In the worst moments, our Riley drifts away from us.
She wanders somewhere deep and lonely, somewhere we can’t follow. It happens gradually, the going, the pulling away—a lost look in her eyes, the slow way she moves, the quiet we can feel. We reach for her, calling her name, and she murmurs, trying to find her way back. She blinks, nods, turns her head away from the brooding, heavy thing that beckons her adrift.
“Riley? Riley. Are you okay?”
The question, the alarm in Zoe’s voice, makes me stop singing and grip the steering wheel. They sit side by side, have been playing a game, and suddenly, Zoe reaches, gathering her sister back. I stare at the road, the charcoal gray ribbon with all its lines rolling beneath the wheels as we move.
“Zoe, is she okay?” I can’t look back, have no way to search Riley’s face.
The overpass takes us up, up, and the sky, washed red and orange and blue in front of us, makes me draw in my breath.
“I, I think so,” Zoe says slowly, and then, “Riley? Riilleeeyy?”
“Mmmhmm?” I hear Riley say softly.
“Riley.” I layer my voice with the urgency of demand, dropping the syllables hard.
“Yes?” She speaks to me, but far away. Still, hearing her voice helps. She drifts, and I miss her so much in those seconds it hurts.
“Riley, are you okay back there?” The road twists, asphalt sparkling in the dying light.
“Yes, I’m okay, actually.” Casually, she throws in that word, actually, as though to acknowledge both her wandering and our reaching, as if to let me know she understands. And once again, she speaks from right behind me.
And only then do I breathe.
Sometimes living feels lonely, even when it isn’t.
The days just after a diagnosis pass just so, blurring everything, the loneliness settling in the empty space carved out by grief. I remember sopping up milk that dripped from the long crack in the kitchen table and poured down its sides, laughter and then tears coming too close together. Back then, Riley lived her life far away from me, without words, without really seeing me. I laughed because of the irony, because I felt cracked and seeping, and I wept in the next breath, begging for some bright light to pour into all my broken places, searching for some evidence that someone else knew the things I felt.
Some of my closest friends have said that they didn’t know how much we suffered early on, how lonely we were, how life had fallen gray all around us. I suppose I spoke from somewhere far, because in the first days it’s easy to drift away. Loss had ripped apart the illusion protecting all my raw vulnerability, and I felt naked, grasping, slipping. My gaze locked on things grieved, and I couldn’t see anyone else. Everything went blurry. My most urgent impulse, just then, was to hide.
OH, if I could just jump in a hole somewhere, I thought (and still so often think), literally wishing for the pit.
And gradually, I began to sink. The heavy, brooding thing stole my voice. It locked me away. And ridiculously, I still believed I could trust my perceptions of things from that far place. Everyone seemed to agree with my decision to go. Blind, but believing I could see; far, but believing myself near, I began to see things that weren’t there and miss things I needed.
From down in the pit, I heard the talk. No one knew what to do with us and our wandering, our loss, our mess.
Oblivious to the truth, I drew back further. I had jumped, but it seemed that everyone had thrown me; I had drifted, but it seemed as though everyone had left. I could not see that someone meant to come back for me; someone loved me; someone meant to help; someone valued my life; someone reached for me, calling, begging me to fight my way back.
That pit—the vile, dark, ugly place—changed my life. It alienated, isolated me. From its depths, I was sold as a slave to lies. I responded to the reach of love with a voice far adrift, pretending not to stare at dirt walls, murmuring my best impression of cheery tones, acting as if I didn’t feel lost and alone. And no one knew how much it hurt.
What is it about the hard times–those dark, lonely spaces—that draw us away from each other? Why does the hurting lock our eyes and steal the voice away? Why do we believe, somehow, in all that we feel as we drift away, in the blindness that locks us distant?
Maybe it’s this about Riley, the epilepsy always pulling at presence, that makes her draw near to the drifting. She picks them out of every group, the ones so uncomfortable and awkward no one knows how to draw them out, the ones pretending not to be standing in the pit. Most of us feel that heavy, brooding thing that keeps them locked away, that ugly evil we’ve all known, and we sidle up to the hole in the ground. We crouch, the dirt on our knees. We talk to them from outside. If we’re loving enough to look away from our own lives long enough to pay attention, we reach our hands down inside the pit and ask them to take hold.
But not Riley. Riley takes a leap and jumps down into the hole with them, these lost and hurting people. I’ve watched her do it a thousand times. She wraps her arms around them, the way she greets her sister every morning, shrugging off their uncomfortable writhing. “I’m just doing this because I love you,” she says, without the social savvy to know she’s ignoring implicit boundaries. And this, I suppose is some of the beauty of autism, this way she loves. From the pit, Riley gets silly, her giggles echoing against the dirt. It’s as though she senses discomfort and thinks, “Okay, fine. We’ll be weird together.”
And she teaches me. Because this too, is the royal way, the way of Christ. The Savior draws near to the drifting. He jumps in the pit and lifts us out. His love defines patient and long suffering kindness, always protecting, covering over the raw seeping wound with healing. The farther I fall, the nearer He steps, wrapping His arms around me, touching my eyes with His hands until I can see again. Even when I resist, He whispers, “I’m just doing this because I love you.”
There’s nothing quite like the desperation we feel when our Riley drifts away, nothing like that burning pain, the ache of missing her, the floundering, the soul-deep begging. Please, baby girl, fight your way back.
Is that what you feel too, every time I’m hurting and I drift away from you? Because when you sink there, when you wander somewhere far, I miss you so much it hurts. Sometimes I wonder when we’ll learn to run together instead of drifting apart, every one of us all cracked and seeping.
So, listen up. Yes, you. The one down in the pit, pretending you’re not covered in darkness you can feel:
I’m going to jump down in that pit with you. I’m going to wrap my arms around you and drop every illusion that I have any clue what I’m doing. It’s going to look and sound pretty silly. But okay, fine. We’ll be weird together. Just please, please, please…fight your way back.