Right now, I feel like the worst dad in the world. Whether or not it’s true doesn’t change my internal monologue. It was a rough hour in the early afternoon.
My kids don’t like to go out. They both would rather set up shop at home and, unless there’s something really pressing, they would be content with a life behind our walls. While my daughter, just now becoming a teenager, loves hitting the town with her friends, it’s times spent out with her dad and brother that require some convincing.
My ten-year-old son is non-verbal with autism and outings aren’t anything he particularly cares for either way. Even trips to places he wants to go are met with resistance until he’s there. The only difference is that while his sister might complain over trips she’s against taking ahead of time, he opts to lay low and just freak out at the point of entry instead.
That’s what happened on this latest school clothes excursion. I loaded up the Grizwaldmobile and, after debating a destination, the two kids and I wound up at a local clothing store. The trip, I was sure, would be less than an hour.
From the second we exited the car, Lucas was beside himself. Whining and crying every step of the way, his agitation only grew once we were inside. I became immediately aware that this was one of those days where the meltdown would be memorable.
While some reactions on his part might be limited to cries and falls to the floor, some veer into sensory overload. This was one of those over-the-top sensory reactions. There no screaming or blood-curdling howls. But his unhappiness was visible. He began pushing my hand into his own face, trying to bite my fingers, and squeezing his nose out of anger. I pulled out every stop in my playbook, patting his head, kissing his cheek, and repeating “shhh”, but it was all to no avail. He was not having it.
It sent me into a mental frenzy of impossible scenarios. I couldn’t let me daughter stay in here alone and I can’t leave him in the car alone. Neither kid can be left alone. Plus, we drove all the way here, so going home isn’t an option. All I can do is stand here and endure it. In my mind, for the opening minutes, it will all about poor me.
Were people staring? Probably. I didn’t notice though as I was so focused on him and, even if they were, it made no difference. My goal was to get some shirts, get some pants, and get the eff out of there in record time. Quicker than originally planned, we were on the ten-minute-long impulse-buy line, swirling around a corner like Disney World waiting for the robotic voice to ring out, “Next cashier please.” I didn’t even stop to peruse the off-brand phone chargers and Golden Girls mugs.
That’s when it happened. I looked up and saw him.
Parents of toddlers know the feeling when they walk into a room and see an exploded diaper. The unexpected image takes a moment to register in your brain. Is it snow? A cotton explosion? What is this? For those with dogs, it’s the same thought that sweeps over you when you walk in to the den to find the couch cushions chomped to bits. The scene makes no logical sense and your brain can’t understand what it is seeing.
That’s the same thing that happened when I saw my little man’s face.
Why was he wearing clown makeup? He looked like Bozo. Did he put that on himself when we passed cosmetics? What? That’s ridiculous. Why would he be wearing clown make-up? Oh. It must be jelly. But how did he get jelly on his nose? Was he eating jelly? I hope he didn’t open up a pack of…
Oh my God. He bruised his nose.
And, in that moment, a wave of emotions swept over me.
I felt awful for him. Here I was, internally fuming over his behavior and projecting it onto myself. I’m busy lamenting how unfair it is that I need to deal with his meltdown and how hard it is making our day. Yet, here is my little guy, so upset that he would squeeze his own face to bruising. If I was upset about this, it didn’t even compare to how he was feeling. It wasn’t the worst mark in the world, but it happened and I hated seeing it.
There was confusion and uncertainty. I had no idea why he was melting down here. If it was the doctor or dentist, it would be an easy thing to figure out. Was it the time of day? The store? The crowd? The 90s soft alternative music? He can’t tell me. With locations like this, the most frustrating part is that we could return tomorrow and he could love it. It’s a complete crapshoot and often you don’t know until you walk through the doors.
I also struggled with the act itself. I didn’t want him to ever do damage to himself and my mind started piecing together all the scenarios where he could poke his own eyes or chip his own teeth during overloaded moments. I jumped ahead in time and created a world of doom, gloom, and broken bones. As a father, I felt helpless to save himself from the precarious situations that would undoubtedly follow in his life.
Sadly, there was the worry about this mark on his face and how others might see it. No one can ask him what happened and, every time he gets even the slightest blemish on his body, my immediate worry is that people are going to think I beat him up. It’s not like he can tell people I didn’t do it. But then, I feel guilty about even thinking about that. So now I am paranoid and guilty about being paranoid and guilty. It shouldn’t be in my head and is completely self-centered, yet here we are.
Throughout all of this, he’s still crying, but not like you’d expect from a boy who just banged his own face up. It’s the same sustained whine since we entered. I wonder about his threshold of pain and how overwhelming his emotions must get in these moments. I feel bad for him. I feel bad for me. I feel bad for his sister, who I can sense looking around to see if anyone she knows is shopping in the store. There’s a lot of bad feeling to go around. All we wanted were some cute school clothes.
When we got home, my little red-nosed boy was all smiles, laughing, kissing, and making me tickle him. It was like nothing happened and, if not for the glaring reminder on his face, the entire event was erased from history. Yet, it lives in my brain and, even when it fades from his nose, it remains in my mind. Meltdowns might be tough for parents, but make no mistake, they are far worse for the people experiencing them firsthand.
For all the mental anguish it causes me when it happens, I would give anything to trade places with him and take that pain away for myself. Any parent in my position would. All I can do is be there for him. That’s all any of us can do.
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