It was somewhere in the summer 2004, I think. Memory gets hazy with three children so don’t hold me to that. But I know I was home from college, browsing clothes I did not need and bathing suits that would not flatter at my hometown Target. I heard a young girl fussing near the door, I’m still not sure why. I don’t know if they were coming in to the store or trying to leave, but I honestly was not paying too much attention. Kids throw fits, it happens. But then it got a little louder, and a little more difficult for her mama. The young girl was having a full blown meltdown by the time my eyes found the commotion.
And what happened next caused the whole front of the store to turn their attention to the door.
Another woman, who appeared to be just slightly older than the struggling mom, came through the front doors, obviously appalled at the poor parenting she was witnessing. In a callous and unsympathetic manner and loud enough for anyone within 50 feet to hear, with disgust in her voice she said, “Control your child!” Then kept walking.
And then, in an instant, the mom cracked. Each of us onlookers heard a screeching, “What did you say?!” And then saw the mom take the ten quick and angry steps to get in front of the crass commenter and stop two inches from her face. “You B____! She is autistic! Do you want to come over here and tell me that again, as if I can do something about it!” More swearing ensued. There was never any physical fight but I sure thought there would be. I could not see the commenter’s face, I have no idea if she had any remorse. I just watched her keep walking, trying to get away from the angry mom in front of her.
It all lasted no more than ten seconds. The middle-aged woman returning to her shopping, the mama returning to her inconsolable child. And with a heart beating slightly faster than the minute before, I tried to keep shopping. It was a short incident. No security, no handcuffs, a frustrating misunderstanding really; hardly worth talking about any further.
But thirteen years later, the whole scene is still burned in my memory.
And so are the feelings I had as I left that day: I would never, ever, be that judgmental. When I am a mom, I will show tons of grace and do nothing but encourage the moms who need it.
I would have no idea that God was actually going to ask me to be the mom begging not to be judged.
We pulled up to the park on Father’s Day anxious for some sunshine and a picnic lunch. As usual, Cannon had his very favorite Cars slippers on and was excited to take off running toward the swings. I turned from the front seat and said, “Ok buddy, let’s put your shoes on.”
He quickly lifted his right leg toward me and I took off his slipper and replaced it with a gray slip-on shoe. And then it all went downhill.
“Ok bud, other foot.” He didn’t move.
“Cannon, let’s put your other shoe on.” He pulled away, protective over the Car slipper still on his left foot.
I forced the issue a bit more. “Cannon Lee, you need two shoes on. The slippers aren’t safe to climb in.” He started getting angry as I kept reaching for his left foot. Tired of asking, I forcefully took off his slipper, put his other shoe on and unbuckled him from his seat. He went from smiling to inconsolable in under ten seconds.
I thought if we kept walking toward the park he would calm down, but with each step further and further from the car he became more and more distraught, his body against the weight of mine as he reached back and I pushed forward. Alex grabbed him from me because I was struggling to not drop him, and the fight continued. We made it across the parking lot and to the closest park bench, but things were falling apart. Cannon was turning all shades of red, purple and blue from crying—no, wailing—and his parents were not far behind. With all of his three-year-old might he fought us to go back to the car for his slippers, and when we would not let him it brought out everything bad in all of us. He started hitting, swinging his little arms as fast as he could against Alex’s face, then against his own.
And to me, that’s the worst, when he does that to himself. Rips my heart out every time.
Then Alex and I started in on each other. “What do you want me to do?” Alex asked.
“I have no idea what to do!” I responded a little louder.
“This is awful.” He said in return.
“I’m sorry our life is so awful!” I told him through gathering tears. “Give him to me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. But he cannot act like this! He cannot hit! He cannot make life impossible! And he cannot wear slippers at the park! We are going home!” And as I tried to grab Cannon out of Alex’s arms (who was—rightfully so— a bit reluctant to hand him over to a mama who, for all intents and purposes, had cracked) Cannon’s flailing body almost fell to the ground in the process. We caught him, but the whole scene looked awful.
Just ask the few dozen families at the park who watched it.
I want to tell you that my faith in God has not waivered one bit in the face of a little boy whose life is confusing and, to be straight with you all, incredibly difficult. I wish I could say that I have had endless patience with the attempts to run off, with the refusal to sit and eat at the table, with head banging and arm flapping and a desperate longing for him to ask any question other than the one he asks a hundred times a day, “Where’s the volcano?” (Thanks, Dora). And I really, really wish I could tell you I patiently cleaned up another episode of fecal smearing (it is what one might guess it is) at 10:30pm two nights ago. But I didn’t, I sobbed through each and every swipe of the carpet.
The only thing I can tell you is that my hope, and faith, are paper thin right now. And that motherhood has completely stripped me of any confidence I had in my ability and my hard work. More than a decade removed from that memory of the Target yelling incident, I know exactly how that mama felt when she yelled “…as if I can do anything about it!”
That is, in eight words, exactly what autism feels like sometimes.
I walked my crying little guy back to our van in the parking lot, all at once ashamed of myself and frustrated at everything that had just happened. Cannon and I both sat in our seats and sobbed for a few minutes, him over his beloved slippers and me over my beloved child. Every fear in the world rains on you in moments like this:
It will never get better.
The therapy is useless. So are the diets.
He’ll be in diapers his whole life. And wearing Cars slippers.
You only have another few years until he is much stronger than you.
Your other two kids will resent their life.
Say goodbye to dinner with new friends. Probably even old friends.
And it goes on. Fear is so bossy, and incredibly loud. And when it starts pouring down it is all too easy to forget everything I know about hope.
For all of my life, I have believed in a good God. But I need to admit something: he seemed really, really good when I was enjoying incredible success as an athlete, marrying an amazing man and welcoming healthy babies in to the world. He has felt less good since autism.
But he’s not less good, and I know this. I do. I think that he is just asking my child-like faith if it is ready to be made real, if it will stand up to really hard circumstances, if day in and day out I can clean up smearing, sit patiently through inexplicable outbursts, be willing to leave places we couldn’t quite make it through the door of, and humbly do this work. I spent many years dreaming up a much sexier version of gospel-living and kingdom work. But with every elevator door we pass by that we must stop and push the button for, with every time we turn the car down an unfamiliar street and cause a panic-attack, with every minute I want to say “I quit,” I hear the familiar voice I’ve known in every season of life, still there: this is kingdom work, and I have never changed.
The fear might be louder, but the truth is stronger. And though I am a slow learner, I know the truth to go back to.
...in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:16)
I’ve cracked. But truth is gluing me back together. May it always be so.