Monday, January 28, 2013

Walking on Water

The other day, the kids and I took a long drive to the back roads of central Massachusetts where my mom grew up. Dan had a project due for work due Monday that he needed to attend to at home. The kids weren't completely thrilled at taking a long ride (they don't seem to enjoy them as much as I always have), but hey, it was a free activity (we're REALLY trying to save money right now). And the day was beautiful.

Whenever we go out there I realize how far out in the woods my mom lived as a kid. It's a different world from our house-one-minute-from-the-highway existence. Anna started complaining that the roads were too bumpy; she was getting distracted from her reading. When we got to Hubbardston, we noticed they hadn't bothered to do a thing about the light snow on the roads from the night before. Several times I wondered if the car would even make it up the steep, slippery, rut-filled hills.

We saw the house where my mom and uncles grew up, and headed down the road. I'd remembered something. I'd remembered a pond and wondered if it was properly frozen. When we reached the spot I saw a few other cars pulled over and what looked like people ice fishing about 100 feet out onto the ice.

"C'mon kids, we're going out there!" I urged, turning the car off.

Although there were people on the ice, I was still nervous. Here I was, bringing my kids out onto a frozen pond. Was this a good idea? Thankfully at that moment a woman walked back to her car to get something.

"Excuse me? Is this ice reeeeaaalllly safe?" I asked her.

"We checked and it's about 9 inches thick," she assured me. Earlier in the day I'd read that anything thicker than 4 inches was fine for anyone to walk on.

"Let's go!" I shouted to the kids, and they were off. The pond wasn't slippery but rather crusted with fresh snow that sparkled everywhere. Diamonds.

"Woo-hoo!" one of them was shouting. Anna headed over to a small island. "I'm walking to an island!" she exclaimed. Ethan was out towards the middle, running with abandon. Even after hearing the woman's words, I kept trying to keep up with him. What if there was a spot that wasn't 9 inches thick?

The sky was a brilliant winter light blue and the wind took our breath away. I'd forgotten that in the middle of the lake, there'd be no protection from the wind. It whipped snow all around us; whipped our hair. I looked ahead to land on the other side. We had to get over there just to say we'd crossed.

"Ethan, can you believe it? We're walking on water!" I said to him as we trotted along.

All I could think about was the song we'd been singing every night. I don't know how it started, but one night before tucking him in I thought of a song a guest musician had once sung at our church. It was based off a verse in the book of Ecclesiastes, and I could always only remember the first part:

In the end fear God
And keep His commandments
In the end worship God with all your heart and soul.
It's where life begins
It's where faith begins to grow
When the waves of life are crashing over you
That's where the help of God covers over you
Lift your eyes in time, that's when you'll see
Jesus is calling, 'Walk on the water with me.'
It's now been three weeks, and Ethan has asked for that song every night. As I've sung it, I've often thought about the words. I've pondered what it really means to "fear God." I've thought about the story of Peter in the Bible and how easy it was for him to jump out of the boat but also how easy it was for him to sink when he became overwhelmed by fear.
"Remember the song, Ethan? Maybe this is how the water felt when Peter walked on it."
"Was it ice?" he asked. Silly me, being so figurative. "No, it wasn't ice, but maybe it felt solid like this," I rambled on. I was still trying to wrap my head around it, what that might have been like. I thought of how hard it must have been to fathom, feeling water under your toes but not sinking. I used to think of the story as so condemning. He copped out...looked back to his fears...sank. Fail.

But as we ran and touched the shore on the other side, I wasn't so sure. I stomped my feet and marveled again at the impossibility. In our own way, we were walking on water. Our own private miracle, in the whipping wind, under the clear winter sky.

In the night, I was still thinking. I was thinking about the way I had still doubted nine-inch thick ice. I thought about the fact that the only way I was walking on water was if it was frozen solid beneath me. I thought that if I had been the one to be out on the water, Jesus wouldn't have even been able to reach me with his hand. I would have been off, flailing. Yet --

When he was still a long way off, his father saw him and had compassion on him...

The story of the prodigal son. The story of grace. For some reason, I got the crazy picture in my head of Jesus tossing me a life saver, attached to a rope. Whatever it takes, to bring us closer to Him.

Maybe for some of us fearing God and keeping His commandments means not so much stepping out of the boat in heroic faith but remaining in the boat at all. Maybe choosing to keep walking for some is as treasured to Him as those who walk in magnificent faith and exceeding trust.

He meets us where we are...even on the frozen lake, marveling at not-so-solid ground beneath our feet.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lemonade and Lalaloopsies

He chewed Coral Seashells' leg.

Ask me why, and I cannot tell you. Ethan's not a chewer. He really hasn't ever been. He doesn't even chew his fingernails nervously (like mom). But last night, while he was in the tub, Anna presented Ethan with her Coral Seashells Lalaloopsy doll and said she would loan her to him to play with during his bath, but he had to be very, very careful with her.

And he proceeded to chew her leg.

You can imagine what happened when Anna discovered this. For quite awhile now, her Lalaloopsies have been her "babies." She sleeps in bed with them every night -- all 32 of them, in various shapes and sizes. She dresses them in Barbie clothes, which somehow fit around their bodies despite their freakishly large heads. Her "Lalas" are extended family.

She cried, presenting me with the mark. Not a perfect chew mark, but the skin was rubbed away and there was a tiny hole. We asked Ethan why he did the chewing. Of course he had no reasonable answer.

These are the situations that really get me. These are the situations when I feel like I could teeter into overreaction on either side of the (no pun intended) spectrum. Blow it off as just a bratty brother behavior? Blame autism? What to do when the truth resides somewhere in the middle? And how to explain that to an eight-year-old?

I knew there was one thing we could get right, right off the bat. We could sit Anna down and let her know it was okay to be angry.

For once, this girl who likes holding everything in had no trouble. I watched her purse her lips, staring downwards, tears bristling just below the surface. "I'm angry and I'm sad," she said, and while she was breaking my heart a little, another part of me was cheering. Yes, girl! Please! Always tell us how you're feeling. Don't hold it all in.

We carried on with what I would call a stumbling and bumbling conversation. A two-minute sitcom resolution this was not. A completely confident, eloquent mom I was not. But somehow we managed to talk about what Ethan had done being wrong, how he would have consequences, how it was okay to feel the way she did and the only thing was to try not to hold onto unforgiveness for too long, how I didn't think he intentionally meant to hurt Coral, how sometimes it's hard to know how much he's just being a bratty brother and how much he doesn't understand, how his mind is like a bunch of plugs plugged into different outlets than the plugs in our own minds, how play doesn't come as easily for him and sometimes he may do things like he did because he doesn't know what else to do.

After all that, there was no laugh track audience going "Awww," as we hugged.

"I'm kind of confused," Anna confided. Me too, I wanted to say, while again secretly relishing that she was telling me she was confused. That's how this thing is, sweetie, I wanted to tell her. But I don't think I needed to. I think she knew.

"You're so creative," I said for some reason. "You're like a glass of lemonade spilling over. And Ethan's glass is only a little bit full. Thankfully some of your lemonade trickles over and fills his glass. It's awesome." And even though we never want her to think she has to be there to help Ethan be creative and learn how to play, I was glad I said it. Her face lit up. She smiled.

A few minutes later she was tucked in next to her slightly-marred Coral Seashells with prayers and kisses and admonishments about what an awesome girl God had made her to be. She held Coral tight, snuggled under the blankets, and was asleep in minutes.

Monday, January 21, 2013

His Posse

Most Tuesdays and Fridays, I drop Ethan off 40 minutes early for school for a social skills group. This was the brainchild of a few of Ethan's teachers, and I can't thank them enough. Our insurance doesn't cover such activities right now, and coordinating play dates with anyone these days seems to involve an almost Herculean effort.

Ethan's with three other boys, all kindergarteners. They finish their lunch and head to the ABA room; Ethan eats at home and when we get there I walk him down so they can get started.

Yesterday we entered the room and Ethan attempted to take off his coat.

"Hi Ethan!" one of the boys called.

We put down his things and Ethan headed over to the circle. They made a spot for him, all smiles. "Come here, Ethan!" one of them said, motioning next to him.

A grin was splitting my face wide open. I wished people could see, that people could understand. This is autism too: an enthusiastic greeting; genuine warmth from his peers. They didn't each want to be in their corners, playing alone. They enjoy having the group together. They just have some trouble navigating the complex social world out there...frustratingly complex already, while they are still in their early years.

I left that room and felt something encircle Ethan. I think it was friendship and love. In that moment it didn't matter what might happen down the road, how the gap between typical and not may appear more pronounced, the other struggles that may ensue. In that moment I felt the joy of him being surrounded by his people. People he doesn't have to explain himself to; people who might accept his quirks as he accepts theirs. I hope and pray he is always able to find and connect with his people; that he doesn't always have to feel alone and different.

My only regret in that moment was that I do not know the moms of these wonderful boys. I envisioned us sitting around, swapping stories while our boys played, laughing and understanding, feeling that same embrace of friendship, kinship, warmth. Someday. Maybe someday.

For now I will smile and think of this group of bright-eyed boys who are full of energy and love. Their teachers see things in them just waiting to come out, to mature. They have much to offer each other, and the world.

Ethan's posse.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


We were playing Trouble again. Ethan has a thing about board games. We usually play at least one a day. Sometimes many more. I guess he loves the predictability; the rules.

So this time we were playing Trouble, a game that until this Christmas when we bought it for him, I hadn't played since grade school. (I love the little popper in the middle for the dice. Everyone loves the popper.)

This particular game, I happened to be doing really well. The kind of well that made me nervous because I figured he'd probably start crying in a few minutes and concede defeat. All of my pegs were out of "Home" and flying around the board. He only had one blue peg out of the home spot. In order to move the pegs out, you have to pop a "6."

That's what was infuriating me. Ethan kept popping sixes but wouldn't move his guys out. He wanted to only move the one peg he had on the board, going all the way around, until he reached the end.

"What are you doing?" I kept nagging. "Sometimes it takes forever to pop a six. You have to move your guys out."

"No!" he shouted. "I want to do it this way."

"Fine, but you're going to lose," I threw out there, thinking that would get him. Nope. He was a boy with a mission. Move his one peg until it got where it needed to be, then focus on the others.

Somehow in the next few minutes, something amazing happened. Well, not for me. I sat there and watched as he moved his guy into place and then got a six to start the next one. Before I knew it, he had headed across the board and managed to land on two of my pegs and send them home. He gracefully moved his next two pegs around the board and into the finish position. My guys sat stuck. Now I was the one who couldn't pop a six. He meanwhile popped another one and took one last trip around the board before two of my guys even got started. He not only won, he won handily.

There's something to be said for singular focus.

There's something to be said for not having all of your balls up in the air, juggling the world, plagued with distraction and trying to make it all happen.

There's something to be said for having confidence that your steadfast, plodding way might just be the way to victory.

There's something to be said for winning the unconventional way; for victories that come where and when you least expect them.

Thanks, Ethan.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Concession

"Maybe he's one of those kids who's just not 'into' play."

A few of Ethan's teachers have said this to me several times over the past few years, and each time the words were like nails on a chalkboard. They talked about video games, about him growing older and being able to better relate to people regarding things on the screen.

They don't know, I fumed. Maybe he's just not there yet. They don't know. How could they know?

So we worked on play (funny, should those two words really go together?) a LOT. And I tried fastidiously to limit his exposure to all things electronic, particularly at home. We played and I fretted, fretted and played.

Somewhere along the way I realized that sometimes life comes up, and everything can't be like a handbook from the American Academy of Pediatrics, a Parents magazine article, or my Floortime books. Sometimes the kids want to play Wii with the grandparents for hours. Sometimes Daddy wants to sit on the couch and relax with Ethan while watching too much TV. Some days everyone's running and I'm doing grown-up type things and can't be on the floor "instructing," and Ethan's going to sit and try to see how many levels of the Windows 8 Ninja game he can beat.

The past few weeks especially, we've had a lot going on. Between the holidays and my mom being in the hospital, freelance projects and various other issues, there hasn't been a lot of time to sit and play. And this is what I've noticed:

Ethan's teachers were right. And so was I.

He really, really does prefer all things on a screen. And yes, he can get obsessed.

But he really loves people, too, and he can play -- on his terms.

Put the two together, and they morph into Ethan-style play. That could mean wrestling outside after school with his friend for a half-hour, making Mario sounds and pretending he's Bowser on the attack. Or asking me to chase him around a la the Mario Chase game as he sings the music that plays when Mario gets the star. Or playing on his own in his room, putting money into his money counter, making up rules about how to get to the "next level."

Yes, I realize these games aren't showing the level of creativity you'd see from a typical kid. It's a kind of scripted play. But I'm learning it's his play. It's not play someone is trying to force him to mimic. It's not something he feels coerced into doing. It's flowing out of what's in him right now, and he's having fun. What can be truly wrong with that?

So often teachers or other professionals do make assumptions, and we have to fight to advocate for our kids and believe in our kids because as parents we do know best.

But in this case I've had to climb down from my high-horse just a little. I thought that because they'd seen hundreds of kids before him, his teachers just lumped him into a category. And while that may be true to some extent, I have to acknowledge that sometimes their experience helps them to see things I may not see, or not want to see, or not be ready to see.

Every day I still have to tell Ethan he's done with Angry Birds, or the computer, or watching whatever he's watching. But the vigilance is ebbing away. He's not the boy in Toy Story, playing in his room with old-school toys for hours, coming up with countless play scenarios. There's no saying he can't be, but that's not who he is right now. I don't want him to ever live feeling we are constantly working to morph him into someone else.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What He Dreams

I used to wonder if Ethan would be able to tell us what he dreams. I figured if he could, it'd be like peering through a little window and seeing how his brain ticks.

Dreams are funny. You ever notice this? The ones you remember are usually the bad and scary ones. For years I had recurring nightmares about a tornado that always almost whipped me off into oblivion and an elevator that would plunge endlessly (of course, I'd awaken just before the thing crashed). I even had this bizarre dream as a child about being chased by wild dogs and attempting to climb a tree to escape them, that actually ended with horror movie soundtrack-like music and a voice-over that said menacingly, "To be continued."

My only really good dream? The one I remember waking and feeling so happy and then so sad that it wasn't real? I wish I could say it was deep and full of meaning and mystery and goodness  Let's just say it was back in my pre-teen, Kirk Cameron-obsessed, big hair years. My friends and I were actually in Canoga Park. California! Approaching his home! And then thrilled as he came out and rode bikes with us. (I'm hanging my head in embarrassment now).

But I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't be so embarrassed. These are the kinds of dreams Ethan dreams. Three times in the past few weeks he's shared them with us. The first was after he and Dan had spent a good deal of time putting together a 100-piece puzzle, only to find there was one piece missing.

"I dreamed I found the one piece and then the puzzle had 100 pieces!" he announced at breakfast. I celebrated with him. Who doesn't hate staring at a puzzle with one stinking piece missing? His dream solved the problem.

Near Christmas, he told us about a dream that involved a pipe that ran under our house and down the street. Apparently we all got to walk in it. "Were you scared?" I asked. "No," he answered matter-of-factly, as if that was a dumb question. Following the paths of our pipes was a treat, apparently.

The other day we drove over train tracks in a nearby town. "When does the train come?" he asked, impatiently. I feel bad for the kid. Apparently that train comes around noon and we are always there earlier in the morning. One glorious day in the summer we caught the train, but never since.

The next morning as soon as Ethan woke up he bounded down the stairs. "I dreamed the gates went down because the train came!" he announced, full of glee. "And the red lights were flashing. All of the red lights." I think he was picturing the whole thing in his mind. He had that same look, the faraway one I'd probably gotten when I'd recalled looking into Kirk Cameron's dreamy green eyes.

Right now at least, Ethan's dream are not nightmares chasing him out of sleep. And they do give a glimpse into what he's thinking. His dreams are about the things that make him happy -- trains and lights, puzzles and pipes.

He shares without abandon and with joy, not thinking of how he may be perceived, or caring that other people might not think those things are so exciting.

I love that.

An addendum: I wrote this while everyone was sleeping, and five minutes after posting Ethan woke up and came down the stairs. I asked him what he had dreamed. He said that our cat Timothy had run out the front door and gotten hit by a car. "And Levi was sad," he said, referring to our other cat. "Why?" I asked. "Because he didn't have Timothy anymore," he answered. I was simultaneously blown away at his understanding and ability to take another's point of view, while feeling a little sad. Maybe the days of carefree dreams are already coming to an end.