I guided my eighty-six year old stepfather to a table. Helped him settle in and went to get him a straw for his milkshake. He asked me how to use it, so I talked him through the process of inserting it into his drink, explaining that he could use it to draw the liquid into his mouth. He seemed to appreciate the reminder. The food came. The sandwich was wrapped in a foil pouch, out of sight. I opened it for him, so he could see that his meal was there. I went to get him ketchup and opened the little container. He was pleased that there was something to dip his fries in.
Looking around me, I noticed that sitting right next to us was a father with his young son, maybe four years old, sitting on his lap. The father was patiently positioning the food in front of his son, while at the same time, preparing his own. The son was looking around the restaurant, distracted by faces and conversations. Every now and then, he would pick up a fry or a chicken nugget, but, once again distracted, it would fall from his hand to the floor. His father looked at the floor and calmly placed another piece of food in his hand. By now it was only a fifty-fifty chance that the food would make it into the child’s mouth. But the father didn’t seem to mind.
Immediately across from the father and son was an older man and his son or nephew…someone he cared for and cared about, for sure. The younger man was developmentally challenged in some way, perhaps autism. The older man was eating his lunch, always attentive to the younger man. He kept one eye on the younger man’s progress at all times. No frustration in his face. No annoyance. Just calm attention, and he was fluent in shifting his attention from his meal to the younger man’s. Occasionally, he would help the younger man, calmly keeping everything in its proper place on the tray, so the younger man could navigate the process of picking up and eating more easily.
There we sat, men with men in three stages in life. Three generations, all relying on the love and compassion of other men. We never spoke to one another, and maybe the other two caretakers never caught the symmetry of this accidental brotherhood. But, as my stepfather and I got up to leave, I caught the eye of the older man with his disabled partner, and without experiencing the moment of awkwardness that so often comes when two men find themselves looking into the other’s eyes, I sensed that a faint recognition passed between us, and that was enough.