Tegan sat in our shopping cart pointing to a stout man in his 20s. He was standing a few feet away in the dairy aisle looking at creamer options. He was a bit heavy-set, had two-day scruff and thick brown hair, a gray wool hat pulled over his ears. He turned toward us, hearing Tegan's question.
"That's a man," I said.
He grinned unabashedly and walked toward us, looked at me like we were friends, like Tegan was a niece or sister. He didn't say anything, just stopped next to our cart, pulled his hat over his face, then quickly lifted it to expose a gleeful expression.
"Peek-a-boo!" he said.
We all laughed. He continued to pull down his hat and lift it, pull down and lift, each time revealing a softness, unrestrained innocence and joy. He didn't seem to notice how close he was standing to us, that Tegan began to look at him a bit quizzically. She wasn't used to a stranger being so forthcoming.
We didn't exchange words, just shared in this moment of play and lightheartedness, of finding happiness in connecting with a child.
And then I saw you running -- jogging, really -- as you rushed toward us with your full cart of groceries. You looked panicked, like you were expecting something bad to happen.
"I'm sorry," you said and parked your cart next to mine. You sighed, looked at me like you'd just delivered bad news.
"Oh, no, don't be sorry!" I said. But you were already turning your cart, telling the man to follow you. You didn't make much eye contact, just looked ahead as you wove through the expanse of shoppers, pushed on as the man slowly followed behind. He looked over his shoulder to smile and wave at us, put his hands over his eyes and then remove them in one final peek-a-boo.
"Say bye-bye, Tegan," I said.
"Bye," she said softly, looking shy. She offered a gentle wave after you'd both turned the corner.
A part of me wanted to follow you.
I wanted to tell you that you didn't have to apologize, that nothing had gone wrong. The man had been kind, expressed joy in seeing my daughter. He had wanted to make her smile, and he'd succeeded. There's no being sorry for that.
But I don't think that's why you said you were sorry.
I think you said it because you've had to say it so many times. To those who are impatient or unkind, who aren't understanding, who treat that man (who I imagine is your son) like he is less because he has Down syndrome. And for that I am the sorry one.
In my food shopping experience alone I can tell you: he is more than the man who ignores my waving child, he is more than the woman who stares at her like she's an untouchable germ factory. He is more than the people who give her dirty looks when she's excited or cranky, when she tries to climb out of the cart, when she knocks over candy and magazines in the checkout aisle.
He is someone who accepted my daughter, who showed her the goodness, the unfiltered kindness that can exist in others.
And for that, dear mother (wherever you are), please accept my thanks.