Every Christmas Day, our family of five heads to the movies, usually a family film appropriate for youngsters yet still palatable to parents. When my son Jukie goes, I’m almost always in the seat next to him. As a boy with autism, he requires significant attention, and as the one who takes him on all his doctor visits, I am the best qualified.
Wordless, patient, loving and sometimes a bit spacey, Jukie, who turns 14 on Sunday, helps me step outside my workaday world of intellect, assessment and problem-solving. His stillness inspires poems and reflection.
Because of our tight bond, I can persuade Jukie to keep quiet during a performance. And while there have been times when I’ve had to rush my son out of a film or play (sorry about that, Davis Shakespeare Ensemble), on Christmas Day, his behavior was exemplary in a Davis theater filled with noisy children to see “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”
When the crowd laughed, Jukie clucked. When the crowd guffawed, he vocalized like someone singing to himself and kissed my hand. He was having a ball, and the adults near us – we sat in the back row – saw Jukie and smiled back at us.
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But not everyone appreciated this odd family in the back.
In the row in front of us, two muscle-bound men in their 20s, wearing buzz-cuts and baseball caps, were evidently seething. Once, when Jukie clucked his approval of a Ben Stiller caveman joke, one of the young men turned around to tell him: “That needs to stop now.”
None of us even knew what he was referring to. A while later, one of these burly men turned around and shone his iPhone flashlight in Jukie’s face, momentarily blinding us both.
My wife, Kate, immediately admonished him, angrily telling him that the boy they were harassing has autism and can’t speak. One of them retorted, “I don’t care that he has autism. If he has autism, you shouldn’t have brought him here.”
While Kate insisted that our boy had as much right to be there as anyone else, I sought to protect Jukie, so he and I moved to the end of the row. Meanwhile, the young man’s embarrassed parents, who had smiled at us during the previews, vigorously shushed him.
Jukie sensed the tension, but like the rest of us, he didn’t understand it. He kissed my forehead, then held my hand all the more tightly while we tried to enjoy the rest of the movie. As the film was concluding, I pushed back against a wave of sadness. I wondered how these young men could be so mean-spirited toward a disabled child. Would Jukie always face such misunderstanding and discrimination, even in Davis?
The young men got up to leave as soon as the credits started to roll. One of them looked me squarely in the eye and spat at my feet.
After the film, Kate and I met in the lobby to talk over what had happened. Though certainly provoked, I felt pity for the young men. We discussed how repressed anger like that keeps people anxious and raw; it erupts in bars and bowling alleys. Such people look for a challenge or slight. It is a sad and limiting existence. We decided that those young men would benefit from knowing someone like Jukie.
Just then a mom and her adult son interrupted us, leaning into our conversation with a sympathetic look and a smile. She warmly wished us a merry Christmas. These two kind people didn’t know me from UC Davis, where I teach, or from the poetry series I host downtown. No, they had been seated near us in the theater and had heard the entire exchange. Outraged yet compassionate, they sought us out to share a bit of kindness with a bewildered family on Christmas Day.
Outside the theater, our family of five huddled like a basketball team. We repaid Jukie for every kiss he had given us during the movie. We celebrated our Christmas boy, and he brimmed with glee at all the extra affection. Every day that we look into his eyes, and receive his insistent hugs, we realize that we owe him a debt of love that may never be repaid.
Andy Jones is a lecturer in the English department at UC Davis.