Patty and I found our pre-assigned seats and sunk into the plush leather, with Max sandwiched between us. Despite the exorbitant ticket price, this posh new cinema was completely full. I studied those around us searching for a smile, which is the gold star sticker of acceptance. But no one seemed to notice Max. As we sat waiting for the film I marveled that we could be part of this audience, sitting like everyone else enjoying Christmas with their families. We became something bigger than just us; we were a school of fish moving together in unity, gliding through the deep blue. Max’s eyes darted around the room, his pupils like black pools as the lights dimmed.
“Don’t worry if Max gets anxious in the beginning of the movie,” I whispered to my step-mom Patty. “He needs a few minutes to adjust, and then he loves it.” I felt a little rush of pride come over me, with a desperate hope that it would actually work. Sitting at the movies is one of our hard-earned victories. But after 23 years, I know that life with autism is predictably unpredictable. I clutched my bag under my arm, with Max’s teddy bear peeking out of the top just like the Hollywood starlets carry their Chihuahuas.
The first preview started with eardrum-breaking volume. “I want to go home!” Max shrieked as he folded over his ears. I leaned in quickly, knowing the drill. “It’s ok Max. Our movie will start in a minute. This will stop.” Just as Max was about to completely unravel, our great green friend appeared like an angel on the screen, but with the potential for warts. It was Kermit, as big as a house. Max’s face relaxed, “The Muppet movie!” Max cried out in a jubilant voice that carried unfortunately well with the fine acoustics of the theater. “And Fozzy Bear!” Max laughed nearly slapping his knee. It was apparent that, despite their best efforts, these felt puppets were not bringing joy to the rest of the audience. I leaned into Max and pointed to our movie theater rules. “Whisper voice,” I reminded him.
Finally our feature started, and once again the change startled Max. “I want to go home!” His voice cracked across the silent theater.
But he was quickly drowned out.
“Are you going to make him be quiet?” The older woman next to Patty exploded with aggravation.
Patty leaned toward her and explained, “He is autistic and…”
“I know he is,” the woman shot back as she lunged forward and pounded on her chest. “But why should the rest of us have to suffer.”
“If you don’t make him be quiet,” her husband shouted, “I’m calling the manager!”
I desperately needed an oxygen mask to drop from the ceiling. I couldn’t breath. There in 3D surround sound, my own horror movie began to play.
I threw my hand up toward them in a stop motion. It works for policemen. And I desperately, achingly, wanted it to stop. “Ok. Ok,” I said. “Just give us a minute.” It takes both great finesse and a forklift for Max to leave quickly. My heart leapt into my throat as if it were trying to make an escape before the rest of us. At another time I might have defended our right to be there, but I could hear a strange rumbling of underground thunder. After a minute of dust-flinging commotion, Max stood up beside me, with Patty soon to follow.
And the thunder grew louder.
It was applause for our exit. It was the sound of an angry mob chasing us away with their jeers and taunts.
“And don’t come back,” I heard as we slowly made our way down the stairs in the dark.
I tried to block Max from the view of the crowd, my every step labored, detached, brittle. I wanted to throw my arms around Max to remind him, and everyone else, of just how deeply he is loved. But I couldn’t make my arms work. As we neared the exit, passing center stage, I heard a voice from the back of the theater. It was a man shouting over the thunder of the crowd like a crack of lightening.
I lost all bearings. I even lost track of watching Max. I stopped and turned toward the sea of faces lit up by the screen behind me. They were colorless, floating, with their little fish eyes watching our every move. The movie must have been showing on top of my silhouette. I don’t know if they could see my hand clutching over my heart, my chest heaving for a breath. I tried to squeak something out, but a Boa constrictor had wrapped itself around my throat. I had to find some kind of answer to such cruelty, some memorable response to wash this away.
“There is a lesson here,” I began as I forced my tiny voice forward fearing the movie sound track would suddenly drown me out. “A lesson that is so much more important than anything you will learn from this movie.”
I turned back toward the exit, my arms and legs stiff like metal rods. But just as we were about to walk out, the voice from the back of the room struck again.
“Merry Christmas!” he called to us sarcastically. It was a kick in the back on our way out the door, a final deathblow meant for purely perverse entertainment.
I looked back up at the crowd once more. The little girl in me wanted to storm up those stairs and throw over the monopoly board. Fortunately the grown-up part of me was numb. Plus, I knew I was outnumbered. Just minutes ago, I was a card-carrying member of this audience. And sadly, despite everything that would speak to the contrary, despite my desperate desire for it to be untrue, I knew I still was. I shuddered at the truth of it, at the vile potential of every human heart. Including my own. And then came the strangest sense of clarity, the tiniest bit of perfect peace.
It was a nudge of truth from the Holy Spirit. Even as I share this story with you days later, I feel it. Christmas…when God sent his only Son into the angry lynch mob of the world that groans with self-serving demands and cruelty and hate, to bring us light in our darkness. To bring us healing for our utterly disabled souls. To save us from ourselves – something we cannot do. I couldn’t wait to get my son out of there. But Christmas…Christmas is when God, in his lavish love for us, chose to send his only Son right into this carnage. Christmas is God’s answer to the evil in every human heart.
We stood just a step from the theater exit, my chance for the last word. With my hand still clutching my chest, I scraped up every shred of kindness I could pull together in my fragile splintered self, and breathed words of hope back to the audience, and to myself.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered.
And the words spilled around us like a little pool of light.
“In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.”