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To the 'Cool Guy' on the Plane Who Realized My Son Has Autism

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We arrive at Burlington Airport.

At this point in my son’s life, “The Cat in the Hat” is everything to him. He has the book, the movie, the t-shirt. He runs to the gift store and demands I purchase him a Cat in the Hat Pop Up book for $47.95. I comply because I believe this may be the one thing that will get us through the TSA Security Check, onto the plane, and to Chicago without a meltdown, and I know the purchase is in vain.

We get onto the plane, and I feel like every head turns to us at that moment, looking at us with a feigned politeness. I know what they are thinking, “Oh great, it’s a family, please, don’t sit in the aisle next to me.” In my head I can even hear the stewardess saying, “You can feel free to store your… child, in the overhead compartment, or the space beneath the seat in front of you.”

We get to our seats, and we are two rows behind the engine. If we hit turbulence, it will be a bad experience. However, we are a family, and we are flying on a budget. My son sits by the window, my wife, in the center and I take the seat in the aisle. I see this “cool guy” get onto the plane, a man about my age. He is wearing a concert t-shirt, ripped up jeans, he’s listening to punk rock from the 1970s on his iPhone. This guy represents who I was as a traveler before I had a child. He takes the aisle seat directly across from me. I want to say to him, “Look, Cool Guy, you might think you are going to relax and enjoy this flight, but you are part of my family for the next 1400 miles, so strap in, it’s going to get bumpy!”

We take off. Planes are not designed with children in mind. There is no ball pit, no playground and an iPad can be entertaining for just so long. To keep my child occupied, my wife and I take turns walking him from the pilot’s cabin to the tail. We hit turbulence over Buffalo and need to take our seats. The plane is shaking; my son’s ears begin hurting from the drop in cabin pressure, and he has a meltdown. This is a child who has difficulty with crowded social situations and excessive stimulation. My wife and I can do nothing but hold him and live through this moment. I look over at Cool Guy, and he is staring at me, trying to pour a rum and Coke. I want to say, “Look, Cool Guy, I am sorry if we are ruining your time on the bar in United Flight 106, but we have a crisis here, and if anyone on this plane needs to drink, it’s me!”

My son falls asleep out of exhaustion. And that wave of exhaustion flows over my family. I just sit there, listening to the hum of the engine and staring blankly at the Sky Mall magazine shoved into the sleeve of the seat in front of me, hoping we will start our descent into Chicago soon.

Then, I feel something hit my shoulder.

It’s Cool Guy. He hands me two trial-sized Bacardi Silvers and a Diet Coke and says, “You need this more than I do.” I pour the rum into the Coke and that sweet taste of Puerto Rican Rum and bitter aspartame is the most soothing drink I have ever had.

We started talking. He tells me he grew up in Vermont and lives in Los Angeles. He works in “the business.” “You’re brave to take a kid on a plane,” he says. “I have three kids, and I won’t drive them from Long Beach to Malibu.”

“Does your son have autism?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say and I tell him about some of the difficulties, and some of the triumphs.

He doesn’t say, “That must be hard” or “You’re a great dad.” He just listens to me. Allowing me to feel human for just a few minutes. He turns what was the most horrible flight of my life into the most memorable flight of my life.

We land in Chicago. Whenever I have a heartfelt conversation with someone I am never going to see again I want to say something like, “May the Universe treat you well,” but I never end up saying anything that poetic and goofy. Instead, I said “Hey, if you’re ever in Vermont again…” He stops me, smiles and says, “I’ll stay in a hotel.”

Then, my family and I entered Chicago O’Hare International Airport. My son promptly finds a bookstore and demands I buy him a second copy of the same Cat in the Hat Pop Up book I’d bought him two hours earlier in Vermont.

Thank you, Cool Guy, may the Universe treat you well.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: July 6, 2016
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