lemonsOne lonely lemon rolled down the side of the produce pyramid. Then it leapt heroically, only to miss my shopping basket and land on the polished floor.

I had parked my mart cart parallel to the row of citrus, and the lemon had fallen right down into the two-foot-wide ravine between my bumper and the produce stand. Instinctively, I reached for it, and that was when my world slowed to sludge the way it always does right before an accident.

In slow-mo: Just as my fingers reached the linoleum, my right shoulder folded against the wooden stand and slid downward. Simultaneously, my torso turned. Both arms, without my permission, crossed over my chest like I was at the Olympic trials for high diving. I dove to the floor in an elegant rolling motion, tucking my head. It was a triple twist layout dive. Picture a replay of the Summer Olympics, and you’d pretty much have the scene.

Yes, you are talking to the Greg Louganis of Sprouts Market.

Securely wedged between the cart and the produce, I lay like a dead man, arms crossed and pinned to my chest, Dracula style. Underneath me? The lemon. Brings new meaning to the term “fresh squeezed.” Above me? A tenuous tower of fruit threatened to avalanche.

Then the story really goes sour.

Four couples — as in EIGHT people — walked right past me. They saw me, too. Oh yes, they saw. Couple #1 was beside me, close enough to trip on my limp, cadaver foot. I craned my head and looked up at them with pleading eyes. You know when you can tell someone is trying not to look at you? Those people must take their organic oranges seriously, because they almost needed a magnifying glass, the way they examined those navels. Couple #2 was selecting wine. The gentleman, and I use this term loosely here, turned my direction and we locked eyes for three seconds. That long. It was like he looked at me and stared until he heard:

On your mark … get set … merlot!  Bam, he turned back to the bottle. What was going through his mind, I wonder, as he saw me lying there on the linoleum like I was in a mausoleum? Did he think I was doing emergency meditation? Stop, drop, and yoga? Couples #3 and #4 cruised by and had to steer their brimming buggies around my mart cart in order to make it down the slim aisle. Again there was eye contact.

You should be afraid of the fact that nobody does anything about a corpse in the grocery store these days.

I don’t know why I didn’t ask for help; by then I was just too irritated. I wanted them to want to help. It took me two or three minutes of maneuvering to shift the cart an inch. I had to heave it sideways with my shoulders before I could ease myself upright and uncross my arms. Miraculously, I did this without completely splitting the lemon with my scapula. Somehow, I used my knees, then my feet, to push the cart a few inches. I was grunting and panting until I was back on my feet. During the whole thing, many people walked past, obviously thinking something like, “Handicapped woman down! Look away!”

You may ask: What kind of forest animal raised these insensitive brutes? What has happened to civilization as we know it?

Listen very closely, here. Those people were raised by normal, probably good parents who hoped to have children who were decent and polite. By looking away from me, these couples were only doing what they have always been told, what has been drilled into their brains since they were toddlers. See, it was back when they were toddlers that they were yanked by the arm (insert: slapped upside the head, told to hush, pinched on the shoulder) for looking at a person in a wheelchair a little too long, even though that was the first time they’d ever seen one. Believe me, they will never forget the day they were punished or embarrassed for doing nothing wrong.

It probably even happened in a grocery store.

What if your mother scolded you for jumping when the doctor checked your reflexes? When your foot kicked, you couldn’t help it, right? It only meant things were working. Well, curiosity is an irrepressible reaction for a child. A person with a disability is just the reflex hammer. Kids can’t help it when they look or question. It only means things are working. Be glad. Either you can have a kid who feels curious when he sees someone new or you can have a sociopath who feels nothing. There’s not much of a choice there.

Every disability is different, and every disabled person is different but I think most of us want to tell you one thing:

It’s okay.

When your child stares at me, I don’t think less of you. I just think she’s a kid. I’ll smile back. This has happened to me a MILLION times before.

When your child blurts a question about me, I don’t think less of you. I just see a teachable moment that I hope you’ll take. And I’ll smile back. This has happened to me a MILLION times before.

There’s no need to protect my feelings at the expense of your own child’s. Didn’t you realize? Disabled persons have the strongest hearts and the thickest skin of all. That is because years of outer weakness have led to inner strength. Life may have dealt me lemons (Dare I called them lemontations?), but I sure as heck know how to make lemonade.

Parents, I am not offended by what your child says or does. I am interested in how you handle it. Just kneel down and explain it to them meaningfully and quietly; treat their curiosity with respect. If you choose to shush them or jerk them or say “We don’t stare at other people like that,” be careful; you are still teaching a lesson. There is a name for that way of dealing with discomfort. It’s called apathy.

Please don’t teach them apathy. And for heaven’s sake, don’t teach them sympathy. We need you to teach them empathy. It’s hard, but you have to.

Civilization as we know it is depending on you.

(For my suggestions for how to make your kids feel comfortable around people with disabilities, read here.)

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