February 12, 2015
This is a story that needs to be told and I have labored for four weeks to write it because it’s painful to recall all the details. But I share it as a cautionary tale and to inspire us to CHOSE KINDESS.
We flew from the United States to Cape Town, South Africa as a family in January as we have for the past five years of our lives with our children. Kieren is a pro at these trips and has no problem with the unbearably long travel, but Keller, now being diagnosed with autism, was going to struggle with it more than most children. Breaking up his normal schedule, not sleeping in a bed, being in close quarters and having to sit for hours and not understanding the entire situation are a few of the challenges we faced. We worked for months to prepare Keller for the changes and travel and truthfully he handled most of it incredibly. What we did not foresee was that our greatest challenge would be from the flight attendants working on our flight. Their job description reads as such:
“Flight Attendants are responsible for the safety and service of our passengers. Duties Include food and beverage service, assisting passengers with disabilities, answering inquires and operating mechanical and safety equipment.”
We have a son with a disability and even notified the airlines before, but because autism is a processing disorder in the brain, it is not visible. The flight attendants on our flight were doing their jobs of feeding us, making sure we were buckled, and keeping the order among the passengers. They however, did not know Keller had a disability and quickly became visibly aggravated but his odd behavior.
In the second hour of a long flight I was hurriedly chided for allowing my son to watch his DVD player without headphones. Not only did this flight attendant not even look at me when barking her instructions, she did not know the situation of my disabled son and his inability to use headphones because of his anxiety. I was then wounded and the exhaustion mounted as the hours went by.
In hour five of our flight my son became incredibly anxious and inconsolable and was screaming and crying for an extended period of time. I tried to calm him in our seat, but it was dark on the plane during the ‘sleeping’ time so I tried to go to the galley area to rock and calm him there. This is where it got ugly. I was attempting to rock my wiggly and screaming (huge) two-year-old near the bathrooms as a flight attendant sat in her fold-out seat. She pretended not to notice me (IMPOSSIBLE) and continued leisurely reading her newspaper. Finally she was fed up, loudly folded her newspaper and looked right at my inconsolable son saying, “SHHHH. People are trying to SLEEP on this plane.”
I lost it. Well on the inside I lost it. I wanted to punch her and scream and fall into a crying mess all at the same time. I did none of that (as moms we put our own feelings on hold to work out at a later time).
I looked into her eyes and said sternly, “I am sorry, but my son has autism and he is doing the BEST that he can.” She was visibly and immediately startled and fumbled around with her paper then blurting out, “Well… uh… I have that too. I mean… uh… I have nieces and nephews… I mean… I WAS JUST TRYING TO HELP!” And she stormed off. My heart was broken, I thought completely, until literally a minute later another flight attendant walked towards me with her food cart and harshly said, “You need to move now, we need this area.” NOW I was done.
I went to my seat holding my (STILL CRYING) son and WEPT with all of my being. My husband was obviously very concerned but it took me a while to even get out what happened. I have never cried from such a deep place. I have never MOURNED from such a deep place.
In those moments, I didn’t want my husband to go and defend us, I didn’t want the women fired, and I didn’t even want to ever share this again. I just wept for autism. I wept for my son who had to struggle and fight daily just to interact with the world in a normal way and how much he is unfairly judged for it. I wept for the many ignorant people who do not know about autism and see the incredibly brave people who live with it daily. I wept that someone was mean to Keller as he was doing the best I could. I wept because I was also doing the best I could do. I wept because Keller has autism and it’s not fair and it’s not right. I wept.
Eventually Keller quieted and eventually I too quieted. As my tears began to slow I immediately felt the love and presence of God around me. Even though this world can be deeply and unimaginably UNKIND I know personally a God who ALWAYS moves towards me in kindness. Our God is love and our God is kind. Always. In this instance Keller and I deserved nothing but kindness and to treat us otherwise was hideous, but even when judgment and anger is DESERVED in our lives, my God still moves towards me with a kind heart. It is revolutionary. In those quiet moments I felt my God with me calming me, holding me, and speaking His words of truth over me.
If I could find these flight attendants and get my revenge I would turn it down. These women were tired and grouchy for their own reasons. Yes they should have helped me, yes they should have checked on me, and yes they should have been kind. But they weren’t. Life happens and people aren’t always kind.
If I could speak with these women now, or anyone on an airplane, I would explain to them about how brave and special my little Keller is. I would tell them that unfortunately he was born with autism, and so his brain doesn’t process the way our brains process. He gets anxious, he gets overwhelmed, he gets confused, he gets loud, and he gets exhausted. I think we would all be if we had his brain and I think he is a HERO for living such a beautiful life despite his disability. I would tell those women that families like ours fight every day and we are always scared of the judgments and the looks. We are also tired and we are also overwhelmed. But we are PRIVILAGED to raise and love this sweet boy with a unique brain and every person he comes in contact with is also privileged. I would tell them to look twice before being harsh and ask questions before judgment. I would say sometimes people need an extra smile or an extra napkin or an extra hug. We are all fighting in our own ways, and kindness can change everything.
I would say that we all need to CHOOSE KINDNESS.
I believe that my life raising Keller is an invitation to the world.
It is an invitation to open our eyes and hearts to those who are different than us. Those who struggle. Those who fight daily. Those who are weak and those who need a little extra help. Instead of seeing the ways those people burden us, what if we looked for what they brought into the world that we would never know without them in our midst. Keller and his autism help me notice every little detail and cause my heart to be thankful for life and love. Without his diagnosis I would have undoubtably missed so many beautiful and sacred moments.
The moments when people are KIND to us, when they help us, when they forgive us, when they love Keller for who he is, for who WE ARE, are the most precious treasures I have received. And I recognize that my God moves towards me with this kindness and love EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. I am in awe. I am humbled. I am thankful. It is all I need.
All we need is for this world to CHOOSE KINDNESS.