His words, barely audible in the crowded grocery store, demand my attention. I pull my cart over by the frozen chicken and turn to face him. I can see immediately that we are about to have a problem.
“Snake, please,” he says, holding out a red rubber snake in his left hand. One snake. That’s not right. I shouldn’t have let him carry them in here today – and on the rare day I forgot to stash a couple of spare snakes in my purse.
Since we ran out of his favorite lizards a month or so ago, my kid has taken to spinning two rubber snakes. Always two, and always the same two together. If one breaks, they both go in the trash, to be replaced by another pair. Sometimes he inadvertently lets one go mid-spin, and we find ourselves on a snake hunt. Whenever he loses one, he comes to us for help in the recovery effort, but he can rarely tell us where he was last standing or where he thinks the critter might have landed.
This could be bad. I may only have a few seconds to make this right.
“Snake, please,” he repeats more strongly, bending down to lean into my face. His piercing eye contact is so opposite of everything they say about people like him. When he wants my attention, he communicates with his eyes. His eyes say what he cannot: Listen to me, watch me, I need you. Now.
I turn the cart around – the snack aisle we’ve just come through has two shoppers at either end, but my hope of an easy solve is dashed by the lack of a snake on the floor between them. We speed-walk up the aisle, scanning the floor (have you ever really looked at the floor of your grocery store on a Sunday afternoon? Yuck). My kid walks eagerly beside me, ready for mom to save the day – he rarely participates in these hunts, although it’s a skill we’ve been working on. He lopsidedly twirls one snake, stopping me every few feet to make sure I’m still looking – “Snake, please.”
I know, kid, I know.
One pass through the aisle and no damned snake. I am relieved for the moment that he is smiling, even almost giggling, but I know it could turn ugly fast if that snake remains missing. My mind begins to reel through the escape plan. We are three-quarters of the way through our list, my cart is close to full. How long are the lines at the cashier? Do we risk getting in line now, or ditch the cart and get out while we still can? I’ll have to return later to get everything again – do I have enough for dinner tonight? Can I snag a few things through the express line before the worst of it?
This may seem like an over-reaction to a missing toy, but my response stems from a history of handling meltdowns in public places. His meltdowns sometimes arise due to reasons not easily identified, but we also know the definite triggers – like disappointment. An unmet desire can spiral my child into a whirling dervish of anxiety and stress and inability to communicate and loss of control. Life is full of things that go wrong, so I’ve become adept at safeguarding him against himself in every store, in the car, at school, at the park, at home, with friends, with family. Planning escape routes, practicing calm reactions. Deescalate. Divert. Defuse.
I can point out each spot in this store where I found myself caught, too late to make it to the door, urging my kid to sit on the dirty floor, sandwiched between my cart and the store shelves in an attempt to contain his rage so he’s less likely to hurt himself or others. Purposely avoiding eye contact with everyone, not wanting to explain that, no, this isn’t a “tantrum.” Displaying an outwardly calm “I got this” appearance, so that others won’t try to assist and make things worse. Waiting out the storm.
You’d think I’d avoid taking him to the grocery store (and especially on a Sunday), or other public places, and for a time I did. But I’ve never been one to isolate my kid from life – we keep coaxing and practicing and his tolerance has grown. As my kid has gotten older—with the help of a little medication and a lot of practice and maturity—his meltdowns have lessened. He’s learning how to better manage his emotions [to “keep it together, man” as we say ala Monster’s Inc.], and we’ve learned the best ways to help. Meltdowns are no longer a daily occurrence—but the possibility is always imminent, as evidenced by my reaction to the little AWOL snake.
In anticipation of impending doom, my anxiety is rising despite the fact that my son is still taking the loss amazingly well. After a second walk-through of the aisle, searching every shelf for a dangling orange snake tail, I tell him, “I’m sorry, buddy, we’ve lost him. We’ll have to get another one when we get home.” He smiles and spins one lonesome snake over our cart, reminding me that we’re not done here: “Snake, please.”
We make a quick pass up the previous aisle, just in case it took him a little while to ask me for the missing snake. No luck there either.
I take the risk and speed through the rest of the store. I keep reassuring him that we’ve got other snakes at home, monitoring his level of anxiety as I tick things off my list, watching for the moment when we will have to change course and make a quick exit. That moment never comes. My boy only changes his frequent requests to be more specific, in case I don’t understand – “One snake, please” and “Orange snake, please.” This brilliant use of modified language makes me even more determined to reward him for his bravery and patience, and find that damned snake.
Before we line up for the cashier, we return to the aisle where he last twirled two snakes, giving the wily reptile one more chance to show himself.
I am sure at any moment my kid is going to blow – I keep looking for the warning signs of body tension and tears, but his calmness is astounding. C’mon snake, where are you hiding? At the checkout, I become convinced that we’ll find the little bugger hidden among the items in our cart as we unload. No such luck. How can it be that I am the one overwhelmed with disappointment about this missing snake?
My boy shows a twinge of hesitation as we approach the store’s exit—the final hurdle. He doubles back a bit, uncomfortable that we are leaving without snake number two in hand. But, it’s just a twinge. A little reassurance from me, and that’s it.
I resist the urge to yell to the strangers in the parking lot—Look at my kid! He’s doing it! He’s keepin’ it together, man!
Somewhere in the potato chip and soda aisle at our local Safeway, a small orange rubber snake lays poised to startle someone with a craving for junk food. He’s lurking among bags of Fritos or perhaps snuggled up between the cans of Red Bull.
Still, the patron who finds him won’t be as surprised as I was that his escape did not send us spinning off in a different direction.
** Thanks to the photographers and artists at www.pixabay.com for many of the images used on this blog.