“We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”
August 15, 2022
I took the kids to eat at a fast food restaurant yesterday after church. The Cracker Barrel had waiting lines out the door, the air conditioning was down at Noodles & Co., and so we ended up–first-world famished–at a run-down Burger King in Pueblo.
The entrance was partially demolished and blocked off with yellow caution tape, almost as if a car had crashed through the front door, and a hand-written sign suggested using the side door as an alternative.
But the alternative entrance looked like a grocery store parking lot lined with shopping buggies filled with sleeping bags and any other tattered possessions their homeless owner had accumulated along the way.
Sufficiently deterred, I pulled out of my parking space around to the drive-through window, which–to my dismay–was only accepting cash. The lobby register was equipped to take credit cards, the staticky voice politely informed.
Grayson growing edgier by the minute, I resigned myself to a dine-in Whopper, and circled back to my original parking spot, where Grayson, Reagan, and I filed out of the car toward the buggy-lined door.
A waif-like man beat us there and was holding the door for us while fixedly staring at the ground. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen a dollop of shampoo for weeks, but when he hesitantly lifted his pale blue eyes to meet mine, I noted they were kind, albeit heavy-laden; and their watery softness stood out in stark contrast to his deeply etched and weathered skin.
Inside, a homeless man was curled up in a chair, loudly snoring away with his filthy shoes propped on the table. My kids exchanged nervous glances but followed me toward the register, regardless, where we arrived just in time to overhear the recently door-holding man barely whisper, “Just a hamburger please,” before plunking down a pile of change–mostly pennies–on the counter. He was visibly nervous as he slid and counted the coins one at a time, and grew further exacerbated when a man toward the back of the line loudly muttered, “Jesus, how long is this going to take?” before irritatedly slapping a dollar bill on the mound of coins.
Now fully flustered, the door-man forgot what number he was on, and had to start counting all over. The young girl behind the cashier smiled apologetically at the approaching manager, who had, in the meantime, wandered over to assess the hold-up and the ever-increasing line.
His head was bare as an eight-ball, and every last square inch of his revealed skin was covered in tattoos. Strands of looping earlobes swung back and forth as he walked, further highlighting the two gaping holes that lacked the structure of their customary gauges. He looked the part of a fast-food manager, I wryly (and critically) mused to myself.
Stepping forward, I offered to add the door-man’s hamburger to my order, but the manager brushed me aside with a wave of his arm. “No worries, I got it,” he said, sweeping the change off the counter into his free hand. I asked the door-man whether I could buy him anything else, and he quietly added from beneath lowered eyes, that, yes, a drink might be nice.
After thanking me, he shuffled meekly to the end of the counter as if he wished to disappear, and I leaned over to asked whether he might like some fries or onion rings too.
Suddenly, the manager’s swift movements caught my attention, and I caught him quickly sneaking an oversized box of fries into the man’s paper bag. Our eyes met, and he winked as he stuffed an extra burger into the bag.
At once, the scales fell from my eyes and the manager’s heavily-inked skin was revealed as the canvassed dwelling tent of God. Joy trickled from the corner of his winking eye, and his face was awash in white light.
There, in line at Burger King, I stood exposed and naked in my threadbare garment of judgment, while the tattooed manager was regally robed in his charitable works, and the door-man vested in a simple, yet splendid robe of humility.
Even so, the nearness of the Divine, was sufficient to cover me–even me.
Truly, there are angels among us.
It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to show it’s face over northeastern mountain peaks. A loud thump to my left alerts me to the fact that–yet another–bird has flown into our living room window.
I look over to behold the tiniest, most pitiful of creatures laying in an all-wrong position on a board of composite decking–its wings intermittently twitching and flapping. Assuming it to be a near-death flutter, I pull my chair closer to observe the strange transition between life and death.
I note the bird’s faint yellow underbelly and the white markings around its eye, and assess it–perhaps incorrectly–to be a Warbling Vireo. Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve taken on the self-appointed role of “Family Ornithologist,” thanks to my new Merlin Bird ID app.
As I’m voyeuristically observing the bird’s sacred transition, Cadence, our German Shepherd, lets herself out the front door, and automatically walks up to the ailing bird and rudely nudges it with her nose.
With what seems like its last dying strength, the bird hurls itself over and its head flops back in an unnatural position. Certain that the light is now surely passing from its eyes, I return to my reading, mentally committing the task of discarding the dead bird to my daughter.
Half-an-hour later, Nala, our dingbat of a Golden-doodle, comes sauntering out the front door to lay her head in my lap, completely failing to observe the little bird I believe to be deceased.
After a round of morning scratches and pets, both dogs notice and re-notice the bird. They sniff, circle, and then to my chagrin, begin poking it with their noses. Surely, they won’t eat a dead bird, I wonder to myself, cringing.
Suddenly, Cadence flips the bird upright with her nose, and I observe that its eyes are now wide-open and glossy black. It’s hops across one, then two and three planks, then leaps off our porch and flies effortlessly to a nearby tree.
I sit, stunned, as I take in the complexity of such a simple moment, and ponder on the quote I’d just read, “We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”
Self-admittedly, I lack the ability to extend my concept of the Divine “far enough,” for it is here that I find my words and mental capacity simultaneously reaching their end.
Perhaps this is the holy ground where has God has drawn a line in the sand, thus demarcating the end of language’s capacity and the early frontier of contemplative “unknowing.”
Regardless, it is in this micro-moment that I sense the meaning of “close enough.” It is here, that I sense God’s “smallness” and the way He condescends to fill the fragments–the slivers of time–to bring life and light to motionless birds, tattooed skin, and defeated, pale-blue eyes.
As I found my way to a table and began doling out burgers, the soft-spoken door-man began unwrapping his at a nearby table. I stood to introduce myself and invited the man named “Adolfo” to eat with us. Re-wrapping his burger, he let me me know that people made him nervous, as he was more accustomed to being alone. I told him I understood as he turned to shuffle out the door, the feel of his leathery hand still fresh in mine.
*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.
“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.
Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking up and down the grassy knolls of our new property and exploring the winding ravines that snake through the bottom of what I’ve secretly labeled “the scary forest.”
Right off, we saw a coyote big enough to be a wolf trotting off into the scary forest, thus confirming my belief that that’s where all the limb-tearing creatures abide. And just last Saturday, a motherless baby bear emerged from down there after I’d spent an hour sitting on my porch in the pre-dawn darkness, listening to the deep and gravelly grunts of what I (later) understood to be her mama. Not only that, but a few days ago, Arin discovered a deer skull and hollowed-out carcass atop a rocky ledge—most likely the handiwork of a perching lion.
All-in-all, I’d say the scary forest is not on my top ten list of places I’m dying to explore.
Later that afternoon, Arin and I took Grayson and Arin’s mom to the Royal Gorge Bridge, where I tapped out on Grayson-duty and relinquished his crossing-the-highest-suspension-bridge-in-the-country caretaking to Arin. (High places and I don’t mix well, and Grayson completely tips the scale). Instead, I focused on remembering to breathe while coercing myself across the gently heaving bridge that dangled from strands of measly steel cables. I held on to my mother-in-law’s skinny arm for dear life, wholly forgetting that it was I who was supposed to be supporting her.
Afterward, Arin spontaneously opted for a detour up Skyline Drive, a narrow, one-lane road flanked by steep drop-offs on either side that more than adequately lived up to its name. Curling the brim of my baseball cap tightly around my eyes, I turned all my attention to the Wordle of the day, squeezing my cell phone like a rubber stress ball.
By the time I got home, I was exhausted and flat-out discouraged by how much of my day was spent feeling anywhere from mildly anxious to outright panicked.
I never used to be such a scaredy-cat; rather, quite the contrary. I was the fresh-faced, twenty-three-year-old mom sitting relaxedly on a bench at the Tampa zoo as my eighteen-month-old son climbed up and over the jungle gym—alone and unassisted. Older mothers with pinched and worried faces hurried over, “just to make sure I knew where my baby was and what he was doing.” Their concern always confused me—how else would my son learn his limitations and capabilities if I didn’t give him the space to try? Back in those days, I rode roller coasters with reckless abandon, went for midnight swims in the ocean, and took solo late-night flights into Detroit to watch my sister play volleyball—and never once did I think of being afraid.
But then Grayson, our Autistic son, came along and taught me—over and over again—the meaning of fear. He was the child I swore would never live to see Kindergarten. When enraged (which was often), he would suddenly dart into five lanes of oncoming traffic, open his door and attempt to leap from our moving car, or shimmy over our second-story railing and threaten to jump—and all before the age of five.
Therefore, after living years and years in a steady state of flight-or-fight, I, the mother who was once young and cool-as-a-cucumber, can barely remember what it’s like to feel the absence of fear.
Somewhere along the way, as one catastrophe piled on another, something inside of me began to shrink and shrivel, and my ordinarily expansive soul-space grew tight and gnarled as an atrophied muscle. I started perceiving once trusted civil servants—like teachers, doctors, and police officers—as enemies, and the world—previously open and inviting—turned dark and threatening as the scary forest. It was then that I started feeling afraid. All the time.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I once snapped a pencil underfoot in the dark. Little boys riding bikes down the street made my heart race as I frantically searched my memory, only to recall that Grayson was in school. And the sound of my cell phone ringing turned my throat dry as the Sahara desert.
This compilation of fears—accompanied by the new sensations from the day prior—caused me to linger in bed when awakened by a bright white moon at 4:00 a.m. this morning. Normally excited for the start of a new day, my feet typically hit the floor and head straight to the coffeepot the second my eyes flutter open. But today, I heaved a weary sigh and pulled the covers back over my head to block out the streaming moonlight and avoid another day with myself.
I felt tired of being afraid, sick of battling my fears day in and day out; I just wanted them gone. I imagined ripping them from my chest like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, then hurling them over the edge of the Royal Gorge Bridge where they could never bother me again.
I’ve experienced enough crises to know that trauma can get “stuck” in your body, which is part of the reason I wanted to move. I needed at least eighty acres to bleed out all the chaos from our past—the police restraints and hospitalizations, our oldest son’s rollover car accident, the disgusted glares from strangers at the grocery store, the nightmares of Grayson falling and falling through layers of black space…
But today, there doesn’t seem to be a mountain big enough to handle all my fears, and I worry they’ll remain trapped inside me forever. I lay there under the covers in moonlit darkness for a long time; then, finally roused myself and started writing: Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking…
Just the day prior, my sister, Dani, had texted me a page from Susan McCain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, and something about it had struck me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it then. So I went back this morning and reread, “I believe he’s telling us, It’s enough to be aware of it, and to feel its sting. Because this, in the end, is what connects us all…By turning his experience into poetry, Issa invites us to the shared story of being mortal, the communal longing of being human; he guides us to the love that I’ve always felt to be the unseen power source of all those sad songs with which we’ve inexplicably filled our playlists. This is the ultimate paradox: We transcend grief (or fear, in my case) only when we realize that we’re connected with all the other humans who can’t transcend grief because they will always say, because we will always say: But even so, but even so.”
I realized that as much as I want to rip the fear from my chest and chuck it over a bridge, it is this fear that keeps me connected to others; for it is our pain, our suffering, and our lack of control “that guides me back to the love that is the unseen power source of all…”
Regardless of how desperately I long to rid myself of my fears, at the end of the day, I must value them for the gift they truly are. They are the thorn in my flesh that leads toward compassion and away from pride; they’re the link that binds me to my fellow co-laborers in life, and they’re the constant weakness that remind me to depend more fully on Christ, the ultimate and most pure source of strength.
Perhaps one day, my fears will magically evaporate, and I’ll find that I can breeze effortlessly across the Royal Gorge without a second thought. Or maybe, and probably more realistically, I’ll continue battling, struggling, reminding myself to breathe, and occasionally pulling the covers back over my head to find some relief.
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?
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.
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?
I had a dream last night. I guess it was more of a nightmare, really. I was auditioning to be an actor in my own book, which of course, makes zero sense whatsoever. But such is the way our brains seam together the jumbled pieces of our lives while we lay sleeping. My old college volleyball coach was running the audition, and although I had written the book, she kept telling me I was reading it wrong – my expressions weren’t quite right, the intonations slightly off. She would work with me and do her best to help me but at the end of the day, I wasn’t exactly right. I just didn’t have “it.”
I woke up with tears pooling in the corners of my eyes and still don’t think I have fully woken, although it is now late in the afternoon. The feeling has lingered and dampened my day. Most of the time, I feel healthy, strong, proud of who I have worked so hard to be. But sometimes, a simple nonsensical dream invokes my broken parts, my hurting parts, the parts that tell me hard as I may try, I will never be enough. I am destined for a life of average-ness, these parts remind me. And they speak with such authority that I am meekly tempted to agree.
My sweet husband tries to reassure me and informs me that I am above average in everything I do. That in all of our years together, the only average thing he has ever witnessed has been my feeble attempts to cook fried chicken. I laugh through my tears and counter his comment. Regarding fried chicken, I am highly deficient. The damn obstinate breading just won’t stick! He wants me to see myself in the way he sees me, but his viewpoint is biased, so I disregard him as a flawed character witness.
I go on a walk to shake off my dream. The sun is abnormally warm for this time of year, and I know I should savor it. But my haze follows me and dulls the sun’s rays.
A phrase emerges to the forefront of my mind, one that I saw in bold letters on a recent advertisement – BE EXTRAORDINARY! Extraordinary? Extra – ordinary? What does this strange word mean? Is that the same thing as being more average? Is extraordinary better than normal or just a double-dose?
I wonder what I am striving for in wanting to be better than average? To whom am I comparing myself? If I consider myself to be “average,” would being extraordinary simply mean being more of myself, more fully me? If I don’t step up to fill my own shoes, who else is remotely capable?
More questions than answers today, but suddenly, I notice the sensation of sun on my face. My muddled haze is gone, and my insides feel settled and not quite so angry. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be extra of my ordinary self, to let go of the striving desperation and fall headlong into faith and trust.
I become aware of birds calling one to the other, and their uniquely “ordinary” calls lift my spirit from my own depths. They are only doing what they have been created to do, yet it is, of course…extraordinary.
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…
During this strange and unprecedented time, I have been amused by the humorous memes and videos that have been popping up on social media. Parents have been instantly thrust from their roles as busy professionals to homeschooling, full-time, stay-at-home caregivers. While it is so good to laugh at ourselves and find humor where we can, I have to wonder at what lies behind the memes.
Over and over, I have heard people asking for suggestions for ways to pass, kill or survive their time at home, and for ideas on how to stay busy. A fairly consistent theme that seems to be emerging in these funny videos looks something like this…1) person is excited for “down-time” 2) person binge-watches all possible NetFlix shows 3) decides they will finally try to sit and talk with spouse and/or kids 4) ends up melting down screaming into a pillow and ultimately finding a breath of relief in the bottle.
What seems to be lurking behind the humor, is the fear of 1) unstructured and unfilled time, 2) unlimited time with spouses/family members, and perhaps most predominantly a fear of 3) time spent alone. While on paper, and at our busiest, most people would concur that these opportunities are desired and necessary, even coveted. Yet, when the same opportunity extends its hand as a real and viable option, we panic.
Setting aside potential fears surrounding the actual virus and the economy, I have been thinking about the psychology of social isolation for a while now and wondering…what is it, specifically, that are we so afraid of? Upon reflection, it seems that when we find ourselves “stuck” at home with cleared schedules, and unfettered access to our spouses, children, and perhaps most importantly, ourselves…our deepest fear (if we are even able to silently acknowledge it), might be that we will come face to face with…absolutenothingness.
We know that all of the conversations we’ve avoided due to lack of time, all of the insecurities and nagging voices that we’ve drowned or kept at bay…will all be waiting for us in the vast expanse of time. I think that if we are honest, this might be the cause of our deeply-rooted and intensely personal panic. This is what keeps us binge-watching, searching the web, looking for ways to “kill” time. We will do anything to avoid being alone with ourselves.
What if rather than trying to “kill” time, we attempted to lean in and embrace time in its fullness, whatever that might include? What if we sat for a while, alone (gasp!), and let our thoughts and fears rise to the surface and breathe in the fresh air of honesty and unhurried moments? What if we allowed ourselves to feel failure, fear, sadness, anger, and pain…instead of evading, numbing, and tuning these emotions out? What if we allowed ourselves to acknowledge our internal emptiness and nothingness?
In one of my favorite (highly recommended) books, Sabbath by Wayne Muller, he says, “For some people, emptiness can feel fertile and spacious, alive with possibility, as a womb is ripe waiting for a child to come. But others feel emptiness as an ache, a void; something painful, in need of being filled. When we are empty, we feel unhealed; when we are unhealed, we can feel unworthy.”
It seems that this generation, perhaps more than any, is afraid of emotional pain. We try to fix, medicate, eradicate…but we will not allow ourselves to feel.
Could it be that we are a nation of stress and busyness mainly because we are unwilling to feel and acknowledge everything that hurts inside? What if we must first admit to, and then acquire a certain level of companionship with our emptiness and unrest, in order to find true peace, instead of settling for a tuned-out mental break from our internal torment? During this time when the literal world needs healing, what if we started by using the extra time to heal ourselves? A wise saint once said, “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.” This does not mean that we don’t help our friends and neighbors, but rather that we will best serve others when we begin to heal ourselves.
It is my prayer that we will be able to see the opportunities presented by this virus, as opposed to the fear and inconveniences. Suffering is not a new concept, but perhaps new to this generation on such a large scale. I pray that whether we suffer internally or situationally, we will all learn to suffer with patience, kindness, and gratitude, and that we will be able to teach our children how to do the same; and if by chance, you find yourself panicking at the thought of isolation…breathe, lean in, sit with it, and become acquainted or reacquainted with the glorious person that you were created to be.
“To come to what you know not, you must go by a way where you know not. Growth may not feel like growth, and we need encouragement that there is somewhere to go, if we are to sail on.”
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.”
This 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…
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