We pull up to church, and my heart sinks. I hate being here. It's church but it's the most unfriendly place we visit all week. The people stare. My brother is three and has autism. They don't get it. We go inside and I hear their polite hellos. During "coffee hour" I hide in the bathroom, as most of the girls my age don't attempt to be friendly. Later, after a worship time, I head outside to watch my brother. He can't handle Sunday school, and I don't want to be in Sunday school with those girls, so I volunteer to be out there. I feel safe but alone. And still, I feel their stares, even when no one is looking.
9th grade Social Studies, 1989
I sit in the front of the class with my big glasses and big hair and make-up that is all wrong. I'm too smart and too much of a crybaby and my only good friend and I got in a huge fight two months before. In this class, I am completely alone. I hear the whispers behind me. Sometimes they are not even whispering about me, but other times they are, so I just assume. Arlene, a particularly vocal one, yells out this day while our teacher is out of the room. "You know who I hate?" She points over at me. "HER. She's so ugly. I hate her so much."
Anna has a mild break in her arm and it is encased in a cute purple cast. "I CAN'T go to school!" she wails before bedtime. "They'll laugh at me! I look different and weird. I don't like that!"
Today Ethan and I ended up at Chuck E Cheese after his school was cancelled last-minute due to a power outage. I got a boatload of tokens and he attempted ski-ball, the merry-go-round, and a million other annoying little rides they have in there. He was having a blast. He's been asking about Chuck E Cheese for awhile. As he ran from ride to ride and game to game, I noticed something.
He was really excited. And he was flapping his hands.
Ethan has never been much of a visual stimmer, doing a lot of the typical outward things people might attribute to a person with autism. He doesn't usually rock, or flap, or make unusual noises. But lately, I've noticed more of this hand flapping. And there at Chuck E Cheese, as we played alongside other typical things, it was all I could notice.
First, there was the fear. What does this mean? I wondered. Is he regressing? Between these and the doors and the tantrums lately, is he sliding backward? What's going on inside his brain?
Then, there was the other fear. The fear that's gripped me all of my life, that I can see already has tried to grip my little girl. In fancy Biblical terms, we would call this The Fear of Man. In my head it's always had it's own voice that whispers, "What will everyone think?"
The voice was birthed when I was a kid. It got louder over time and grew deafening by the time I was in junior high. We all have a dose of it. But if we don't have a good sense of who we are, and who we are in Christ, it never truly goes away.
Today in Chuck E Cheese I saw that I had been hiding behind the fact that Ethan has no visual or obvious symptoms of autism. I took some secret pleasure in being able to skirt in and out of places, and people wouldn't stare and wouldn't know, and we could just sweep this all under the rug, and I could breathe a sigh of relief because this unseen monster, The Opinions of Everyone Else, would be kept at bay.
I can't do this anymore God, I thought and prayed right there near the tunnel slide. This is not how I'm meant to live. How do I do this? I begged. How do I not let this bother me when it's strangled me my entire life, when I'm scared and just want to believe Ethan will be okay and that you CAN heal him...but never want to feel as if you HAVE to heal him, or else He isn't enough, and you aren't enough?
At that very moment I suddenly keyed in to the song that was playing on the annoying non-stop TVs they have on either side of the stage. It was some furried creatures singing a song I had blocked out of my mind along with most of the other bleeps and blips of the games. But now I heard these little critters singing loud and clear:
Don't give up. Don't give up.
Just keep on trying, keep on trying.
Suddenly right then and there I felt this cloak lift off of me. I felt simultaneously lighter and stronger. I heard Beth Moore's voice from the Bible study video I'd watched the day before, quoting the 23rd Psalm and how the literal translation of the valley of the shadow was really as if David was writing that God would be there, walking with us even in "the shadowiest of the shadows."
Even if Ethan regressed.
Even if prayers went unanswered.
Even if people stared.
There is a power that comes on you when you choose, when you truly decide that God is good and loving. And loves YOU. No matter how circumstances appear. In that same video Beth Moore said really that's all that matters. Yet those two beliefs have never come easily to me. When they don't, everything else is skewed and skewed badly.
It was time to go. We headed towards the exit, walking past the moms and other kids. Ethan was still flapping a little, but this time I saw him and no one else. I saw a little boy who couldn't help what he was doing, and who I loved desperately.
Has anyone in history ever been able to claim they left Chuck E Cheese a changed person? Or a changed for the better person? Now I'm laughing. This is something I plan on doing more of.