The Journey - "What's His Problem.....", 2002

I’ve never liked crowds. If I don’t have a elbow room, I feel trapped. Of all the places I’ve lived or traveled, I found San Francisco Bay’s “personal space”, to be the most generous and nonthreatening.

Harkening back to the bubonic plague nightmare, (fascinating read, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Franciso) numerous cultural changes took place including “the 18-inch rule” – the amount of now-termed “personal space” necessary to outdistance flea-jumping capabilties, thereby avoiding the plague. Conversations would only be considered polite if from a distance.

Evidently, the eastern seaboard hasn’t experienced the bubonic plague. I’m contemplating acquiring steel-toed boots, protecting my toes.

When I feel crowded in, I feel overwhelmed. My response is to flee, finding a quiet open space, preferably outside, where I can take a few deep-breathing sighs, steadying my nerves.

I noticed early on with Daniel, that although adopted, the same stimuli seemed to adversely affect him, as well. His responses, from a very young age, were very physical and/or verbal – hand-banging or nonstop, nonsensical, meaningless babbling – what I now know to be perseveration

To illustrate, we decided to attempt another family outing to the New England Aquarium. A previous experience was disasterous, Daniel smashing his face so hard against a solid rough-textured cement wall, he suffered bruises and scabs for weeks.

We arrived at opening time. Two hours later, we’d seen every major exhibits, a feat that would have taken us three times longer if we’d arrived later in the day.

Daniel was delightful – something we rarely felt inspired to say – smiling, pointing at things of interest, not having issues with leaving one exhibit and going to the next and, on a few occasions, following our finger-pointing visual-directives, his eyes successfully finding the intended target, a feat seldom achieved.

On our way out, we couldn’t resist taking one last look at our favorite creature – the giant sea turtle. His ethereal floating, as if weightless in space, was tremendously relaxing to observe. While the children pressed against the window, I took a few steps back to take a photo. As if on cue, the crowds swelled in from both directions, blocking my view of them entirely.

I quickly took one photo, then burrowed my way back to the children with a few “sorry…..coming through” and “sorry…..move aside, please”. Daniel’s plantive “Mommy…..” had segued to full speed perseverating, resembling a tiny-voiced jazz scat: “Be da de de da da be de ba da biddy deeby ba da turtle be da da de da da turtle be da da de da da whale….....”.

An 11, maybe 12-year-old boy, was wedged in next to Daniel, staring down at him, arms crossed. Daniel’s sweet little face was turned up towards the boy, his persever-scatting, “be da de de da….” giving the appearance of trying to communicate something of great importance.

“What’s HIS problem?”, the boy asked, turning towards his mother behind him. She shrugged, both turning back, unabashedly staring at Daniel.

The boy offered his own loud explanation, “He’s just weird, that’s all. Weird!”.

Saying “excuse me”, and reaching for the stroller, my hands were knocked lose when Daniel’s sister shot out from the other side, nose-to-chest with the insolent boy, asking “who are you calling weird, you big bully”. The boy’s mother casually tapped him on the back saying, “c’mon, let’s find something interesting….I’m bored…..”.

I held my daughter’s quivering shoulders, pulling her into me. “Why did he think he could say that, Mommy”, she asked, her voice shaking.

“Maybe he doesn’t have a good appreciation for jazz”, I said looking down into her dear face, winking.

“Jazz?”, she asked. “Yes, doesn’t Daniel’s singing sound like Ella Fitzgerald? The corners of her frown turned up, “Yeah, it does, now that you mention it”.

“So, the other boy was a jazz critic, honey – not everybody likes all music. But you know, you’re a good sister for protecting your brother”.

It was an odd thing to hear a stranger label your child “weird”. I had to wonder how much I had become accustomed to his behaviors, and how much now seemed “normal” to me. It was also interesting to see his sister rise to defend him – something which we discussed later. More than anything, though, I was left with a sad, strong sense the event I’d witnessed was a precursor to what Daniel might expect through his life, if we didn’t find someone to help us undestand why he reacted and behaved the way he did.


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