Several years ago, the former pastor of the church I worked for sent me an email a few days before Christmas, and we exchanged brief updates on our lives and plans for the holidays.
Chris and his family were going skiing in Michigan the week before New Year’s; I reported that Daniel would be home for the day on Christmas Eve, and we had our own big plans: dining at Denny’s, his favorite restaurant.
Apparently our upcoming yuletide celebration sparked an idea for the Christmas Eve sermon Chris was pondering for the new church he’d founded in Chicago. He hoped to illustrate the Magi’s likely bewilderment upon finding the humble manger, when they had anticipated grander surroundings befitting an infant king. He wondered if my feelings about going to Denny’s for Christmas perhaps echoed those muted expectations.
As it happened, I’d just learned that a letter I’d sent to the Chicago Tribune would be published on the 26th, and I sent Chris a copy of the text. In it, I described my adjustment to simpler holiday traditions, the gradual lessening of expectations as autism changed our lives.
Chris’s sermon was well-received, he told me later, my story of Christmas at Denny’s the hook he’d been seeking to hold his message together.
For years when he lived with us, visits to Denny’s were a high point for my son. We loved it too, as the franchise near our home was never too crowded to find a booth in which to ensconce Daniel while he waited, impatiently, for the meal he always ordered.
I remember in particular a Saturday evening shortly after Daniel’s twelfth birthday. His sister Natalie had her own life by then, rarely stuck with her parents on a weekend except under the most dismal of social circumstances. So it was just the three of us, Daniel anchored between Andy and me in a spacious, semi-circular booth, his eyes glued to the swing door that led to the kitchen across the dining room. Despite his elation at being there, he remained watchful: the food had not yet arrived.
A paper kid’s placemat lay in front him, on which he sporadically scribbled, when prompted, with the worn crayons provided by management to keep children occupied until their meals were served.
There was no distracting Daniel, though. Repeated assurances that his food would come soon didn’t cut it. I sensed him trying to relax, to trust us and his own previous experience, that his coveted “Sampler Platter” with a side of fries was forthcoming. Yet every minute or so he’d ask again for his food, tapping the laminated menu for emphasis.
“Frah? Cheh? Chica?”
And at last the Sampler Platter appeared, a heaping, monochromatic mound of fried mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and onion rings, augmented by a plate of French fries. As it emerged from the kitchen he sat straight in his seat, his gaze riveted on the server’s progress toward our table, reaching for a fry before she had set the plate in front of him.
In moments his mood changed as he let his guard down at last. Only then could he truly enjoy the experience, smiling and chuckling while plowing through each delicious, deep-fried morsel, gulping his soda between bites.
That night seems like a lifetime ago, when hope still glimmered for at least a semblance of the normal life we dreamed of for our son. We’d recently begun tentative exploration of the scant, unappealing choices offered by our state for adults with disabilities, advised by transition specialists that it was never too early to begin preparing for this possibility.
But in 2004 nothing yet had been etched in stone; we were several years from the bleak December day we moved Daniel to residential care. He was still young, adaptable, impressionable. Dramatic, life-altering change was still possible, with maturity, continued therapy, the eleventh-hour intercession of God. It was possible.
I still see him that night, his anxious face reflecting concern carried, unspoken, for a lifetime; that his simple request, finally discerned among so many unarticulated, misunderstood desires, would yet be denied him.
And once the food came, his worry allayed, he relished his modest treat, a meal of his choosing, oblivious to the world beyond the walls of the restaurant: the world of sports and video games, of roughhousing with peers or movies with fledgling boys whose voices were changing, a world of first, tentative contact with girls, a world of moving forward.
Is this what life holds for my son, I thought, the bright spot of his days eating at Denny’s with his parents on a Saturday night? This isn’t forever; it simply can’t be. This can’t be what God has in mind for my son, my beautiful, bright child. There must be more for him one day…
I didn’t realize that one day even Denny’s would be out of reach, that the disorder that limited his focus to a platter of fried food would render even that pleasure unattainable.
It’s been a year and a half since we took Daniel into a restaurant, even a fast food venue. Past incidents of upset and aggression haunt me. I don’t care if he hurts me; I’ve survived that before. I fear him hurting another, an unsuspecting stranger, standing in the way of the obsessions that seem to drive him now where food and beverage are concerned.
The team at his group home have taken him into eateries for over a year, McDonalds, Panera, Olive Garden. We’ve joined them there, amazed and encouraged by Daniel’s demonstration of acceptable behavior when monitored by professional caregivers. His case manager hasn’t encouraged us to try this ourselves, however, cautioning that Daniel must learn new patterns, breaking rituals and expectations formed over years of parent-child interaction.
Yet increasingly these last few months, I knew we needed to try. Andy and I chose mid-morning last Friday to give it a go.
We stopped at a Denny’s a few miles from Daniel’s group home before picking him up, finding it more crowded than the one back home. A few booths were unoccupied, however, and I asked the manager to hold one for 20 minutes until we returned with our autistic son. He didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic, but a booth remained vacant when we returned. Flanking him on either side, Andy’s finger hooked in Daniel’s belt loop, we walked quickly through the parking lot and into the waiting booth.
We must have looked odd, hustling our 6’1’’ son through the restaurant. Andy suggested I relax just a bit, that we needn’t behave like prison wardens escorting a convict to his cell. My heart pounded, though, the tension I intended to conceal thrumming off me in waves, the limitless calamities Denny’s held in store streaming like ticker tape through my mind.
Our booth ran parallel to the galley where orders were dispensed and the soda fountains were housed. Daniel craned his neck to get a better view, and I flashed on the image of him leaping over the partition, a maneuver of which he is entirely capable.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this,” I remarked mournfully, once we’d settled, a sticker book replacing the kid’s placemat on the table now. Andy remained calm, though, despite my anxiety, despite Daniel’s repeated demands for pop and restless gestures toward the kitchen. He covered my hand reassuringly. “Relax, hon. We’re doing fine.”
And then the beloved Sampler Platter arrived, complete with a side of fries. And Daniel relaxed, just as he used to do, wolfing down his food in customary fashion before we could change our minds. By the end of the meal he was beaming, giggling, encouraging our tickles, just as he did as a boy.
It was a tense outing. But it was a beginning, a return to a pleasure once enjoyed.
My son’s life now bears little resemblance to the life once hoped for, yet I recognize that those hopes, those expectations, were my own. I wish more than anything that I knew what Daniel hopes for, what dreams he holds dear, what experience he longs for.
Yet he remembers Denny’s. It holds meaning for reasons I may never fully understand. But he still loves it there.
Would he have been just as happy with his caregiver by his side? Maybe.
I think he remembers, though, that this experience, this treat, is part of our life, together.