During the winter months, we like to watch Wheel of Fortune while eating dinner. Somehow, the combination of comfort food and Pat Sajak’s corny jokes just caps off a wintry evening. And the routine of TV game show, dinner, conversation, and clean-up just seems to flow nicely and set a calm pace for the remainder of the night.
So the other night, we were finishing our dinner of gluten-free pasta with veggies when the last round of Wheel began. Zach decided that the only part of dinner he really liked were the artichokes. He’s not a fan of pasta, nor did he want the gluten-free bread that I served with it (I thought it’d be a winner). Often, I make a meal with hope that Zach will devour it, but sometimes I end up feeling like a contestant whose wheel spin just landed on lose a turn.
Once I have the entire meal prepared, I don’t like to start over again with something else in the event the dish didn’t pass Zach’s inspection. I also don’t really like going anywhere after dinner that requires shoes, a jacket, and a purse. Once dinner is done, I tend to feel like the rest of the evening should be time-off. Especially in winter when it’s dark and chilly outside.
So when Zach lifted his device from his lap and pressed the button for the Meals page, I braced myself. If he requested something fairly simple, great! We all have our meal preferences, and if he had something in mind that I could heat up quickly, well, problem solved. But I surely didn’t want to wash pots and pans only to turn around and use them again. What he selected after rapidly scanning his options both surprised me and socked me in the gut. Lemons.
Just the night before, during Wheel, and after eating his dinner, he requested lemons. We made juice just a couple of days before that, and we used up all the citrus in the fridge. He doesn’t like the juice, but he loves sucking on lemons. So 24 hours earlier when he made the request for the sour slices, we had to tell him we didn’t have any more lemons. He had ransacked the fridge hoping to turn up a yellow piece of fruit. No luck. We were both downtrodden.
Lemons. He looked up from his device with that same exuberant and hopeful smile, eyes twinkling and dimples dimpling. Lemons. Whyyyyy hadn’t I remembered to pick some up?? HOW could I have forgotten, after reassuring him the night before that “tomorrow we can get lemons.” We didn’t get the lemons. I completely dropped the ball. He had remembered. And now here we were. How I could tell him for the second night that there were no lemons?
It was 7:51. The bonus round was about to start. I didn’t want to leave the house. A belly full of pasta, comfy sweats, slippers, and Wheel. The kitchen was a mess. I looked at Zach’s face. I could not resist the puppy dog eyes or the head nodding yes in hopeful expectancy of a plate of lemon slices. I could read his mind: last night you said ‘tomorrow,’ Mom. It’s tomorrow.
I retrieved shoes, jacket, purse. “What are you doing?” exclaimed my husband.
“Lemme just run to the store and pick up lemons. Last night, we told him tomorrow. I’m not going to tell him tomorrow again. Nuh-uh.” I bent down to pull up the squashed heel of my sneaker. While the men cleaned up the kitchen and watched the bonus round, I trekked to TJ’s.
For the first time in about three weeks, it wasn’t raining, so I made my way to the store, hustled in, and grabbed several bags of lemons. I wasn’t taking any chances should the request become a nightly thing for a while. You never know with autism. We’ve had ongoing routines born of the cravings for certain foods, so experience was my guide. I also grabbed oranges and a pineapple, suddenly finding myself wanting a homemade version of Orange Julius.
For 8:15 at night, the store was pretty crowded. We keep a dimly lit house at night, so the bright fluorescence of the store assaulted my eyes. The music blared. A woman reaching into the banana rack backed up suddenly and knocked my elbow. An employee wheeled by with a clean-up cart and mop, getting a jump start on cleaning the day’s debris off the floor. Someone’s toddler was not a happy camper in another part of the store.
With only two lanes open at the checkout and people with carts full to the brim, it took longer than expected to pay for my fruit. I found myself irritated. After a man in my line paid, the checker closed the line. Guess my spin led to lose a turn again.
“Ma’m, I’ll take you over here,” called a voice. I looked and saw a hand beckoning me.
“Quite a lot of lemons you got there,” said the man. His name tag said Patrick.
“Yep.” I answered, and couldn’t quite think of anything else to say.
“Oranges,” he said as he scanned them. “I haven’t had real oranges in a very long time.” I thought to myself, ‘what does he mean by real oranges?’ but didn’t say anything.
“I usually like those small mandarins, you know?” he offered. He was being overly pleasant, possibly to make up for the adjacent cashier closing her register. I nodded.
“Last stop of the day for you?” he said.
“Yes, last stop. My son wanted…” I began to explain the whole lemon thing, but thought better of it and redirected my words to “we’re going to make juice.”
“Niiiiice….” he said with a smile. “Pineapple too? You juice pineapples?”
“Yes…yes, the pineapple too.” I tapped my MasterCard, thanked him, and fast-walked to the car.
Before I entered the house, I stashed some lemons in the garage. If he ate a bunch of them at once, I’d need to return to a store the next day to replenish the citrus supply. Didn’t want to do that. Then, I put the rest of the lemons underneath the oranges and the pineapple in the paper bag and walked inside like Vanna springing over to the illuminated tile on the letter board. The men were just finishing clean-up, and Shark Tank was playing in the background.
“Lemons!” I yelled. “Check it out!”
Zach whirled around, stuck his head in the bag, and pulled out the lemons. He examined them and turned them around in his hands like Indiana Jones with the crystal skull. He then promptly shoved the lemons, along with the oranges, in the refrigerator.
My husband and I looked at each other with quizzical expressions. “Don’t you want the lemons?” my husband gently asked. Zach seemed to be pondering the situation. He glanced at the pineapple on the counter and back to the oranges and lemons. Perhaps he was wondering how his request for lemons resulted in a bag of oranges plus a tall and spiky pineapple.
While we waited for him to decide what he wanted, I asked how Wheel turned out.
“The guy who went to the bonus round won it, and he got the hundred K!”
“Wow! Good for him! Did they do confetti?” You don’t see many 100K winners.
Our attention went back to Zach. He was tossing something around in his head, like he was trying to solve a puzzle. “What is it, bud?” My husband asked. Zach steadied his device in his left hand. His right index finger hovered above the screen. He was poised like a player in the Triple-Toss-Up round, waiting for just the right moment to buzz in.
I figured he was going to ask permission to eat the lemons. After all, they belong in the fridge, right? So it made sense to me that in his mind, he’d have to put everything away first and then ask for what he wanted. In autism, and other things, there’s an order to life – a way things have to go.
We waited as Zach concentrated. I could almost hear Pat Sajak saying audience, please, no talking. His finger was poised above the lemons button on his communication device. Go ahead, we encouraged him, you can ask. His eyes glanced up at me and back down to the screen. I looked at my husband and shrugged. Then, ever so slowly, Zach moved his finger away from the lemons button, over to the right, and pressed down. Limes.
It wasn’t an accidental “buzz in.” We couldn’t blame it on too much excitement in the moment. It was intentional. He pressed limes.
He looked up at me with that same expectancy in his expression, his blue eyes twinkling. I thought maybe, just maybe, he was playing a little joke. Limes. Like, haha Mom, I just asked for lemons and you ran to the store, and isn’t it funny that I’m now asking for limes?? I studied him. Limes said the device. Head nod, eye twinkle, smile. Nope, not a joke. He sincerely wanted limes. Not in place of the lemons; in addition to the lemons.
I felt like one of those contestants who tallies up $5,000 during a round, has the million dollar wedge, spins again, and lands on Bankrupt. Cue the depressing bankrupt whistle. Pat’s voice was saying, “Oh, I’m sorry about that.”
My husband and I looked at one another. Our eyes did the talking. I am not going back to the store…no, you are not going back to the store…but he wants limes…but he isn’t getting limes…I can go tomorrow…you can go tomorrow.
So we hailed the almighty lemon. We extolled its virtues. We gave it over-the-top acclaim and expressed the wonders of the bright yellow fruit. We praised its color and flavor. If the bag of lemons was a car on The Price is Right, we were the models on our very first day of work.
Zach closed the fridge door and walked away. I should have thought about the limes! Salt and pepper! Ketchup and mustard! Lemons and limes! Not oranges and pineapple, Mom! Dang it. I was going for the jackpot and flubbed it up. The lemons spent the night in the fridge.
The next morning, as Zach and I sat at the table with plates of food, he inhaled the scent of the bacon and passed it up in favor of raspberries. (Imagine that!) Moments later, he scrolled to the Meals section on his device. Uh oh I thought. We’re here earlier than I anticipated. I formulated a plan in my head.
It is not typically an easy-breezy thing to go grocery shopping with Zach. He has a tendency to want wayyyy more of something than what you’d allow (six large bags of frozen French fries, for instance, or all the potatoes in the produce bin). So a grocery store visit for a bag of limes wouldn’t be fun. Think think think.
Limes. There it was. Limes. The device spoke while he craned his neck over the bacon and smiled at me. Irresistible.
“Alright,” I said, “I know…I know you probably dreamed about limes last night. There’s nothing else we can do today except make it our mission to get some limes for the poor, lonely lemons.” He nodded enthusiastically.
He handed me his plate (with bacon still on it…THAT’S how badly he wanted limes). All I had to say was get your shoes and he was ready. He was perched next to the car before I could grab my purse and sunglasses.
And so we drove to Walmart – not the grocery outlet but the regular store – where I knew we could not get into too much trouble over the desire for getting massive quantities of certain foods. And because I don’t like to teach my son that his wish is another’s command in every circumstance, we walked around the entire store, deliberately avoiding the food section for about 15 minutes. We checked out Christmas clearance (take my advice: avoid that at all costs). We browsed the shoe racks. I peeked at the jewelry cases (did you know they carry a pretty decent selection of watches at Walmart? I didn’t.). We went back around at one point (much to his chagrin) to see the garden section. Then, we headed over to the food area.
He literally began hopping like a kangaroo when he spotted the limes. I let him pick the bag he wanted, and he held it up to the light to examine the contents. “That’s the one?” I asked. And his blond head nodded up and down in glee.
I did think of one thing I truly needed, so before we hit the checkout we circled back to the detergent aisle. With utmost care and tenderness, Zach carried those limes around and nearly walked into a display of Tide because he wouldn’t take his eyes off of them.
Although at times, through the years, it has proven difficult (sad to say) to bring a smile to my boy’s face, there are these moments where something as simple as a bag of beautiful green limes can bring as much joy to him as big money and bonus rounds bring to the contestants on Wheel.
When we witness that smile and the exuberance that accompanies it, it’s like confetti coming down on us. Our kitchen, or wherever we happen to be, becomes our Wheel of Fortune stage where euphoria fills the air and a sense of delight becomes the applause that buoys the moment. We don’t need a trip to Maui or a brand new Mini Cooper. (Although 100K would certainly be nice, wouldn’t it?). We are winners whenever we see that 1000 watt smile on Zach’s face. He is our prize, our treasure, our fortune.
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Clever, endearing, beautifully told! You have such a gift! LOVED IT!!
I love this story , adding to yet another piece of what comprises autism and how much something as simple as a lovely smile means to parents & those who care.