Yesterday I was driving down my street towards home when I saw a large man walking along the sidewalk, waving a broomstick all about. Next to him was a tiny little girl, deftly avoiding the stick circling wildly over her head. As I slowed down to investigate, I saw that it was not a man at all – it was my thirteen-year old nephew Noah, and his little sister Holland.

The kids and I laughed at Noah waving the broom. It didn’t really surprise us, now that we knew it was him. He’s always marched to the beat of his own drum, and a frantic, pounding beat is all he hears. Noah was born with severe Attention Deficit Disorder as well as Asperger’s Syndrome. When he was a toddler my sister took him to a psychiatrist who asked Noah to sit perfectly still. It took a while. But this doctor was patient, and eventually Noah did freeze. Still, the doctor clucked in surprise, then privately told my sister, “He has the most severe case of Attention Deficit Disorder I’ve seen in quite a while.Noah managed to quiet his body, but did you see his eyes? They wandered all over his head wildly. He couldn’t keep them focused.” 

Our family’s efforts to help Noah navigate life have been as lurching and unpredictable as if we were stuck in a car with Mr. Toad on his Wild Ride. For Noah rarely picks up on, or interprets, body signals. He has poor eye-hand coordination yet is stuck inside an enormous body, already close to six feet tall at thirteen years old. He is awkward and clumsy at best, downright dangerous at worst. A bull in a china shop is as apt a description as any. He has awkward social skills, obsesssive-compulsive disorders, and emotional immaturity issues that make it hard for him to relate to anyone his own age, or anyone at all besides his stuffed animals or Bionicles, much of the time. Noah has been set down on a bumpy, rough stretch of road by anyone’s standards.

Yet Noah is a sweet, gentle boy at heart. He is terrified of spiders, escalators, bleachers, curbs, any natural disaster, and any and all shellfish. When I asked Holland why Noah was waving a broom in the air as they walked to my house, she said, matter-of-factly, “To keep away the zombies, or any creeps who might steal me.” Ah-ha! How sweet that Noah would walk Holland all the way to our house desperately protecting her, oblivious to the stares and taunts of passers-by.

Noah is happiest when he’s eating chicken – lots of chicken – in front of the tv, while clutching his toys. He relates so much better to them than he does to moving, talking, real people. He is fanatical about food, too. When he was a small toddler, old enough to walk but not talk yet, he would cruise the play land at McDonald’s and steal any chicken nuggets or half-eaten hamburgers carelessly left on the tables by other children. Horrified mothers would rise and cry, “But those are Dylan’s” or “Sierra wasn’t done with that!” even as Noah wolfed down all that the unsuspecting child had left behind. He would grab food right out of other children’s hands, and kids looked at this hulk of a boy like he was an alien. He did not follow any of the unspoken, commonly agreed upon laws understood even by the very young – namely, that if it’s in front of me, it’s mine; if I’m chewing it, then it belongs to me.

Years ago I agreed to watch my nephews before school one morning. Noah and his older brother Asher came banging in my door at 7am. Noah held a plate with three cooked chicken breasts on it in his left hand, and in his right hand was a two-gallon tub of potato salad, unopened.

Good morning!” I said, already feeling overwhelmed by these big boys. “Is that your breakfast today?” I tried to sound cheerful and upbeat.

Noah flung himself down at the kitchen table and tore into one of the chicken breasts. “No, Auntie!” he cried. “The chicken is my breakfast, the potato salad is my snack. For school.” He said this with gusto – his mouth full of food, a loud, booming voice, a tone of slight annoyance at my questioning of his habits.

I could not think of a proper response to this. Silently I thought, ‘My sister is so crazy. She repeatedly tells me Noah is picked on by the other kids, is treated meanly by parents and students alike. Yet who sends their kid to school with a two-gallon tub of potato salad for snack? I know he’s big, and he likes to eat, but you’re turning this boy into a freak, Lorraine! What is the teacher going to say when this first-grader pulls out a tub of potato salad and plastic fork at 10am?’

I was really getting myself worked up into a frenzy. I felt like calling my sister and telling her she was failing as a parent if she allowed Noah to eat that much. But I didn’t go to the phone. Instead I sat down, took a gulp of coffee, and said my silent catchphrase I use to calm myself when I’m overwrought.

Separate,” I said to myself. “This is not your child. Why should you care if he weighs 500 lbs some day and can’t roll off the sofa? Why worry about what the school will think, or what the kids will say. This is not your problem, just separate.”

And so I did. I went about my morning getting the other kids ready, and when it was time to go to school I loaded them all into the mini-van and sped off up the hill.

At school the three older boys tumbled out of the car and took off running before I could even say goodbye. But Noah struggled to put on his backpack, grab his toys which accompanied him everywhere, balance his tub of potato salad and open the door. Finally out he stumbled, slowly plodding off towards the school gates.

I suddenly wished that I had a camera. I wanted to capture Noah the way he was right then – huge, uncoordinated, dragging his Ninja Turtles Backpack with one hand and his 2 gallon tub of potato salad with the other. His face bearing that perpetual look of concern that he feels when he’s out in the world.

Late afternoon rolled around. I’d gone about my day, separated from the Noah/breakfast issue. It was now about four pm and my front door burst open. In marched Lorraine holding an open Ninja Turtle Backpack in her hands, yellow goop dripping from her hair, fury flying off of her like sparks.

Damn it, Noah!” she screamed as she stomped into my kitchen. “When are you going to stop and think before you do things? When are you going to realize that you don’t put potato salad in your backpack!”

Lorraine threw the backpack into the kitchen sink and paused to breathe. “I am so mad right now. I just got that car detailed!”

I stood in my kitchen, shocked, watching the drama unfold before me.

Here came Noah. He, too, was covered in potato salad. Everywhere. All over his hands, his arms, his shirt, his hair. I could already smell it, and it was foul.

Get over here!” Lorraine pointed to the sink. “This is beyond disgusting, Noah. I’m just sick with rage!” Lorraine pulled off his clothes and took a dishcloth to his arms.

Go get in the shower.” Noah bowed his head and stomped off towards the bathroom while Lorraine stormed out back to the outside trash with the backpack. When she returned her cheeks were bright red. She looked like she might cry.

I can’t believe you let him take potato salad to school in that backpack!” she hollered.

What?” I gasped. “I didn’t give him potato salad, you did!”

Lorraine and I proceeded to shout it out, piecing together our two versions of the day, how it came to be that a two gallon tub of potato salad exploded all over my sister’s freshly detailed Lexus.

So this is what happened: My sister sent Noah over in the morning with three chicken breasts for breakfast, and the potato salad, which she told him could be his snack if he had to come back to my house after school. She thought I would take the tub of potato salad and put it in my fridge. What Noah heard was, ‘The potato salad can be your snack.’ He assumed this meant school, and that is what he stuck with.

So off he marched to school. Noah ate some potato salad for his snack and put the remainder into his backpack. He then forgot about it and left his backpack outside in the hot sun all day, until my sister picked him up from my mother’s house at 4pm. On the car ride over to my house, Noah remembered the potato salad and thought he’d like to have a bit more. So in the back seat of my sister’s car, as she drove completely unaware, Noah opened his pack and tugged at the plastic lid on the potato salad tub.

I’m sure you can visualize what happened next. The overly warm tub exploded, and potato salad flew everywhere.

When the whole sordid tale was told, Lorraine and I both laughed and laughed. We wondered what Noah’s teacher thought about him digging into a 2 lb. tub of potato salad for his snack. We wondered what the kids in his class said. We laughed about my sister’s ruined car interior, her work clothes, Noah’s backpack.

When we finally caught our breath my sister let out a big sigh, “Now I have a car and a kid that smell like potato salad. And you know I can’t stand mayonnaise!”

Today I would give anything for a photo of Noah walking into that school, swinging his plastic tub of potato salad. I wish I had a photograph of him and Holland walking down my street, side by side, one big, one small. Noah on alert, prepared to do battle with the world.

I hope that the world offers Noah some sweetness along the way. And that most people step to the side as he passes by with a broomstick in his hand, because he’s on a wild ride, and he can’t always slow down, even if he wants to.