A stranger observed the playground. The scene was perfectly normal and just a little bit odd at the same time. It was a bit too quiet for a playground filled with so many children. A nine year old boy walked around the grassy area, away from the jungle gym, his nose buried in a cell phone, uninterested in the play equipment. His four-year-old sister paced across the jungle gym bridge, dragging the toe of her left foot every third step, and stomping quite a bit more than was necessary. Her pounding footsteps and quiet mutterings to herself were the only sound.
An older girl, well, the stranger assumed she was older, as she seemed to possess an inner calm not present in the other children, stood at the bottom of the jungle gym, watching her little sister and occasionally taking a swig from her water bottle. From her position under the play equipment she could clearly hear the younger girl's mutterings, and she would occasionally smile over at her mother as if the little one had said something particularly cute. The mother was in a swing, a toddler on her lap. No squeals of glee from the baby as the swing went higher and higher, but his little arms flapped up and down occasionally, as if the child was imagining himself a bird about to take flight.
The observing stranger also watched the only other family at the park. A couple sitting on a bench, watching their children play. The stranger noted the tension in their posture. No smiles. They were on full alert, although he couldn't understand why. Their three children were nowhere near the others. Their oldest little boy, perhaps around age seven or so, was trying to hit a ball off of a tee. His cries of frustration when he missed were soothed by his father's calming voice. With determination, he would put the ball back on the tee and try again. At their feet sat two younger children. A boy around the age of five, and a girl around three. They were coloring the sidewalk with chalk, and the stranger couldn't help but notice the intensity of the little boy's concentration. How he didn't seem to be aware of anything around him. The stranger might have been pondered this intensity, thinking that it seemed strange, but not able to really pinpoint why. He wouldn't have to wonder for long. In a flash, the little boy emitted a high pitched squeal and ran straight towards the older girl on the playground. Time slowed to a crawl as the parents flew into action, desperately calling the little boy's name, which he ignored, and running after him, but not in time to stop him from trying to pull the water bottle out of the little girl's hand.
The stranger thought the parents were incompetent. They didn't reprimand the little boy. Instead, the mother said, "Time to go!" in a voice that sounded cheerful, if a bit forced. The stranger felt disappointed at the apparent lack of concern for such appalling behavior from a child who was clearly old enough to know better. He felt a trill of anticipation, however, when the mother of the wronged child fairly flew off of the swing and ran towards the departing family--clearly, she intended to instruct the other woman on how to properly instruct her thoughtless child. "WAIT!" she cried, the plea pulled from her almost unwillingly, without premeditated thought.
"Your son...I heard him squeal. Is he...?"
"He's autistic," she replied.
"Please don't leave because of us," the swing mother said. Inexplicably, her eyes swam with tears. She gestured helplessly to the children on the playground. "Mine are too." The stranger watched as the little boy's mother surveyed the other mother's little girl and oldest little boy as if seeing them for the first time. He held his breath as her eyes took in the toddler in the mother's arms, who was staring at a patch of grass off to his mom's right, completely oblivious to this new woman in front of him. "I promise, there's nothing he can do that we would be offended by. It's really okay!" There was desperation and pleading and reassurance in her voice all at once, as if what mattered most in the world to her was that this mother and child feel welcome and accepted.
"There seems to be more and more of us," the other mother replied. "They'll be okay," she said, though whether she was talking to herself or the woman in front of her was unclear to the stranger. The two women shared a look that transcended words, and he knew that they were at once strangers and sisters, bound together by a journey that few would understand. Shared experience hung heavily between them for a moment.
"I just don't want you to think that you have to leave because of us."
"Oh, no...We've been here a while. He must be thirsty." And with that she walked away. The stranger watched as the remaining mother resolutely refused to look at the other family, the father struggling to buckle the little boy into his carseat. They got enough stares from everyone else.
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