the observation she is about to make about my daughter.
Here it comes, go time. I remind myself that she means no harm, whatever words she uses to deliver her thoughts, I will hear them as a question and try to answer as best I can. For the sake of my own sweet different girl and all the others this child will encounter. This closes my silent pep talk to myself. It is my small prayer to navigate safely between these two children who hold the future in their hands.
I take a subtle step in the girl’s direction.
“She’s…” the girl continues and I take one more small, barely noticeable step towards her and away from the spinning happy Addie.
“She’s all full of sugar! Spinning and spinning and spinning! Maybe a smaller scoop next time!”
My foot pivots, body follows and I step rapidly back to my girl, kneel down and wrap my arms around her. I squeeze like she just returned to me from far away. Tight. She laughs and shimmies in my sudden encircling. I hug my daughter.
But that hug was not all hers. Part of it was meant for another girl.