Olivia has a play date with Andrea and her little brother Vito. Their mom’s sister and their two cousins are visiting from Boston. The cousins are Sarah who is six and five-year-old Lyndsey.
When Andrea opens the front door, Vito and Sarah spring out from behind two large plants, one on either side of the entryway. They are trying (and succeeding) to scare us into screaming.
We troop into the living room where “Titanic” sinks on a large screen TV. Kyle, Andrea’s mom, greets us from the floor where she is keeping a close watch on her younger niece. “This is Lyndsey,” Kyle says, as she pats the little girl on her flip-flopping, ever-moving left hand. Lyndsey’s whole body seems in constant unfocused motion. She lies on the floor writhing, wiggling, rolling her eyes, sometimes hitting the floor, sometimes missing it and swinging her arm in a wide circle above her head. Lyndsey makes sounds but she can’t talk. Olivia stares at her. In her seven years, she’s never met anyone like Lyndsey before. She watches stunned as Kyle pulls a diaper from a nearby bag and changes Lyndsey in full view of everyone. The cousins are quite used to Lyndsey and continue with their games. Olivia joins them but sneaks frequent glances in Lyndsey’s direction. Although Lyndsey can’t play with the kids it is obvious that she loves to be with them. She laughs at their antics. She seems to catch and feel the intensity and excitement of their play — especially the rough and tumble kind.
The front door opens and Nancy, Lyndsey and Sarah’s mom, enters carrying grocery bags. Her arms are full but she dumps everything on the table and quickly goes to smile down on Lyndsey. She caresses Lyndsey’s small body while the child whoops with happiness. Although I never met Nancy before, I feel an instant rapport with her warm and easygoing manner.
After a few minutes of play, Olivia whispers to me that she has to go to the bathroom and that I must come with her. I can see she has something on her mind so I follow obediently. As soon as the door clicks shut, she turns and says, “What’s wrong with Lyndsey?”
“No one has told me,” I say, “but I think she may have cerebral palsy.”
I explain to Olivia that CP is an illness that Lyndsey’s had from the time she was born. It keeps her brain from telling her muscles what to do. The muscles of her body can’t do their jobs like helping her walk, talk, swallow….
“Jump rope?” suggests Olivia. “Do gymnastics? Ride her bike?”
“That’s right,” I say. These are a few of Olivia’s favorite activities.
She looks appalled. “When will she get better?” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “When can she go to the bathroom instead of using a diaper?”
“Honey, I don’t think she ever will get better.”
Olivia turns to wash her hands in the sink. She is plainly not happy with my answer. Before she leaves she pulls my ear down to her, still anxious not to be overheard.
“Mom, will I get sick like her if we play here?”
“No.” I make my voice firm. “No way. What Lyndsey has is not catchy like the flu or chicken pox. We can play here and not worry.”
Olivia seems reassured. She rushes off to play and I join the grownups.
When the groceries are put away, Kyle says, “Who wants to go to the Chinese Buffet for lunch? Raise your hand.”
Everyone raises their hand except Lyndsey who can’t. We suit up for the restaurant. All the children will ride in Nancy’s van. Kyle and I will follow in my car. During the short ride to the Buffet, Kyle confirms that Lyndsey has CP.
“Lyndsey is Nan’s full-time job,” is the only comment she makes other than to tell me that since Lyndsey can’t swallow solid food her mother feeds her baby food by mouth and bottles of formula directly into her stomach by feeding tube.
“It can be a little wierd to watch when you’re not used to it,” says Kyle. “Nan holds the bottle up with one hand and eats with the other. Not your every day sight in a restaurant.”
In the parking lot we help to unpack Lyndsey from her car seat and get her wheelchair ready. Nancy tells us that Lyndsey began to cry on the drive over but the other kids sang “Happy Birthday” to her and it made her feel better. She goes on to explain that “Happy Birthday, dear Lyndsey…” is Lyndsey’s favorite song and can be sung with great sucess all year long.
Vito holds the door for us as we enter the Chinese New Moon Buffet. Sarah and Olivia and Andrea have volunteered to push Lyndsey’s chair but they temporarily abandon her when they see the profusion of gumball machines in the lobby. One of the machines even has Spice Girl gum and Spice Girl stickers in it. It takes a while for all the “No, not before lunches” to be said, and we actually enter the dining room.
The girls return to Lyndsey’s chair and push her past the cash register and a big sign with “Rules for Diners” written on it in thick black Magic Marker. Among the rules are:
1. All food must be eaten on premises.
2. New plate may be used for each return to the buffet table.
3. Don’t take too much and waste!
However, the message at the bottom of the sign seems to encourage pigging out: “You don’t have to count calories with Chinese food!” it declares.
In the center of the huge room is a long buffet-style serving table. Another serving table hugs the wall. That one is for cold salads, cottage cheese, orange slices, melon balls, and cookies. A soft ice cream machine stands to one side of the serving table.
Most of the dining tables are full. The Chinese Buffet is very popular. People love the exotic twist on the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. The first place everyone heads is the center buffet where you can load up on every Chinese dish known to mankind. You take a plate and either paper-wrapped chopsticks or a fork (Our party took both chopsticks and fork although I was the only one who actually unwrapped my chopsticks. The rest went home in Kyle’s purse.). Then you snake along side the buffet choosing from among fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, shrimp, fish, beef, or pork lo mein, chow fun, shrimp toast, pepper steak, and Buffalo wings (Buffalo wings?). On the the far side of the table you’ll be tempted by sweet and sour pork, shrimp subgum, moo gai pan, chicken with garlic sauce. And the soups…sweet and sour, egg drop, wonton, duck noodle, beef noodle, corn chowder and bird’s nest.
I watch Olivia as she follows Andrea’s lead and takes something from every tureen. “Olivia, you don’t even like shrimp!” I remind her. My put-upon daughter rolls her eyes.
“Mom, Andrea took some shrimp and we’re each taking the same thing. We’re going to arrange everything to form a face on our plates. The shrimp are the eyebrows.”
I give her an “ahh, that explains everything” nod and turn my attention to my own plate. I take shrimp too, not because they’re shaped like eyebrows but because I love them.
We choose a long table close to the center buffet. Nancy has settled Lyndsey in her wheelchair at the head of the table and begins opening jars of green and orange baby food. She gets out bottles of formula that are also different colors. As she prepares Lyndsey’s food I watch her playfully kiss the little girl’s forehead, nose, and cheek. Nancy whispers a private joke in her ear and Lyndsey coos with happiness.
A young waiter who doesn’t speak much English, and who’s skinny enough to make us believe that you really don’t have to count calories with Chinese food, rushes up and begins to take our drinks order. He writes nothing down, which impresses us until the drinks actually arrive. Here’s what we order: two iced teas, one coffee, two hot teas, two Sprites, and water all around. Here’s what comes: seven Dr. Peppers. No water.
He is gone in a hail of rapid-fire Chinese before we can get things straightened out. Four-year-old Vito makes everything easier by standing on his chair and yelling, “We don’t want no stinking Dr. Pepper!”
Kyle sits with Lyndsey while Nancy gets her own food. Lyndsey’s head is flip-flopping more than usual as she tries to spot the other children who are running from table to buffet and back again as though they are trying to win at some television game show. They are taking advantage of the as-many-plates as you want policy. Part of the novelty is starting afresh each time. I see Sarah go by with a single noodle on her plate. She later tells me she needed it for hair.
A few minutes into the meal, Vito, Andrea, Olivia, and Sarah have completed their food faces. They giggle as they call out which feature they’ll consume next. “Lets eat his ear,” says Andrea with cannibalistic relish. “Which one?” asks Olivia.
“The left,” cries Sarah, “it’s flavored with wax!” Four left ears vanish in a trice.
“It’s my turn to choose,” says Olivia, “and I pick his nose.”
There is a pause while she considers what she’s just said.
“Hey! Get it? I pick his nose. Pick his nose. Get it?”
I don’t know about the other children, but the older couple at the next table get it. They look squeamish as they turn to stare at this strange cult of face-eaters.
Vito joins the game by declaring that he can’t eat his nose because it’s full of boogers. The girls get hysterical at this remark. And, predictably, the elderly couple push back their chairs. I notice that the woman heads straight for the Ladies room.
Olivia, also predictably, does not eat. She consigns the eyes, ears, and nose of “Food Man” to the area under the lip of her plate. She is found out when our waiter, who we’ve nicknamed Rocky, begins clearing the table of its many dishes. Olivia is indignant and insists that she was “just about to eat that stuff.” Kyle suggests that if anyone is still hungry they should make ice cream cones for dessert.
The children run to the soft ice cream machine located against the far wall. Lyndsey, as usual, does her perpetual motion search as soon as they are out of sight. She tries without success to hold her head still long enough to see where everybody’s gone. When she can’t find them, she starts to cry tears of frustration and perhaps loneliness.
The girls and Vito, lopsided, marshmallowed, sprinkle-dipped cones in hand, soon rush back to the table to cheer her up. They tell loud jokes, make horrible faces, and sing as part of their effort. Vito actually pushes his face into his ice cream cone but Lyndsey is tired and not easily amused.
Rocky arrives, bill in hand, to add to the noise. Kyle is treating but, as she scans the bill, she realizes that Rocky has charged for eight people when only seven had Chinese food. He’s included Lyndsey in the number that chose items from the buffet table. It’s an honest mistake and Kyle explains it to him a tad whimsically: “It wasn’t eight people that ate. Only seven ate,” she says.
Rocky doesn’t get it. English was never his strong suit. Eight, the number, and ate, to have already eaten, proves too much to comprehend. He sticks to his guns.
“Eight people. Eight people. I count. You pay eight people.” He says this more than once.
People begin to turn our way. Nancy now leaves Lyndsey’s side to help Kyle explain things to Rocky. Lyndsey cries louder when her mother leaves her sight. The cheer-up efforts also grow in intensity. Nancy hears the new hysterical note in Lyndsey’s cries and rushes back to her. Kyle is losing patience with Rocky, and Rocky is losing patience with Kyle. He is prepared to dig in on the seven versus eight issue. Kyle bends over the table apparently drawing little stick figure diners. She sketches eight people and drawing a diagonal line through one of them says, “See, seven — that’s how many ate.”
Rocky seizes on the sound of the number he knows so well. “Yes!” he cries. “That how many — eight! I count eight!”
I’m standing in the center of the maelstrom: Lyndsey crying, kids loud, crazy, Kyle and Rocky engaging in the fight of the century, other diners shooting dirty looks. I figure it’s only a matter of time till things come to a head. They do and that head turns out to be Nancy’s. She rushes over to Kyle and Rocky and shouts, “That’s enough you two! Stop it.”
They fall silent and so do Andrea, Vito, Sarah and Olivia. Only Lyndsey’s sobs are still being hurled into the silence. Nancy turns to Rocky.
“Look at her, will you? Please just look at her. My daughter’s name is Lyndsey.”
Nancy doesn’t yell, scream or cry, but her effect on Rocky is profound. He raises his eyes and looks straight at the child in the wheelchair. For several seconds he does not move as he seems to absorb the feeding tube, the flailing body, the jars of baby food. Then without a word he takes the bill, leans over the table, and changes it. He hands it to Kyle and whispers to himself, “I see. I know. Only seven… ate.” Then he walks away.
No one moves for a second and then we begin to gather our things. Kyle goes to the cash register to pay. Nancy begins packing Lyndsey’s stuff. I help the kids with their coats and hand out quarters for the gumball gauntlet we are about to run. The diners around us, some sympathetic, some angry, return to their private murmers and movements.
Then, as though one of us had just put money in an imaginary, fairy godmother jukebox, the resturant sound system, which has been pouring a kind of Montovani, Melachrino musak all over our lunch, suddenly issues forth with a Philaharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, classical music version of “Happy Birthday” . How about that? Lyndsey’s favorite song as written by Ludwig von Beethoven! We race back to her laughing out loud at the coincidence. Lyndsey, looking as though this were some well-timed plot hatched by her cousins to entertain her, screams with delight. We sing to her and by the end of the second time through many of the other diners are singing too. I look around to see if it is actually anyone’s birthday but can find no sign of cake, candles, wrappings, or bows. The beautiful Lyndsey has stopped crying and is singing her own version of the song while, ironically and much to Vito’s annoyance, Nancy has begun to sob quietly. “We don’t need no more stinking crying!” he states emphatically.
The lady restaurant manager, taking advantage of everyone’s renewed good spirits and probably under the impression it really is Lyndsey’s birthday, rushes over with a load of fortune cookies to eat on the way home.
When Kyle and I arrive at her house and pull in behind the van, Andrea comes over to tell me that Olivia, because she’s the guest, had gotten to read Lyndsey’s fortune and eat her cookie. Olivia rereads the fortune to us: “You are Loved. No fooling!” it says. No fooling.
As I prepare dinner that evening I watch the news on the small kitchen TV. All at once I see the front of a familiar restaurant appear on the screen. The anchor accompanies the picture with the story of illegal Asian immigrants who have entered the country from Canada and are working at the Chinese New Moon Buffet in Grand Union Plaza.
As I watch, a line of young Asian men emerge from the restaurant and are herded into a police van. Each man is handcuffed. The anchor reports that the men will be deported in the next several days and the restaurant fined for hiring them illegally. I marvel when I think of the fortune in my own cookie earlier in the day: “Stalling could sour your fantasy — start that travel adventure!”
At the end of the line of handcuffed young men, I recognize our waiter, Rocky. His face is somber as he looks at the ground, his cuffed hands folded before him as though he were praying. The camera shows him stumble as he tries to climb the steps of the van, and I’m reminded suddenly of a visit to Ellis Island in New York a few years ago. A tour guide showing us a recreated dormitory in the museum told us, as part of his narrative, that many immigrants hanged themselves with bedsheets when they found out they would be sent back to their old country. I whisper “Bon Voyage” to Rocky and wish I could call him by his real name.