Sunday, April 28, 2019

Minding the Process

I live in New England, where it takes a little longer for spring to arrive than in some other parts of the country. Sometimes this can feel frustrating. It's a slow transition. Spring doesn't always behave the way it's supposed to. How else can you explain snowstorms in April? Mud lingers. Trees stay bare, no matter how much you will them to bloom.

This is all true, but I've found there's something exhilarating about watching spring come alive slowly.

This glorious transition is the sum of many subtle changes. First -- the sight of a few crocuses or daffodil bulbs bursting out of the soil. At night, one mild evening the peepers call for the first time from a nearby swamp. The grass shifts from brown to emerald green. Before the maples ever sprout their broad leaves the shrubs and bushes show life first. It's a bottom up process. The ground thaws and wormholes finally burst through, evidence of life below.

Like a child in the womb, life begins, change begins before we see it.

Some people hate New England winters, but there is something about them to embrace. There is something about each season to love; to learn from.

There is a stark beauty in bare branches and snow that sparkles. There is always beauty somewhere, even in the bleak seasons. I love how in our darkest, coldest January days, the light is already returning to us before we notice.

Conversely when summer is at its peak the days are shortening, as much as the thought saddens us. But this is the way it has to be.

I love how the seasons are cyclical, how there is a constant ebb and flow like the waves. The is the story of our very lives. How perfect that God would make all of nature to comfort and remind us: there will be peaks and there will be valleys. There will be a time to plant and a time to harvest.

There will be times of great change that feel as if nothing at all is changing or ever will change. Yet the process has been set in motion, and in a time not so very far away, we will see. Like the leaves that unfold after the warm spring rains overnight, making us wonder how we had forgotten what they look like.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Autism Awareness

"Oh look, autism awareness month is coming up," I mentioned to Ethan while rifling through his backpack. There was a flyer. The school was doing a lot -- asking people to wear blue; sponsoring a door decorating contest; displaying puzzle piece posters.

Ethan barely registered interest. "So," I asked him. "Do you think you're going to say anything this year?"

Back in second or third grade, or maybe both, during class discussion on autism awareness day, Ethan had volunteered that he was on the autism spectrum. Kids at that age either said that was cool -- or that they were, too. I didn't consider these moments earth-shattering breakthroughs, but was impressed that he'd spoken up. Ethan's always been pretty reserved.

But that was then. "Eh," he said in response to my question. "I don't think I'm going to."

"Why not?" I wondered if it was because we were easing our way into THAT AGE...the one of embarrassment and peer pressure and not wanting to stand out.

"I just don't think my autism affects me that much anymore," he replied. "Not the way it did when I was little. I don't think I need to talk about it." He ambled off to do something -- probably read his coding book.

I stood there looking at the flyer and feeling a swirl of things:

Elation, because he was right. Ethan has learned to manage the more difficult aspects of his type of autism well, particularly at school.

Trepidation, because he wasn't completely right. His autism still affects him in subtle ways, ways that a typical person might pick up on when he might not.

Gratitude, that he was even able to sit before me and voice his feelings about the whole thing so articulately.

Wistfulness, because my role as parent is changing. It's his decision to share this information with others. It's his decision not to. These are the wee baby steps of self-advocacy. But his version of self-advocacy may look different than mine. I'm Mamma Bear. I will err on the side of making excuses to everyone so people will be less likely to make fun of my child. Or to think he's just "weird."

Shame, because those kind of thoughts of wanting to protect my son also reveal my own lifelong struggles of caring too much what others think.

April 2 is Autism Awareness Day. Ethan's autism has made ME so much more aware of so many things in the nearly 10 years now (can it be?!) since his diagnosis.

I'm aware of how a child's special needs can both expose your own ugliness and also shape you into something much more beautiful. It can reveal our ultimate lack of control and beg the question: who do you trust? For those with a faith walk it prods you to ask: is God still good and do I love like Jesus? It asks you to reconsider what we really want for our children, our lives, our selves, and what gives someone value.

Today a big stack of papers came in the mail. Results of Ethan's tri-annual testing, this time in preparation for (can you believe it??) middle school. There was a whole ream of assessments with multiple acronyms. I came to the last result. It was a repeat of the first test they ever performed on Ethan. He's taken it about five times over the years. For the first time ever, he scored just one point below the cut-off for being labeled "officially autistic." Whatever that means.

Because that is yet one more thing I've learned through all of this: the amazing, widely varying spectrum that autism is. Ethan and my brother are about as far apart on it as one can get. Yet thanks to the ways Ethan thinks and acts, the perspectives he shares, I understand more about Andy than I ever could have. I also see some of the beautiful things about autism that are harder to recognize when someone is very significantly impacted.

People with autism have an incredibly different way of perceiving and processing the world around them. It's amazing and baffling and funny and painful all rolled into one.

Ethan says autism doesn't impact him that much anymore. I don't how true that is. Time will tell.

I do know that it has always and will always deeply impact me. And I'm incredibly thankful for that.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Just Do the Right Thing

Back when I was in grade school I started subscribing to the belief that I was a victim of what I called "The Goody Two-Shoes Curse." What that meant was, everyone else could get away with something habitually while the ONE time I tried to bend the rules, I would get caught.

This started way back in second grade, when some older kids used to sneak across the street and get candy from a convenience store before we had to go inside the school. The one time my friend and I tried, we were busted well before we got there. Next I tried reading a book under my desk instead of paying attention and got caught first time. Acting out towards the whining neighbor kid: his mom saw me and told my parents. Punishment ensued.

This continued through high school. My best friend and I were at a golf course trying to find where the popular people were hiding and partying when who got stopped by the police but us -- while they continued blissfully partying. The officer threated to bring us back home in his cruiser.

Over time I realized that I wasn't very good at being bad anyway, would never possess much of a rebel personality, and had a screaming loud conscience, so why not just listen to it and not try to be something I wasn't? And so I never smoked a cigarette or got inebriated. Most of my bending of the rules has occurred with speed limits and red lights (and even then, I've gotten caught -- multiple times!).

I say all of this to say I should have known better, the day before Christmas break, when Ethan had a musical event at his school and the parking lot was jam-packed. Everyone was in a festive mood. I was running late because Chloe had to gather her Christmas light necklace and blinking headband. Even though we lived just around the corner we drove there and I realized there was nowhere to park, we were late, and since I didn't feel like traipsing from way in the back of the school, I was going to just park on the grass in the front as several other parents had done.

I took a deep breath and went over the curb and onto the grass, looking around slyly for anyone protesting my actions. All clear. Chloe and I booked into the school and managed to slide into some of the few remaining seats. Kids sang and holiday cheer was spread around, and then it was time to go. The school day had ended and we were left pushing through the mass chaos of hundreds of kids dismissed for their holiday break. At the car I buckled the kids in and we were off...only, we weren't.

There was something I'd forgotten when I parked on the grass. It may have been December, but we'd just had a little warm spell and a boatload of rain. The snowless ground was not frozen but very, very wet and muddy.

My tires spun. And spun. And spun. I got out of the car as other parents climbed into their properly parked cars and began driving away. I looked down at my tires. They were inches upon inches deep in mud.

"MOM? What's going on!" Ethan demanded. "I want to go home!"

I tried again. Nothing except the smell of burning rubber. "Ethan, get out of the car and help push," I hissed, exasperated. What I expected to accomplish, I don't know. The kid is as skinny as a rail. I thought of the parents getting into their cars whispering, "What is she doing, having her son try to push the car?" But I couldn't exactly ask him to get behind the wheel while I pushed.

Chloe started crying and asking, "When are we going??" I pressed the gas pedal harder, twisted the wheel back and forth. Mud was shooting up and spraying all over the van. My shoes were caked with mud. I looked out at the buses loading up kids and parents and students walking to their cars. I knew there was only one thing we could do.

"Kids," I announced. "We have to walk home." You can imagine how this went over. I ignored the wailing as we gathered backpacks, papers, and gifts from teachers. Outside it was now raining and we hunched under our hoods, trudging in our mud-covered shoes past parents who weren't dumb enough to park in the mud. There were a few other cars still parked next to us on the grass, but I'm pretty sure they had four-wheel drive.

Our walk home is literally a tenth of a mile, but it was long enough. We walked up the hill behind the school as parents in the car pick-up line looked on, curious; flung our things over the ladder attached to the fence that divides our neighborhood's property from the school; and slogged down the hill through the backyard.

"MOM GOT US STUCK IN THE MUD!" Ethan took pleasure in announcing to Dan, who'd been home with a migraine, and Anna as we got inside.

The fun was only just beginning. Anna took charge of the house while Dan and I rode back to the school in his car. He took one look at the car and how far sunk in the mud it was and asked incredulously, "What did you DO?"

After a few minutes of him attempting to get me unstuck it became obvious -- I was going to have to be towed. We drove back home and called AAA while the kids asked when we were going to have dinner. AAA called us back 15 minutes later to say they were on their way, so back we drove to the school in the quickly growing darkness. I could see the lights of the tow truck approaching just as I saw the vice principal coming out to his car to leave. Further I slunk under my coat, hoping he wouldn't recognize me. In the school I could see the lights in the principal's office were still on -- and thought I glimpsed the shadow of her head peering out the window as the truck pulled up.

"Well, well," said the driver as he examined my mess. "You got yourself stuck pretty good." I loved the way the flashing yellow lights reflected all over the school building and even onto the houses across the street. Just the attention we needed.

As he uncoiled a very long chain to connect to my car, I noticed there was a woman sitting in one of the few cars left in the parking lot. "Did you see that woman?" Dan asked a moment later. "She was sitting in her car laughing at us."

After more lights flashing and beepers beeping my van was hauled out of the mud -- 3 1/2 hours after I'd originally parked it. The janitors in the schools were sweeping the halls. The stars had started appearing.

Looking at my mud splattered car the next morning I sheepishly realized that I needed to stop going on about the Goody Two-Shoes Curse and just do the right thing. Even the little stuff. Our kids are watching. But even when no one's watching. You do what's right because it's right.

The other night we went to Ethan's school for his band concert. It was another warm, soggy kind of evening. I looked up at those risk-takers parked on the grass and eased into my "legal" parking spot. Humiliation really is one of the greatest teachers.