“What’s wrong?” I stand at the bottom of the stairs with one foot propped on the nearest step waiting for her answer, counting the bits of things–bright sock fuzz, some kind of crumb–caught in the nap of that foot-worn carpet. One more beat of silence and I’ll run up, one answer and I’ll bend down and collect that trash with my fingers.
“I don’t know. I’m just struggling today,” she says, her voice growing louder as she walks down the hall toward the stairs. The word struggling opens wide like a fissure, cracking her voice apart. Today lands in pieces at my feet. “I’m just having an anxiety attack,” she says, and her voice shakes the way I know her body will when I touch her, a trembling from within that bombards the boundaries of her skin.
“Oh no! Why?” It’s a stupid question. Thoughtless. Reactive. The question really means I’m so sorry; I wish you didn’t have those; I wish I knew how to protect you from them. How often do I lose track of what I’m really trying to say? But of course she’s the most literal human being I know, and she wouldn’t guess that I mean something else.
She looks down at me from the top of the stairs, tears glistening. “I don’t know,” she says, and all of the words shatter. She doesn’t know why. There is no why. For Riley, there are multiple triggers for anxiety, many of them inextricably tied to the autism that makes her a truly amazing person. She stares through her tears at the stairs, gripping the railing, taking them one at a time the way she did as a preschooler, sweeping that mop of gold-blonde curls back from her forehead with one hand.
“Do you want me to pray with you?” Riley’s faith is profoundly simple. She believes solidly that as long as God is with her she will be okay.
I hear Kevin’s footsteps stop in the doorway. Hearing us, he pauses right there en route to the car, his hands full of work stuff. Prayer unleashes the kind of shared power that changes things from any distance. Riley leans on me. The soft stray hair at the crown of her head tickles my cheek. I flatten my hand against her back and all that terrible trembling. I imagine nerves like sparklers in the darkness, spouting their stinging light, and I start to pray. I don’t remember the exact words, probably because there’s no magic in them. I ask for peace like a guard. I say aloud the things God knows—that we trust Him, that we need Him, that we know He is with us. She nods, murmuring assent into the curve of my neck. My skin is damp from her crying, this crying out. One thing I know: God is never nearer than when we cry out to Him desperately.
Beneath my hand, I feel her trembling slowly dissipate and then cease.
“Amen,” I say, and she echoes me, lifting her head. From the doorway, Kevin’s amen falls softly.
That word—amen–it’s no light thing, not just some way to say “bye,” like we’re hanging up the phone. Months ago, during my ask year, I learned that Amen, a now nearly universal word transliterated from Hebrew, passed from synagogues to early Christian worship gatherings. Amen is an expression of absolute trust, almost exactly identical to the Hebrew word for believe, or faithful. In the first century, those participating in group prayer but not praying out loud themselves used it as a way to adopt someone’s audible prayer as their own, and that’s how it became the last thing we say in prayer as the conversation pauses. So that word doesn’t mean all done. It means we believe, or God, you’re faithful. To say amen with the name of Jesus—in Jesus name, amen–is to say that both our faith and the wealth of God’s faithfulness dwells in that name, in the One through whom absolutely everything can be redeemed. In the name of Jesus, we believe. In Jesus, God, you’re faithful. In Jesus’ name, amen is a four-word gospel. At every pause in our conversations with God, we proclaim our faith in His faithfulness.
And Riley, she never says that word with a whisper, not even now. Ask our friends and they’ll tell you that her amen is the one most easily heard in our worship assemblies. She calls that word from her seat—I believe, I believe, I believe. God is faithful.—like it’s the first word she ever learned.
I think maybe it might have been.
“Amen, Mom Jones,” she says confidently, finding her smile. Other than the wetness lingering in the corners of her eyes, I can no longer see traces of storm. Amen and it’s over. If God is with me, I’m okay. God’s powerful “be still” falls over troubled seas.
Hear me right, now. I don’t pretend to have the answers to anxiety. I’d never tell you that those who struggle with this just need to pray more, nor would I suggest that those who struggle through differently have less faith. No. That’s not at all what I mean to say. We all get through in our own ways, and different ways are just different, not less.
All that I really mean to tell you is that Riley stuns me with her simple faith—when I stand there feeling her anxiety fall away beneath my hand, when I see the way she runs to God when everything feels like it’s falling apart. And I mean to tell you that this is what I do know: If faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20), my daughter’s faith can change the world.