On our last shift we were visited by The Wander. She was an older woman whom on first glance I thought might be homeless. She walked with a cane whose foam handle was eaten away to the stalk on half the grip, her right shoe was patched with duct tape, her pants were frayed at the hem, she appeared to be missing most of her teeth, and her cheeks had that wind-burned look I associate with panhandlers. I let her in past the gate we use to contain the cats when they’re out of their cages, and she headed straight for Sawyer, who was sitting on a bench at the far end of our area resting a broom between his knees and staring gloomily at the floor.
Sawyer was often gloomy these days. Conversations could turn quickly into a series of complaints about the world – the bad movies, the bad video games, the social injustices, the school system. “I understand you don’t like any of those things,” I’d say, “but what do you like? You’ve got to start focusing on what you want instead of what you don’t want.” Unfortunately, being his father, I know I often sounded to him like the adults in Peanuts cartoons.
“Don’t beat no cats with that broom!” The Wanderer said as she approached Sawyer. For a moment, protective thoughts crossed my mind. What reason would she have to head straight for this fifteen year-old boy whom she has never met? These thoughts were replaced by something else as I saw Sawyer nodding and listening to her talk. Normally I worried about Sawyer and what personal questions he might ask strangers. I had no such worries with The Wanderer.
Her lesson complete, she found and began petting a cat curled in a cat tree near the gate. Sawyer followed her and shared some of her story with me. He told me how she had had forty-nine operations on her back and how she still had seven more to go. He told me how some strangers had beaten her up. The Wander smiled as Sawyer told her story.
“When I was born,” she continued, “my grandparents on both sides told my mom to get rid of me because I had a harelip and cleft pallet.” I could see the scar now from the operation. “Said get rid of me because I was punishment for my mom for breaking one of God’s Ten Commandments. She’s 85, and I’ve been punishing her for 62 years.” She laughed.
Sawyer was outraged that anyone would beat up an old woman, and that The Wanderer’s grandparents had wanted her mother to get rid of her. The Wanderer smiled and winked at me. Sawyer returned to his station at the rear of our area, and our new friend turned to go. She paused at the gate and lowered her voice. “What’s his diagnosis?”
“Autism,” I said. “It’s the only word they had. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She nodded. “They said I was mentally retarded when I was two because I wasn’t keeping up with my twin.” She shook her head, and then glanced once more toward Sawyer. “I told him stay positive or I’ll come back and kick his butt.” She winked at me again. “Stay positive,” she called out, and then was gone.