The sun was falling slowly to the west, lighting up the tops of the wheat and the scattered wildflowers just gently enough to paint a layer of gold around them. I will never get over the way the world looks right before the sun sets; like it is at peace, content with itself for having given its best, ready for the rest it well deserves.
We had driven to the north side of town to meet our family at the orchard, dressed in corresponding colors for the yearly pictures. “I forgot the lollipops,” I said out loud.
“We will be fine,” Alex responded. “It will be quick.” Always hopeful, that one.
Cannon fell asleep on the drive, so when we pulled up we decided to just let him rest until we were ready to go take our pictures. It is easy now to see where we started to go sideways on this endeavor, and the decision to not wake him right then was the beginning.
After a few minutes the photographer arrived, and we made our way toward the blooming sunflowers for the big group shot first. Alex unbuckled Cannon and gently picked him up, whispering in his ear that it was time for pictures. He was out of sorts right away, I could tell. He woke up in an unfamiliar place with a lot of expectations, and then we started asking him to look at a camera and say cheese, which makes the list of the ‘hardest things’ for his mind to execute.
Even if I had remembered the lollipops, I’m sure this would have gone the way it did.
We tried. I tickled him and kissed his cheeks and let him hang the full weight of his body on mine, but this boy wanted no part of family pictures in that moment. So, after a few minutes, I told the group to keep on without us, and Cannon and I headed back toward the car.
That’s when I really noticed the sunset, and the visceral peace hovering all around. Everything I saw looked, well, perfect. The blemishes that cannot hide under the midday sun disappear under the filter of dusk, reminding me that Instagram has nothing on nature. The cooler air and the softer surroundings, all of it announcing the end of its work for the day. Then I noticed my heart, and even against the weight of a struggling boy, who was exceptionally difficult to carry while walking through the dirt in wedges, it was totally at peace.
No tears. No frustration. No embarrassment. No compelling draw to explain anything to the rest of the family or the photographer. In that moment I was just a mom doing what her son needed.
I’ve come a long way from the mom who needed her son to do what I wanted.
It has been just over a year since we knew Cannon was autistic. I remember this time a year ago, at the end of a long summer, texting a friend who is a bit further ahead of us on a similar journey. She responded with such sweet empathy, and told me the first year was the hardest, but that her little one was improving all the time, that he has so many incredible strengths, and that it’s not easy but it’s going to be ok.
She was exactly right.
The first year was really, really hard. I did not know what to do with my son, I did not know what to do with all the opinions on why he is autistic, and I did not have the first idea how to internalize the comments and stories of others. I had no bandwidth for any one of the books a well-intentioned friend had heard was a good read, but I’d send a “thank you so much, I’ll look in to it” response anyway. I could not have named it at the time, but I spent much of the first year unraveling. I had put together a whole narrative on both God and myself as a mom, and thread by thread it was all being pulled apart.
What I can tell you now is this: I was looking at the world and trying to make sense of God. And I was looking at my children and trying to make sense of myself as a mom. When you get those things backwards, nothing really seems to fit. But when God graciously takes apart the story you believe you are narrating and puts it back together as the only fitting Author, it makes a lot more sense.
When I started with God, with his character, his story, his purposes, and all of the realities of life in a broken world, then everything else had so much meaning. But this did not happen for me overnight. In fact, I didn’t really notice how far we have come until the sunset over the orchard reminded me that just as the world makes its way around the sun every day and not the other way around, so does God need his rightful place at the center of each of our days, and not the other way around. As John Piper so beautifully says, "The healing of the soul begins by restoring the glory of God to its flaming, all-attracting place at the center."
So much of life comes down to hope, doesn’t it? And when it comes to autism—perhaps even parenting in general—the first thing you lose when your child is not doing something they are supposed to be doing is hope. I can look back at last summer and realize that what I had always believed about life, the story I had weaved together, was written around a lifetime of accomplishments, good reputation, “blessings” and other renditions of the beautiful American Dream. The foundation of my whole narrative was hope, but hope that was in those good things. I have had to learn that hope is only as unshakable as its object.
So a year ago, God took it all apart and re-wrote the beginning. It is still hope, but it is in Him.
And when my hope is really in Jesus, all of a sudden my heart is bursting at the seems to have real hope for Cannon, too. Not just in progress, but in the story God will tell with his precious life, and the glory a little boy who sees the world so differently could bring to Him.
Once Cannon and I made it back to the cars, I found his juice cup and sat down with him at a picnic table. Together we waited for a moment, looking out at the horizon and breathing in the peace all around us. In just a few minutes, he smiled up at me and then got down off my lap—his physical indication that he was fine now. We went and found the rest of the family, and while I don’t think we got one picture with all the cousins that night, or even one where all of us were looking, we drove away with smiles on our faces. Alex reached over and grabbed my hand, and we laughed a little bit wondering why on earth we didn’t wake him up and give him a few minutes to run around in the place before throwing a chorus of resounding “say cheese!” at him.
This is our beautiful life. Not one day of it has taken God by surprise, and not one of them will be wasted.
The other night, Cannon joined his siblings and me in a game of tag— he has never done that before. He turns when we call his name now, he asks for what he wants with words and not pictures. He sleeps all night. He hugs his siblings. In life we tend to measure progress by big things or in big moments—like family pictures. He didn’t do so well in that moment, but he has had a thousand amazing little moments before and after that one.
So, I hope. And I’ll keep hoping. Because this progress, these everyday miracles, is in its rightful place on the periphery, like the stars and the moon lighting up our lives. They are no longer at the center. Our life, and our hope, moves around the Son.