Responding to Onlookers

How does a girl survive her husband being gone for five days?

Chick Fil-A, that’s how.

I’m not ashamed to admit that we went to Chick Fil-A three times in five days. The first two times I made a bee line to the drive-through on our way home from Mac’s karate lesson. The third time was our big grand finale. It was Saturday night and we were limping through the final hours until daddy got home. I decided we would go all out and eat inside this time. We’d been cooped up at home. Who cared if Mac got all germed up in the play area and exchanged his toy for an ice cream? It was our big outing for the day.

Apparently we were also the big focus of many other families at the restaurant that night.

First of all let me say I think that Nathan still looks like a baby, but I also think that his syndromic features are much more evident than a year ago. His little noggin is just that, little, especially compared to the rest of his body. His almond-shaped eyes are more noticeable. His cute little ears are set low. And his mannerisms are completely different from a toddler of his age should be. Aside from these things, the thing that makes him stand out the most in public is when his eye is patched.


The patched eye. We started out just needing to patch the left and now we are alternating between both eyes every other day.

Nathan has strabismus, which is a condition in which the muscles in his eyes aren’t strong enough to keep them both in alignment. It causes his eyes to drift outward. The patching is supposed to strengthen his muscles, although he’ll probably still need surgery in six months or so. In the context of all of Nathan’s medical problems the strabismus is very minor. However this fairly benign eye problem draws more attention to him than any of his other less obvious, but more serious medical complications.

We were actually sitting down at a table enjoying our Chick Fil-A, instead of me throwing french fries to Mac in the back seat.  One group of adults at a close-by table kept looking at us and trying to make conversation. I engaged them a little bit, but it was hard to also manage a baby who can’t sit up in a high chair, a five-year-old with the wiggles who also had to go potty mid-meal, and try to eat my salad with a fork. Anyway, they kept saying I had a sweet baby and a cute family. Later they wanted to know what was going on with Nathan’s patched eye. I explained. They went on and on with “ooohs!” and “aaahs!” and the man at the table kept saying “Bless him. Bless him. Jesus bless him.” Now y’all know that I do want Jesus to bless my child but I was oh so uncomfortable hearing it from strangers and a little unsure of how to handle in front of Mac and the rest of the public.

Another onlooker was a very outgoing preschooler who also wanted to know what happened to Nathan’s eye. Very innocent and appropriate question. Except his mother didn’t think so. She told him that he shouldn’t ask questions, because people probably had lots of questions about their family too (they were a biracial family, most likely through adoption). I told her it was okay, but she made him apologize to me and tried to get him to stop looking at Nafe throughout our whole meal. Also awkward.

The final onlooker was subtle and unsuspecting. It was a teenage boy who gave me a slight upturned smile, which I interrupted as I feel sorry for you and I want you to know that I notice your baby. I was a little bit surprised it came from a teenage boy, not a grown adult.

I suppose this is the beginning of a whole lot of being stared at, studied, felt sorry for, and frustrated with as a result of Nathan.

I get it. I’m a people watcher myself. I love sitting on a park bench or in the mall courtyard watching all of the various people streaming past. I love guessing what’s going on behind the scenes and assume to know all sorts of different things about their stories. The thing is though, you can tell very little about someone’s story just by looking and watching them for a moment in time.

Now I need to learn how to be the watched one. I’m not sure how to do this part well. How to be graceful and truthful. How to share just enough, but not too much. How to be okay with judgement, misunderstanding, and how to respectfully say “We just want to enjoy a dinner as a family at Chick-Fil-A.” I have a five-year-old who is watching me and he doesn’t miss a beat. His memory is a steel trap and he copies how I respond and interact with others. 

I needed canned responses that I can pull out at just the right moment.

Things like…

“It’s okay to ask questions.”

“You don’t have to feel sorry for us. We’re happy.”

“And thank you for noticing both of my kids.”

And then there are times when it’s okay to say nothing and instead smile and pray.

Just this week at karate another mom asked about Nathan’s eye (I’m telling you the patch is a conversation starter). I briefly explained his eye problem. She said, “He’ll be fine. He’s playing normally. As moms we worry, but he’ll be fine. He’ll be fine.”

I instantly thought of this post I read a few weeks ago. What’s the use of saying, “He’s actually not playing normally.” She had unknowingly reopened a wound that still hasn’t fully healed, and I don’t know ever will. Why would I go on to explain in detail every single thing wrong with his brain, heart, kidneys, neurological system, and DNA? It would be a slap in her face to say, “He’s not going to be fine lady.” She was trying to encourage me. I had to choose to smile and pray that God’s full knowledge and understanding of our situation was all I needed in that moment.


Eye patched while eating via his feeding tube at a restaurant. We try to enjoy our meals all together when we can.

The last few years I’ve become so used to people coming up to me in public and striking up a conversation. Mac has those big brown eyes, innocent smile, and an enormous imagination that just invites people into our world. I enjoy how he draws people in. With Nathan however, it’s different. His physical differences may scare people away, and for those who do take the time to engage him, he will likely not give them much of a response. When one child draws people in, the other pushes people away.

It’s going to be messy and complicated. I may have figured out how to use Chick Fil-A to survive my husband being gone for five days, but it’s going to take a lifetime of learning how to mesh the world of Nathan and onlookers. Nathan looks different. From the outside he looks broken. But we are all broken. It’s just that onlookers can’t see all of our cracks and flaws from the outside. There is always more to the story. Although I will never be able to give people a full picture of our lives, I hope I can gracefully share a little bit of the story God is writing into our family. I hope that people will see the truth that although Nathan looks so broken, it doesn’t mean we all aren’t. It’s just that you can see his brokenness, especially at Chick Fil-A. 

Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” – Job 2:10

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21

My book, Beauty in Broken Dreams: A Hopeful Handbook for the Early Years as a Special Needs Parent, is now available on Amazon!

Also be sure to check out my list of Favorite Books on Disability!


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