Ordered Chaos

*Disclaimer and warning: Do not read if you are easily offended. There is nothing admirable in the words that follow. My parenting skills are abhorrently MIA, and my actions are questionable at best. There is no point, no glimmering lesson. It is simply a stark, bare naked sliver of reality, written mainly for me. It is ludicrously and embarrassingly vulnerable. Everything in me questions why I write, and I will waffle back and forth on whether or not to share. Yet, as always, the words of Joan Didion come to mind, “Was it by writing or dreaming that I could know what I think?”

As such, I write to make sense of life’s chaos, to attempt to understand all that remains nonsensical until pen is put to paper or fingers to keyboard, and because I know that if I don’t get this out, it will stay in, and fester and rot. So, I muse and ramble, type and delete until I can start breathing freely again, until something clicks, until clarity emerges from the fog, until my words take on a life of their own and randomly stumble upon something that resembles sanity. I write because I don’t know what else to do or to whom else to talk. And I suppose a small part of me hopes to connect with others who feel the same way. With love…

August 7, 2022, a.m.

Today is the kind of day that makes you happy to be alive. The air is cool and the sun warm, and there’s not a cloud to be seen in the sky. My hair is poking out of a hat in a messy bun, and I’m wearing a broken-in pair of cut-offs and boots. Feeling very ME, I practically float down our dirt hill, excited to get started on my morning work.

I spend the first few hours clearing copious amounts of the previous homeowner’s leftover junk from our stable, along with layers upon layers of hardened mouse and bird droppings. Outside, Grayson and Reagan take turns bush-whacking the waist-high weeds. After I feel satisfied with the inside of the stable, I begin digging up old stumps and dragging them into a pile on the side of our road. Dusty snot pours from my nose, and sweat trickles down my brow. I pause for a moment—wiping them both on my shirt—grateful for my body’s ability to accomplish the strenuous work.

After accumulating a significant pile of wood, I hop into our skid-steer to begin hauling the wood up the hill, where Arin—upon his return from Texas—will eventually chop it up to be burned in the winter.

But Grayson has other plans.

“Why don’t we clean out the sides of Daddy’s shop for his birthday?” he inquires.

I agree, touched by his thoughtfulness, and fire up the skid-steer just like Arin recently taught me and maneuver it (fairly) smoothly up our road to the roll-off dumpster. Up top, I pause to snap a thumbs-up selfie for my parents and sisters. Guess who’s driving the skid-steer? I caption the photo, followed by a wide-eyed yellow emoji.

Guess who’s driving the skid-steer?

“Grayson, take a picture for Gramma and Bop,” I command, and as he hands my phone back to me, I busy myself sending proof of my newly acquired skill.

That’s where I slip up. I forget my own number rule regarding my son: Never let your guard down.

Having secured his work gloves, Grayson begins dragging over long metal poles cemented in five-gallon buckets. He has planned to place them in the scoop of the skid-steer for me to hoist into the dumpster. I watch out of the corner of my eye as he successfully—and carefully—heaves one bucket into the scoop and then two. But by the third, he is growing frustrated and tosses the bucket a little too hard. I watch, horrified, as the metal pole bounces off the back of the scoop and—as if in slow motion—heads straight toward his eye, backed by the weight of five gallons of concrete.

Instantly, Grayson is on the ground as his gushing blood colors the dirt a rusty shade of brown. With no other clean item nearby, I tear off my shirt and press it to his eye as he screams and thrashes in resistance. Oddly enough, he keeps pushing past me to reach for his foot while angrily cursing our dog. Confused, I look around and finally realize that our dog—assuming I was being attacked—had sunk her teeth into Grayson’s flailing foot.

Chaos ensues. A ripped-off shoe is hurled at the dog, followed by a flurry of rocks, set free from Grayson’s trembling fist. I pin him to the ground as he repeatedly tries to lunge for the dog while threatening to kill her. Finally, after a brief moment of struggling, Reagan arrives, bearing ice and clean rags, then secures the dog in the shop. Grayson peels off his sock as a fresh wave of panic overtakes him upon viewing his multiple lacerations.

Long story short, by the time I get him to the house, his wounds are already coagulating, and I suppose it’s safe enough to remain home and avoid yet another trip to the ER.

Allowing myself a deep exhale, I sit back on my heels and breathe a prayer of gratitude. Considering the weight that had just rocketed a metal pole towards Grayson’s eye, it dawns on me that if that pole had struck just half an inch lower, Grayson would have almost certainly lost his eye.

Major crisis averted, I situate him on the couch with a few bags of ice and return outside to finish my work. But the internal reminder was not lost: When you let down, bad things happen.

August 8, 2022, p.m.

A day and a half post-injury, Grayson attends his first cross-country practice at his new school with a lump on his head and a few bandaids on his foot and runs three miles.

Afterward, he bursts through the door, excited to see Rylee, his older sister, who is visiting for a few days before leaving for college. They start wrestling, and she inadvertently flings him backward onto the couch, where, before landing, he smashes the back of his head on the edge of a sharp-cornered windowsill. Once again, he clutches his head and begins screaming, and once again, the dog moves—barking fiercely—to protect me. But Rylee heads her off and locks her up, and instead of gushing blood, I find only a sizable linear knot. Soon enough, the tears and screams subside to a nervous, then raucous laughter as we all celebrate his “good luck.”

August 9, 2022, p.m.

Grayson has successfully completed his second cross-country practice with significantly fewer nerves, and Reagan, her second volleyball practice at the new school. Moods and endorphins are running high, and it seems like a good night for a bottle of wine.

I am in the liquor store only long enough to pay for a bottle of Kitchen Sink Red Blend, but the second I walk out the door, I instinctively understand something is wrong. The front seat is empty, and there’s a jumbled heap of commotion taking place in the back. In a second, I’ve gingerly placed the bottle of wine on my car’s floorboard and hurled myself into the backseat on top of Grayson, who is lying face-up on Reagan’s lap, fingers firmly entangled in her hair. I can smell the humid salt—they’ve been tousling long enough to break a sweat—and there’s blood on Grayson’s shirt, his hand, Reagan’s face.

“What in the hell are you doing?” I demand to know as I squeeze the sides of his fists to loosen his grip and inch them closer to Reagan’s head, hoping to alleviate a portion of her pain. We meet eyes—hers are water- and rage-filled—and we are all a pile of tangled bodies fighting against each other, for each other, and ourselves.

Several curious onlookers wander by wordlessly, and I urgently plead, “Grayson, someone is going to call the police. Think about what you’re doing. You can stop this.”

When the struggle only intensifies, I realize my words are falling upon deaf ears, and I grow increasingly desperate, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you doing this? Stop now, or I’m driving back to the school, and you can explain your behavior to your new coach.”

Reagan’s head jerks back, her hair falls limply around her damp face, and I realize Grayson has released her from his grasp. I motion her from the car with a jerk of my head while maintaining a tight grip on him. Slowly, I move him from the vehicle, where he immediately hops in the front seat—his face blank and overly calm.

“It’s over,” he tells me flatly, “We can go home now.”

“No way,” I push back, breathing hard. “There’s no way you’re going to treat your sister like that, then hop back in the front seat like everything is fine. Sit in the trunk of the 4Runner. I want you as far away from Reagan as possible.”

“Nope,” he replies, and I know he means it. “I refuse. I’ll sit here all night.”

(More curious onlookers, more wondering eyes.)

“Then I’m walking back to the school to get your coach,” I tell him, knowing that I’m lying, wondering if he’ll call my bluff.

He wavers for a short minute, then concedes and jumps in the trunk, slamming the door behind him.

That was easy, I think. Too easy. And I know—we’re in for a long ride home.

I lay out the rules: his back must remain flat against the back seat and his arms at his side. If I even think he’s coming over the back seat to hurt Reagan, I will throw the car in park in the middle of the road and fly over my chair to meet him. I will protect my daughter, I let him know, and I hope he understands that I mean it.

He’s quiet—the bad kind of quiet—and I know from experience that he’s plotting. My brain, also, is spinning and whirring, frantically trying to figure out how to stay one step ahead of his. Last week, he locked us out of the house and threw her cat from the second-story balcony (fortunately she landed in a bush), and I know if I take him back home, he’ll do something along the same vein.

Both Reagan and I are on high alert but are attempting to act casual by sneakily watching his every move in the rear-view mirror. He spins and, in one swift movement, grabs a phone charger from the back seat and repositions himself in the trunk facing us.

“I’ll whip you,” he growls menacingly, phone cord raised in the air.

I know I have to avoid a physical altercation while driving, so—grasping for straws—I try to hit him where it will most hurt.

“Grayson, you’re almost an adult now,” I inform him, “and as such, I’ve decided to charge you $200 for hurting your sister. If you choose to continue, the fine will increase.”

He testily flings and retracts the phone charger, and I screech to a halt on the side of the road.

“I’m counting to five, and that cord needs to be placed gently on the seat, or the fine will jump to $500. One, two, three….”

The charger lands with a soft thump on the backseat, and I snatch it up and continue driving.

His shenanigans continue for the duration of the twenty-five-minute car ride. I pull over, threaten, resolve, and resume.

As we near the house, I whisper to Reagan, “Get out of the car quickly when we pull up to our drive and walk home. I’m going to keep driving with him; I can’t bring him home yet. I won’t have reception, so I’ll just be home whenever I can.”

She moves her hand slowly to the door, and I imperceptibly shake my head. “I don’t want him catching on. Lower your hand.”

I loudly ask her to check the mail as we roll into our dirt driveway for appearance’s sake, then peel out as soon as her door latches shut.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Grayson demands. Then, when he realizes I have no intention of stopping, he lets loose with a stream off innovation, “Stop the car, you fuck-bitch-hole!”

Now he’s flying from the trunk and grabbing a handful of my hair, just like he used to do when he was a toddler. Years later, I find myself—yet again—held fast to the headrest, but without any other children to help.

Eyes ablaze, I challenge him, “Rip it out, I dare you. Pull harder, so I can show your dad my bald spot when he gets home!”

Grayson relaxes his grip slightly, and I break-check him. His unbuckled body slams against the back of my seat, and his hand flies from my hair to brace himself.

“Keep your hands off me,” I warn him to no avail. Immediately, his hands wind their way through my hair once more.

I tell him I’m driving all the way to Texas to see his dad. Partially, I’m bluffing. Partially, I’m not. I’ve got no reception and don’t know how long it will be until if find some. I have no earthly idea what I’m going to do, but I know I can’t stop, and I know I can’t go home.

“TURN AROUND!” he bellows, his voice shaking with rage.

I ignore him, then feel from the direction of my hair that he’s reaching toward the ground.

Click, click, click. I recognize the sound of one of our many black gel pens.

“Turn around, or I’ll stab you in the arm until you die,” he warns.

“THEN FUCKING DO IT!” I scream at the top of my lungs, already burning with shame over my lost temper and choice words.

He considers, then resorts to yanking my hair even harder, and so we continue for the better part of fourteen miles—him grabbing my hair, me pulling over and telling him to get out and walk home, him opening the door then shutting it again.

Now, the sky is rapidly darkening, and I weigh out my options—none of them good. At one point in our insane routine, Grayson calls my bluff and gets out of the car and starts marching straight up a mountain, determinedly disappearing into the trees.

Frantic, I resign and yell out the only words that I know will bring him back. “Fine, I’ll drive you home.”

Instantly, he whips around and walks back toward the car, triumphant. My goal is to get him home safely and keep everyone else safe, so I speak to him through a crack in the window and a locked door between us. 
“Here’s the deal,” I tell him, “I’ll take you home IF you go straight to your room and go straight to bed. If there is a single threat, if you run away, ANYTHING at all, I will call your dad immediately and tell him he has to quit his job and drive right home.” (Another bluff).

He agrees, and I pass my daughters on the way home. They’re driving to look for us. I order him to stay put while I pull over at our mailbox and fill them in on the plan. Surprisingly, he complies. “Stay in the car with doors locked until I make sure Grayson’s calm,” I tell them. “Then lock yourself in my room until he falls asleep.”

Instead, they drive to the top of our hill to wait, and just as I hear Grayson’s shower running, I receive a text: The elk are out. Come up!

Beyond the point of caring what Grayson does or doesn’t do, I grab a sweatshirt and walk out the back door. On second thought, I return for the bottle of wine I’d left in my car.

I climb the hill as the sun is setting to find my daughters, their faces radiant with excitement as if it were Christmas Eve. “Hurry, mama,” they whisper, “the elk are getting close!”

We pile into Rylee’s car and roll—silently as possible—to the top of the hill, where close to fifty mama and baby elk are peacefully grazing. Rylee puts the car in park, and we shimmy out open windows to perch on her doors. The moon is shining white and bright behind my oldest daughter, backlighting her head like an angel’s. I open the bottle of wine and uncharacteristically pass it around—even to fourteen-year-old Reagan. Besides the fact that my level of give-a-shit has hit bottom, the moment feels sacred, and the wine seems only right. There’s a small cut on Reagan’s cheek, and her eye is slightly swollen. My hair is disheveled, with multiple strands potentially missing.

Regardless, the struggle has bonded us, and an unspoken intimacy passes between us. In time, Reagan laughs aloud and begins regaling Rylee with tales from the night, “You should have heard how psycho mom sounded when Grayson threatened to come over the seat…”

We sip and giggle as the night sky darkens and the elk silently fade away into the tree line.

Despite the last two hours, I can’t imagine feeling happier, and at that moment, everything in the world seems right.

August 10, 2022 3:30 a.m.

I wake up sweating and anxious, recalling the night before. I’ve been through this enough to know that trying to go back to sleep is futile, so—wrapping myself in a robe—I arise and step out onto my bedroom balcony.

It is the first cloudless night I’ve witnessed since we’ve moved here, and I lean back in my chair, blown away by the sight. Besides the distinctly twinkling stars I’m accustomed to, I behold Jupiter and Mars and clusters and swirls of what I can only imagine being other galaxies. I’m transported to another world, and I sit in the stark silence, watching as one star shoots across the sky, then another.

After an hour, I decide that Rylee simply must see this, so I rouse her from a deep sleep and summon her to my balcony. We sit together in the same wordless silence, and she pulls out her phone to identify constellations with her app—Taurus, Orion’s Belt, and others she can’t pronounce. By the time the horizon is brightening, we’ve seen over twenty shooting stars.

As one exceptionally brilliantly dying star leaves its last blazing trail, I speak my thoughts aloud, “From here, a shooting star is over so quickly, and it looks so simple. But can you imagine what it would be like to witness it up close? It would be so loud and turbulent—nothing like how it appears from the earth.”

I sit, pondering this thought in light of our own preceding chaos. Up close, it all feels scary, turbulent, loud, and violent. But in the big scheme of life, it’s a mere shooting star, a short dash of light in the night sky. Blink, and it’s gone.

So, too, will be my life—chaos and all. It will flicker and burn out. It will be turbulent, chaotic, and catastrophic. It will also be peaceful, graceful, and brilliant. It will be everything, it will be nothing, but it will be mine.

I sit alone, long after Rylee has gone back to bed, and the words ordered chaos come to mind. Not a star falls from the sky without our Creator’s allowance, and I reckon, this is a God I can trust.

Like every other shooting star, my chaos is ordered, it is allowed, and it is for my benefit.

I spend the wee hours of the morning finding solace under this starry blanket of ordered disorder. I’ve heard what people think of my life from afar—I’m put-together, patient, and kind. But I know what my life looks like up close. It’s ugly, embarrassing, messy, spur-of-the-moment flying by the seat of my pants. It’s ALSO breathtakingly beautiful with wine-filled moonlit nights, bugling elk, and giggling girls.

Life is all of the above. I’m all of the above. And that, I suppose, is rather glorious.

Donning the Sacred Faded Polo

Here is Grayson, my sixteen-year-old Autistic son, on his second day of work. No, he’s not the kid sitting on the stool with the blurred face. He’s the one hiding behind the white “Skip the Line” sign. A family friend has entered the movie theater, so Grayson has ducked out of sight until she has gone.

“It was natural,” he later explains, shrugging indifferently, and then I have to explain why it was not.

“How would you feel if you walked into a theater and the person who was supposed to be taking your ticket hid from you?” I ask.

“It would be weird,” he snickers with a raised eyebrow (as if speaking to a moron), and then sloowwly connects the dots. “Ohhhhhh, I see,” he replies, freshly enlightened, “It’s weird to hide from people when you’re working.”

After a long belly-laugh ending in tears, I take a serious moment to reflect on the significance of the day. My son – the one I never expected to live past his fifth birthday due to an apparent affinity for darting into traffic, the one I had to peel off my leg all the way through grade school, the one who still follows me and talks nonstop through locked bathroom doors – that kid applied for a job two weeks before his sixteenth birthday just because “it felt right.” That kid walked into the theater for his interview ALONE because “it would be weird” if I came with him. That kid – the one who hasn’t worn anything but sweat pants with elastic waistbands since, well, basically forever – donned a pair of slacks with a little silver clasp and a button (that he still struggles to fasten), and wore them without complaining, simply because “that’s what you do when you have a job.” And that kid, who has only recently been allowed to stay home alone, walked into his first day of work by himself, without even a backward glance, because, “well, not to be mean, but you might embarrass me.”

Never have I ever so welcomed that well-worn phrase from one of my teenagers.

Several weeks prior, I sat through his four-hour orientation (so I, too, am technically qualified to work at the Metrolux). Grayson had never done anything of the sorts without me, and I wasn’t sure whether he’d bolt through the front doors in a rage, the way he’s done so many schoolyears prior. I squirmed in my seat when the topic of sexual harassment was brought up in the cheesy 1980s training film. Even at sixteen, Grayson has no clue about the birds and bees, and as far as he knows, the word “sex” simply refers to gender. Onscreen, a perverted manager with a thick, caterpillar mustache scooted a young employee out of his way by grabbing hold of her waist and murmuring a sultry “excuse me” in her ear. The scene closed with a deep-voiced narration, “To be safe in the workplace, just keep your hands to yourself.”

Shortly after, we found ourselves in the projection room. Grayson, an avid movie buff, was geeking out over witnessing the inner workings of a theater, and I watched my son (who has ZERO spatial awareness) squeeze through the crowd for a better view. He sidestepped, hands held high above his head as if pressed up against a building on a narrow ledge, and his motions struck me as odd. I had never seen him work so hard to avoid knocking into people. Soon enough, he worked his way back to me in the same awkward manner and loudly whispered in my ear, “Mom, I tried real hard not to do sexual harassment. Did I do good?”

His innocence often overwhelms me, simultaneously revealing everything that is right in this world – and also missing. He possesses a purity long-lost and buried, and I deeply aspire to his level of simplicity.

I watch him get ready on his first day of work. He has planned his whole day around his three-hour shift. Taking no less than four showers, he eats promptly at 2:45 (to avoid getting hungry), then takes yet another shower at 3:15, and remains locked in his room until exactly 3:30. I call to him at 3:29, but he refuses to budge – I had said we would leave at 3:30, he informs me, and 3:30 means 3:30, not 3:29. He speaks in that same voice of disdain, implying my ignorance. Once in the car, he enters the address on his phone and proceeds to rush me the whole way, conceding that maybe I know what I’m doing when we arrive at 3:55 – precisely on time.

I sit in the car long after the double metal doors swallow him up. The lump in my throat makes me feel like I just dropped off my preschooler at work. What if he needs me? What if he gets scared? What if he has to use the restroom and can’t rebutton his pants? Will he remember to cover his mouth if he coughs? Wash his hands? I call my husband to confirm whether it’s safe to leave, then slowly roll out of the parking lot, looking back over my shoulder several times. I fully expect to see Grayson chasing after me, wildly waving his arms, flagging me down because he’s changed his mind as he’s so often prone to do. But those double doors remain shut until 7:01, exactly one minute after his shift ends.

Grayson plods to the car, feet dragging and head hung low, while the apprehension rises in my chest. Has someone been cruel? Does he hate it? Is he going to get in the car and EXPLODE? I brace myself for the worst and he hoists himself into my 4Runner, buckling up without a word. I begin firing questions as fast as I dare, knowing full-well how overwhelmed he is feeling.

Me: So, how was it?

Him: Fine.

Me: Were you nervous?

Him: No. But my legs were shaking for some reason.

Me: Was the person who trained you nice?

Him: Yeah. His name was Joe. He gave me knuckles and told me to try to speak clearly.

Me: (breathing a silent prayer of gratitude for Joe)

Him: I did what you said, mom. I tried real hard to make eye contact with everyone. But I’m pretty tired now so I’m just going to not talk for a while.

Me: (with hot tears swelling in my eyes) Okay, buddy, that’s fine. You did great. I’m so proud.

We arrive home, and he walks straight to his room where he hangs up his uniform. I’ve never seen anyone take so much pride in a faded burgundy polo. He places it centrally in his closet, where it won’t touch another shirt – he doesn’t want it to get dirty. I observe, more fully understanding the meaning of “sacred.”

Several days later, I text his elementary, middle school, and high school teachers, “Grayson recently started his first job. I never thought we would see the day and never would have without your help. His victory is all of ours. Truly, it takes a village…”

There have been many days that I’ve felt like ducking behind a sign to avoid seeing someone I know, so I stand amused and amazed at the audaciously authentic life my son dares to live. There have been weeks I’ve struggled with motivation – lingering in my elastic-waisted sweat pants far too long – and feel inspired by the way Grayson innately knows when it’s time to put on a pair of button-up slacks and get to work. And there have been seasons when it’s been hard to look people in the eye because of the emptiness I feel inside. Yet I am in awe of the way my autistic son forces himself to meet a stranger’s gaze and feel even more humbled by his honestly – how he openly admits when he’s tired and needs a moment to sit in silence.

I can’t quite get past the shock of Grayson’s first job. It holds within it the shimmering promise of normalcy I’d surrendered so long ago. Hope floods in, replacing my fearful “what ifs” with possibilities, and I wonder, “What if he’s able to get married someday? What if he can learn to drive? What if he is capable of living independently?”

I marvel at the invisible timeline that resides within Grayson – the way he just knows when the timing seems right, the way he marches forward without looking back. Furthermore, I marvel at the One who has instilled such an unknowable way of knowing within my son. I feel inspired to trust beyond my small way of thinking, to see farther than my limited line of sight. For, how much more will He, who nurtures the sparrows and lilies of the field, care for my son with His tender-loving mercy?

I will cherish this photo of Grayson forever. Whereas I initially saw a boy humorously cowering behind a sign, I now see a man-in-the-making – one who is courageous enough to try, to step out, lift his gaze, speak clearly, fumble with buttons, and risk being laughed at. I see one far nobler than I: my sixteen-year-old man-child, just striving to be worthy of a faded burgundy polo.

.

Bearded Delicacies and Midair Suspension

Photo by Robert Goldenowl on Pexels.com

I sit in my pajamas on a cold, metal chair. This particular chair contains more holes than metal, so my flesh presses awkwardly through thin material, bulging and filling all the spaces the metal is not. This chair sits on a hotel balcony that hangs, cantilevered, six stories above ground level — five stories too high for my liking. I keep the back of my hole-y chair pressed tight against the sliding door behind me. 

From my perch in the air, I observe workers plodding about in neon yellow construction vests, their steel-toed boots tamping new ruts into freshly churned earth. They hoist awkward sheets of plywood onto miniature-looking backs, then rhythmically begin the trek to retrace their steps — one-two, one-two. They shuffle to the beat of an unknown drum — back and forth, back and forth. Eventually, the piles of plywood grow. So much effort, so little to show. 

As I monitor their progress, a burly brute of a man grabs the handle of an excavator, and in one fluid motion, leaps from soil to seat. He is as light on his feet as a dainty ballerina, and I humorously imagine the effort it would require for me to do the same. When he pokes at buttons and pulls on levers, the massive digger roars to life — a robotic extension of his beefy frame. It spins and pirouettes, then delicately taps on concrete as if cracking a fragile egg. Eventually, the cement fractures and splits, but the two halves cling stubbornly, still bound to each other by a measly strand of rebar. With tremendous patience, his steel fingers separate one portion from another, with the tenderness of a mother prying toddler from toy. After a great deal of cajoling, the concrete relents. Two weary pieces allow themselves to be scooped up in his metal bucket, and are in turn, gently tucked into the dusty bed of a gigantic dump truck. Something about this combination — so strongly masculine, yet deeply feminine — moves me, and I close my eyes in search of a thought that refuses to materialize. I press the flanks of my back further into metal chair-holes and continue to watch in awe. 

High overhead, a nylon canvas is stretched round and bulbous. It drifts, striped and colorful — a floating big-top in the sky. The words “WILD WEST” are printed in bold, capital letters, and an open-top basket dangles precariously beneath. Bodies with dot-sized heads bob about, their nearly invisible arms of thread enthusiastically pointing out miniature landmarks below. The balloon fires and rises in the cool morning air, and I envision myself aboard such a flight. I’d undoubtedly curl myself in the roundest of balls and stuff my trembling body tight in a corner. My scrunched-up eyes would be begging, willing the ride to end. No, never would I ever. 

The awe within me stirs, swells, and manifests in hot, pooling tears. What intelligence of humanity has enabled us to soar in a basket at two thousand feet, suspended by nylon, fueled by flame? What brilliance has allowed such morning contemplations, from a balcony six stories above the earth, constructed from earth’s elements — thine own of thine own? For that matter, what genius has made it possible for me to recline a mere twenty-two inches in the air, supported by a metal chair mostly riddled with holes? 

I consider the controlled delicacy of a twenty-five-ton excavator that maneuvers with precision beneath the calloused hand of a bearded, pot-bellied operator, whose maternal patience currently far exceeds my own. I think of the colony of vested laborers, carving tedious, monotonous treads to put another meal on the table, to pay off one more bill. Day in and day out, they survive the mundane — perhaps the most admirable trait of all.

I feel humbled and overwhelmed. Subtle greatness surrounds me in a world full of ironies where solid matter floats, fueled by an invisible heat lighter than air. Masculinity and femininity collide in a solid chunk of metal, in a roughly bearded man — then lightly pirouette and begin to dance.  Concrete foundations are cracked like an egg with the flick of a human wrist, and I sit effortlessly suspended six stories in the air on a concrete balcony in a metal chair full of holes. I am held by nothing, by everything, and miracles engulf me. 

Finally, a question emerges and the meaning grows clear: how do I live more days — floating free, suspended, and held — rather than curled up in a ball, eyes squeezed shut tight, willing the ride to be over? 

Broken Ribs, Homeless Boys, Police, and Self-Doubt

Photo by Ryanniel Masucol on Pexels.com

Monday, my dad slipped on the ice at our house and broke four ribs. Tuesday evening, my husband and I were winding down in the hot tub after a long day, and when we got out, we couldn’t find Grayson – our fifteen-year-old autistic son. As we were searching the house and property, our daughter called. Her voice sounded hot and quivery. Are you missing anything?! Because the police found Grayson wandering around the Walmart parking lot – barefoot and in his robe. He stowed away in my trunk, and now he’s pretending he doesn’t know me, and he’s saying he’s a homeless boy. I’m so embarrassed. Mom, what if that lady didn’t call? What if I never knew he was there and left him behind? (silent sniffles)

For once (Hallelujah!), Grayson didn’t run from the police, and they didn’t chase him. The two officers were so amazingly wonderful and let our daughter assume the lead role. My husband and I jumped in our car and drove to Walmart, reasoning with Grayson over speaker phone the whole way. Eventually, I was able to talk him down, and he peaceably walked back to my daughter’s car to wait for our arrival. The situation was resolved easily enough without traumatizing restraint, arrest, or catastrophe.

Yesterday, I got another call from the local police over a matter still ongoing and too personal to share. It left me reeling and struggling to breathe. That one will take a bit longer to get over. The issue was turned over to the Sheriff and Child Protective Services, and I found myself once again staring at my phone all day, waiting for “the call.”

All that in three days.

Now it’s 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, and I’m sitting down to work on my memoirs for the first time this week. I’ve lost three days of writing and only have a short one today due to a brainstorming meeting at Grayson’s school. Thoughts swirl in my head alongside the chaos, making it impossible to hear the quiet voice inside. How am I supposed to write about the previous mess of my life while still currently living in its midst? Self-doubt swoops in and consumes my motivation. What were you thinking? Who do you think you are? You can’t write a book. It’s impossible. You suck. This is too much.

I have no good answers today, and I lack the energy to engage. Maybe it’s true, I say to myself, but quitting is not an option.

I write a quick blog to clear my mind, then open my memoir to plod ahead. Maybe it won’t be any good, maybe I’ll never get published. But I’ll certainly never know unless I try…

There by the grace of God, go I.

On The Need to Feel Normal When Nothing is Normal

An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and an essay on special needs parenting:

“In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to eke out only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. Fate not only disabled him but laid a double-tiered barrier in his path. He was also proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect. Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t lame.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in to find a strange man and woman (Uncle Willie said later they were schoolteachers from Little Rock) drinking Dr Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me, like an alarm clock that had gone off without being set.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. Not frequently, but often enough, travelers pulled off the main road to buy tobacco or soft drinks in the only Negro store in Stamps. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was pulling my mind’s coattails. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. Erect. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and roamed my eyes around for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said, “Uh…this this…this…uh, my niece. She’s…uh…just come from school.” The to the couple – “You know…how, uh, children are…th-th-these days…they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed in a soft Arkansas voice and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say, you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Uncle Willie looked at me with an impatience I hadn’t seen in his face even when he took thirty minutes to loop the laces over his high-topped shoes. “I thought I told you to go…go outside and play.”
Before I left I saw him lean back on the shelves of Garret Snuff, Prince Albert and Spark Plug chewing tobacco.
“No, ma-am…no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to l-look after.”
I didn’t mind his using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willie’s child, I would have received much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and from the back of the house I watched the red car scare chickens, raise dust and disappear toward Magnolia.
Uncle Willie was making his way down the long shadowed aisle between the shelves and the counter – hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream. I stayed quiet and watched him lurch from one side, bumping to the other, until he headed the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind that dark recess and took his cane in the strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had pulled it off.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple (he said later that he’d never seen them before) would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock.
     He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame. The high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks he suffered of either contempt or pity had simply worn him out, and for one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of them.
     I understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since.”

****************************************************************

     Tears, in glasslike sheets, now soak the lower half of my face, pouring down my neck, filling the concave spot at the base of my throat, running down my chest as if I were a human downspout directing a flood. This…now this I understand. Only one who has experienced judgment and rejection could write in such a way that captures this specific and underrated need…the intense need to feel normal, if only for a moment. Only one who has known the shameful embarrassment of standing out the wrong way in a crowd could appreciate the total joy of disappearing in blissful anonymity.

As the mother of an autistic child prone to violence, elopement, and very demonstrative public fits, I know all too well this craving to blend in, to feel normal – even if only briefly. During painfully public displays, I too have frequently caught the eyes of others, reflecting like mirrors, either contempt or pity. After years and years of such reflections, I can no longer remember what I actually look like. Somewhere along the line, these gazes have become my truth. I have, at times, come to believe that I am the despised beast or the pitied creature… this, and nothing more.

And so I’ve manufactured ways to convince others of my normalcy, that in turn, normalcy might be reflected back to me; and so that I might believe, albeit momentarily, that I lead a normal life. Like Uncle Willie, I stand erect, hide the cane, disguise my limp, shoot daggers at anyone who might threaten to give away my secret. Normalcy has become both my shield and my crutch. If I look put together, no one will know that I am a mess. If my house is well-decorated, no one will know that I am crumbling inside.

But somewhere along the line, “normal” began to lose its appeal. It became common and dull. I looked with fresh eyes upon my “high-topped shoes and cane, my uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue,” and I held them with the tender love and compassion of a new mother. I allowed myself the freedom to cry the tears long dammed, and in reverential silence, bore witness to the shame and embarrassment so deeply buried. I gave myself permission to grieve the looks of contempt and pity and the years of feeling anything but normal. I looked closely at the “me” who was hiding behind the protection and shelter of attempted normalcy and extended a soft hand to ease her transition into the light.

And as this timid part of “me” stepped forth in high-topped shoes, leaning heavily on a cane, thick-tongued and muscles yet uncontrolled, I grabbed her and pulled her close in an understanding embrace and softly whispered in her ear, “I love your cane. I love your high-topped shoes. I love your thick tongue. I love your uncontrollable muscles. Look no longer into the eyes of others for feedback; from now on, look only within. Enter the world, not as you wish to be, living the life you wish to be living, but enter as you are, living proudly the life you actually lead, back into the world as it actually is. Limp as you will, but limp with your head held high. For within that limp is contained all suffering, sorrow, madness, and despair. Within that limp is contained all things wild and uncontrollable, and within that limp is contained all love, joy, beauty, and depth of soul. Our humanity is held within each fragile and broken step we take, and so, do not hang your head in shame for that which is shared between all humans. Re-enter the world, still broken, still healing, and reclaim your rightful place within.”

Huge Small Victories

IMG_5358This weekend we went away for Grayson’s 13th birthday.  I definitely wasn’t in a celebratory mindset going into the weekend, as we had gone through multiple mind changes and so much deliberating about where to go, who should be included, where we would eat at, what we would eat, what the hotel would be like, etc…etc…etc…

The small farm-to-table restaurant was delicious, but did not have “normal food.” There were multiple breaks where Grayson left the restaurant to calm down, and several episodes of concealed (but silent) tears beneath his tightly drawn hoodie while hiding his head underneath the table. Although he tried bites of everything I asked him to, his dinner basically ended up being the “normal” gluten, dairy, egg-free cake that I made for him and brought from home.

The next morning at breakfast, he walked up to our server to ask for his drink by himself and she patted him on the shoulder as he turned to walk away. It was this small, but monumental event that changed my dutiful weekend into a celebratory one, filled with gratitude, amazement and a quiet but firmly substantial joy. 

Any parent that has a kiddo with sensory issues, knows that a touch from a stranger has the potential to turn into a full blown meltdown. But on October 27, 2018, Grayson’s 13th birthday, he didn’t flinch. He didn’t even seem to notice that a stranger had touched his shoulder. 

I was reminded of being in a similar hotel in Missouri approximately 11 years ago. Grayson was sick and on prednisone and a complete mess. He was red-faced, screaming, and asking for juice in the hotel restaurant. He then proceeded to hurl the full cup of juice all over the floor once he received it. This was the same weekend that he bit his new baby sister’s toes and made her bleed for no apparent reason at all.

I also remembered the first time I tried to take him swimming with his siblings at the community rec center. After his screaming and crying calmed down, he proceeded to sit on my lap and repetitively buckle and unbuckle this life jacket for the duration of our time there. 

But on his 13th birthday, we went to a hotel and a new restaurant, and a monstrous skatepark with huge ramps. He didn’t have a melt down.  He asked for help from strangers when he needed it.  He navigated his way through the skatepark while we sat and watched and he tried new things and worked through his fears with the skills and coping mechanisms that have been taught to him by angel-teachers through the years. 

On the morning of his birthday, he wrote me this note, using the voice-to-text skill that was again given to him by teachers as a gentle accommodation when writing by hand was hard for him…IMG_5346

For any parents struggling through a brutal introduction to life with a special needs kiddo…it can get better. The progress is slow and often imperceptible, but the payoffs are immeasurable. I have learned more from him than he could ever learn from me, and although I have questioned over and over if I am the right mom for him, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the right child for me.

“Love…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.                     Love never fails.”                                                                                                                                    I Cor. 13:7

Sail On

imagesIt is said around the time that Christopher Columbus set sail, that the English pirate Drake was raking Spanish holdings up the west side of the Americas.  As Columbus had sailed into the unknown, his fearful crew was allegedly on the brink of mutiny – mutiny, rather than come to the edge of…whatever.  Columbus, in this perilous atmosphere, made a stark entry each day in his logbook: “Sailed on.”

More often than not, were I to keep a logbook, I think that my entries might be quite the same, as are my days.  Wake up…work, kids, clean, errands, food…sleep.  Repeat. “Sailed on.”  When I am honest, there are often times that I find myself questioning, “Is this all there is to life?”  I’m convinced that monotony must be the cause of many mid-life crises.  We get stuck in the rhythm of our days, realize that life could realistically be half over, and feel a desperate need to break free from our own restraints, explore beyond the boundaries of our own boredom.

However, we all too often live our lives looking off into the horizon for the next great thing…marriage, a baby, a promotion, vacation, retirement…we are looking to “arrive” and missing the journey.  The thing is, we don’t know what lies on the horizon.  We don’t know if tomorrow will even arrive, and if it does, we don’t know if it will carry promise or catastrophe. We might quickly find ourselves longing for the boredom and monotony of yesterday.  Obviously, the key is to live with gratitude, finding value and joy in the day-to-day.  But I would also propose, as I struggle to live this reality myself, that we should not only strive to find joyful moments in the tedium, but also learn to lean in, settle in, relax and embrace the restlessness of simply sailing.

Just as it is often impossible for a ship to perceive forward movement on a vast sea without any landmarks, we too are often unable to sense any inner growth or progress in life.  But if we can accept and trust the process, the journey, the Captain, we will at some point be able to look back and see that it was all for our good…the sun, the storms, and the endless stream of days upon days.  So for now, I prepare myself for whatever the day will hold.  I’m sure the range will be vast.  And tonight, I’ll settle in and close out the day with another mental entry, “Sailed on.”

 

 

 

 

Why I Need to Remember This…

FullSizeRenderbecause i get constantly get phone calls from school telling me he tried to stab a teacher with a pencil or that he tried to cut himself with a pencil sharpener blade or that he’s mad and can i calm him down.  because he asks me so many questions and has so many issues and arguments that by 7:00 p.m. i can’t even remember what i did earlier on in the day.  because he goes to school every day and his best friend is his teacher. because his remorse and sadness is sometimes too much for my weary heart. because every day i’m pretty sure God could have chosen someone better. because i spend all day frustrated and all night feeling guilty. because i’m at a loss for how to help my child. because in this captured moment, my heart melts, and i can set aside my fears and frustrations and simply see a human being…loving his cousin…needing desparately to be loved. and i’m pretty sure God gave him to me more for my sake than vice versa.

The Making of a Man

Sack-LunchI packed a lunch for my oldest son today.  I literally can’t even remember the last lunch I packed for him.  But today was his first day of work…a real job…manual labor.  Packing that lunch and sending him off on his own made me realize that even though on one hand, I’m counting down the number of days until I can send him on his way, I’m still holding onto him tightly with the other.  Even though he daily makes me want to scream, I don’t relish the thought of anyone in the “real world” doing the same.  I’m not a hoverer or a very tender mom.  I even feel a little calloused at time compared to other moms I know.  But today was hard.  It was hard to bite my tongue and not give advice.  It was hard to not worry.  It was hard turning him over to someone else who I know will (thankfully) make his life very physically challenging.  Ultimately it was hard to let him go and recognize that this is how men like his father are made…through hard work and hard knocks, through trial and error, falling down and getting up.  And none of that involves me holding his hand any more.  Just like that, my time with him has shifted and it is time for me to step back and lead from behind instead of in front, to teach through listening and silence instead of repetition of words.  Dropping him off, I felt the urge to reach out and grab his hand for old times’ sake, but refrained as common sense warned against it.  So I just watched him walk away without looking back, swallowed a little lump in my throat and drove away, alone with my thoughts and empty handed.  Who knew what a little sack lunch could do…

You Are Enough.

13323703_1046851035408719_7118944347292993062_oTo my new friend…and for anyone else who is struggling to feel that they are “enough…”

I can see you have a hard time recognizing the beautiful person you are and all of the wonderful things that you do.  I shared that until you are able to see for yourself how amazing you are, you would have to learn to trust those who best know you.  I realize that I just met you and don’t yet qualify for that role.  But I have been where you are and my heart hurts because I understand how you feel.

You approached me because of our shared struggle in raising special needs kids.  My impression of you right off was that you live with gratitude (you didn’t have to come up to me to say thank you), and you are courageous (for being vulnerable with someone you just met).  I quickly realized that you are exceptionally amazing because you willingly chose to bring two struggling children (that are not yours by birth) into your practically empty-nest home.  I don’t know if you recognize the magnitude of this choice.  It doesn’t matter if you have been scared or have second guessed yourself…you willingly exchanged your life for theirs and there is no greater love than this.

And forgive me, but I Facebook stalked you tonight.  I looked at your pictures and I didn’t see irritability or failure or anything else that you mentioned.  What I did see was a strong woman fighting to give two children a normal life; children that would have otherwise been lost to the proverbial system.  I saw two children living in a house surrounded with beautifully tended flowers and attending church in a loving community.  I saw birthday parties, extravagant school projects, Halloween costumes…all things that these children would never know without you.  I saw your beautiful smile in many pictures.  How many forgotten children never receive a genuine smile?  Do you realize what normalcy, consistency and safety you are giving to these kids?

Of course I know that there is more to meet the eye than what is portrayed on social media.  I know that you rage and cry and scream and want to drive off in your car and never look back.  But I also know WHY you feel this way.  It is NOT because of who YOU are.  It is because of the situation you are in and the ways you are being stretched and pushed beyond your capacity.  You are strong day in and day out.  You can’t even truly rest while you sleep because of the dreams and nightmares.  You are trying to love two children as your own, even though you missed out on the essential bonding years of infancy.  Not only that, but you work full time!!  In my book, this certainly qualifies you for some kind of major award! 

I can see that you truly want the best for these kids.  You really love them.  But I can also see that you’re tired, you’re depleted and you’re running on fumes.  You are human and you have a limited amount of time and energy.  So you have to, for everyone’s sake, eliminate all the needless junk in your life.  By this, I mean get rid of the self-imposed guilt.  Expel the hovering, vicious thoughts telling you that you’re failing.  And especially, eliminate (as you are able) all of the self-doubt that pushes you to believe that you’re not good enough, patient enough, loving enough, whatever enough.  You are you and that is enough.  At the end of every day you are empty.  This is because you have given everything so that they might want for nothing .  It will never feel like enough because they are bottomless pits at this point (regarding their neediness).  But with time, maybe their special needs will be less because of the backbreaking work you are putting forth now. 

Above all, try to look at yourself and everything around you with soft eyes.  Pursue beauty and that which feeds your soul.  Your face lit up when you talked about books…maybe you could make yourself a cozy reading niche?  Perhaps gardening or photography are undiscovered talents?  Regardless, figure out how to love, cherish, and respect yourself.  It is not selfish…it is survival.  Celebrate the small things, turn your morning coffee into a  sacred ritual.  Give yourself permission to sit and do nothing without judgment.  Fight for joy and pray for the eyes to see light and beauty. 

quotes_creator_20161219_090518And though I don’t know you well, know that I love you.  We are connected through our struggles and sufferings and I understand.  I understand that you sometimes feel trapped in your own life.  I recognize that you constantly feel as if you are on the verge of a mental breakdown and I am all too acutely aware of the guilt that has become your constant unwanted companion.  But I also see that you are strong enough.  You will have to work hard at resting, strive to surround yourself with love, and be a continual advocate for yourself and your family.  But I know that you can do it.  Hang in there and believe me when I say that you are amazing.  Good strength!