I saw a woman at the gym the other day whom I really wanted to avoid.
I used to see her a lot when my son Matthew, who has autism, was small. It seemed she was always there when he was bolting away from me at the grocery store, the swimming pool, the park. She watched me as I tackled Matthew before he wandered into the street, and while I tried to defuse a big bad meltdown. She was always sitting right behind us in church while Matthew flapped and tapped and giggled. Her pale blue eyes followed us everywhere and her frown was constant.
I wove my way around the exercise bikes and ducked behind the magazine rack to avoid the woman, and then ran smack into her in front of the drinking fountain. She was wearing that frown that I remembered well, and her eyes bored into me in such a way that I couldn't pretend to avert her gaze.
"You look familiar," she said, cocking her head. No kidding I look familiar. "Did our kids go to school together or something?"
"Maybe," I replied innocently, "I think we may have seen each other at the pool."
"Of course!" she said, smiling, her frown softening ever so slightly. "You had that adorable boy. I remember he had... issues."
I laughed self-consciously and explained that Matthew had autism and that some years had been more challenging than others. I told her that he was 27 now, living and working in this great community for people with disabilities near Santa Cruz called Camphill California.
"I'll never forget the day he climbed to the top of the batting cage during a Little League game," she said, shuddering, "he was teetering around and you climbed up like it was nothing and carried him down."
We burst out laughing and went on to talk about how her children were doing, the ones I never got to know because I was so sure their mother was evil. What a waste! Here was this really nice and compassionate woman who I assumed was judging me when in reality, she was just curious. And concerned. Even now, when she was laughing with me, she was frowning. She was a frowner, not a judger! And who knew why she was a frowner? She may have been coping with "issues" of her own.
As we parted ways, I thought about all of the other people over the years whom I had judged -- and avoided -- because I assumed they were judging me.
I thought back to the day I climbed to the top of the batting cage to retrieve Matthew. And to the day I ran into the surf in Carmel fully-clothed to pull him to safety. And to the day I sprinted down my street in red high heels and a black cocktail dress as Matthew rolled away precariously on a skateboard. We were stare-worthy in those days!
If you are the parent of a child with "issues," you know what I am talking about. It's not easy to be on stage during tense moments like these. Still, the next time you think someone is judging you, try taking a step back.
They might actually be admiring you.