Last week marked an almost-forgotten memory for Alex and me. Not because it wasn’t special, it was. And not because we aren’t sentimental people, we are. This memory has just been a little bit buried by the here and now. Six years ago, Alex got down on one knee (during a college football game, because he loves me) and asked me to be his bride. We immediately drove to the mall for “engagement pictures” in the photo booth and did not let go of one another’s hands for the next five hours.
Every newly engaged gal knows what follows next: I stared at my ring at every opportunity. Hands on the steering wheel- look at my ring! On the elliptical- look at my ring! Typing on the computer- look at my ring! It was simple and modest, but I walked around for weeks just knowing that everyone around me must have noticed the new addition to my left hand, and all that it meant for me. I no longer had to pretend that I was buying bridal magazines for a friend. I could actually google wedding venues in the clear view of another person. I could plan, plan, plan and since I had basically been doing so secretly for about six years, this came very naturally. I was in love. We were in love. All we saw was love.
Still, Alex and I were blessed with very wise people around us during our engagement, so we were not living completely in fantasy land. We knew marriage would be hard. We knew we had to prepare more for a lifetime than for a party. We knew keeping God at the center of our lives was the only way to begin our life together. We knew.
But we also didn’t, because we had no idea what it would look like for all of those things to be true.
Becoming parents will change a marriage in profound ways, because the love – and money and space and time— that was divided between two people must be not only be shifted around, but it actually has to grow to make room for a third, or fourth or fifth or sixth person. It’s simple math, really (or is it physics? I’m a words girl, I don’t know). If two things fit comfortably in a set space, when we add more we either have to redefine comfort or find a bigger space; but it’s hard for everything to stay the same without constantly running in to one another.
When Alex and I watched our son develop (I should say not develop) and land in the category of special needs, we were, in essence, handed something that takes up a whole lot of space.
I can tell you that things get tense easily. So easily it’s scary. We started running in to one another before we knew how to adjust our space. There would be days early on where I thought Cannon was having a great day— good eye contact, looking up at the sound of his name, signing for more— and as I would share my optimism with Alex, if he did not match it, if he didn’t see the same things and feel what I felt, we would instantly be at each other. I would accuse him of being negative and pessimistic, and he would accuse me of not letting him feel what he needed to. And then the roles would reverse a thousand times: I would be feeling so low about Cannon’s progress and Alex would be feeling great about it; then I would think him ignorant and he would think me cynical. A long period of silent treatment usually followed these moments, as we both at different times felt like we had vulnerably shared that we were hopeful only to feel like our hope was batted away by one another.
And when two people can’t hope for something together, it gets all kinds of hard. Doesn’t so much of our pain come from misplaced hope?
But those conversations were, and still are, only the minor players. Permission to speak freely? Forgive the overgeneralization, but I think in general men don’t need to be happy to want to have sex. Women, however, often do. When a mama is just flat out low for months at a time, the bedroom is not exactly the most happening place. And that matters in marriage. It matters so much. Then there’s the budgets that need a major overhaul, the suddenly limited supply of babysitters because not just anyone can handle a little boy who can’t communicate his needs, and the fact that autism is just always on our freaking minds because it has to be: does he want raisins? Are the doors locked? Why is he crying? Are you taking him to therapy today? If we go to the birthday party do you want to shadow Cannon? Is he kicking his crib or hitting his head?
It all just takes up a lot of space.
There’s the general thought floating around out there that 80% of marriages with an autistic child end in divorce. Well, that’s not really true, but special needs absolutely puts a unique stress on marriage. We know it, because we have seen a hundred tiny splinters turn in to actual wedges between us in the last year. Every marriage has those splinters, a special needs marriage just has different ones—maybe more of them, but I don’t know that for sure. We all need guards in our marriages and we all need Jesus. Still, Alex and I looked at the very real evidence that many special needs children end up being raised by single parents at a time, and we said, “No. We do this together. Very imperfectly, but always together.” I don’t know how we could ever do it apart.
We don’t have a formula for navigating our marriage on this journey, but we have one thing that we believe has made all the difference: a burning desire for God’s glory. And that’s really it, that is our answer. So we start there and we end there. Alex led the way on this—this man has put more scripture in his heart and mind in the last six months than in our entire marriage. It’s his oxygen. When he is playing with the kids he constantly stops and says “guys, look at the clouds, did you know the Heavens declare the glory of God!” Sometimes Cannon will look up and sometimes he won’t, but I can tell you it is impossible not to feel held and provided for when you are saying out loud that even “the sky declares His handiwork!” Your eyes immediately find your son and you think “Yes, Cannon, your life declares the glory of God and the way he made you proclaims his handiwork!” God’s word instantly changes the way we see this struggle— as if we are in those moments not fighting it but letting God do what he will in it.
Daily we are finding that when we believe in the perfect ending of this story, God’s story, the same things take a much different shape. Our hope is reoriented to the only thing that can sustain it, the gospel. Autism, while it may make us weary many days, doesn’t loosen our grip on one another, it forces us to grip the cross like our life depends on it—because it does. But friends, I promise you, when we are grabbing hold of Jesus through the access we have to him in his word, He holds us. And then we don’t have to stay in the place of “why would God let Cannon go through this?” because we know: it’s for his glory.
My faith in Jesus, and my marriage to Alex, is not the same as it was six years ago when I was blissfully unaware of the nuances of marriage and parenting and thought picking colors was preparing us for big decisions later on. Today, I realize that I know so much less about anything but desire so much more of Jesus, and that is because God gave us the blessing of our sweet boy. Autism woke me up to God’s redemptive plan, and it forever changed the way I hope my marriage reflects God’s glory. And while I will always have days that I want someone to listen to how hard this can be, or feel bad that it costs so much money, or have sympathy because school and vacations and holidays are always going to look different for us, what I want my life to say far more than anything else is this: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man… Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for my soul.”
Alex, I'm so grateful we get to do this together.