“I always eat slowly right before school.” She says it quietly, when she knows I stand listening, when it’s just the two of us in the room.
Two days back to school, and every morning Riley comments that she’s cold and wraps her legs with a blanket. She sometimes tries to stand so that I won’t notice she’s shaking.
She sits at the bar across from where I work, nibbling tiny bites from a piece of toast, chewing each one until it must be nearly nothing on her tongue. She eats slowly, which means—I’ve come to understand—that anxiety has taken it’s stand against her, that she’s nauseous and afraid she’ll gag, that tremors run up and down her legs. Sometimes, she says she has chills in her mouth.
Over the break, the symptoms of her fear smoothed away, gradually, like a receding wave leaving the shore all new. Eventually, she stopped worrying that every bite might make her throat convulse. But now we’re two days back, and she says, “I always eat slowly right before school,” and beneath each word, I hear panic dripping. Anxiety like hers is a physiological reality for a majority of teens with autism and is almost guaranteed for epileptics approaching young adulthood. Maturity births awareness—the knowledge that she doesn’t always understand what words mean, the fact that she loses time to invisible seizures, the truth that not many of her peers appreciate her as she is—or, to say it as she does, the way God made her. Sensory stress, especially in crowded spaces like school, makes it difficult for her to blend in and go unnoticed.
I put down the damp dish towel I hold in my hands and walk around to kiss Riley’s cheek, to rest my forehead against hers. And just when I make it to her side, Zoe appears on the other, as though Riley’s fear drew her downstairs.
“I know,” I say, grazing Riley’s cheek with my hand. “Can we pray with you?”
She nods, swallowing hard, and I put my hand on her back. Zoe reaches for us, and we are three stretching, Three bending, three melted into each other.
“Dear Lord, please,” I whisper, and Riley breathes, and with her exhale comes the sound of relief, a smile we can hear. In the midst of her anxiety, she often reminds me about the power in clinging. I watch her cover her mouth, running toward the bathroom in false alarm, and I hear her behind the closed door, pleading alone, “Lord, please.” So now, we go together, three souls asking. And as I speak to Him of Riley’s worries and the washing away, she exhales as though she feels Him touching her.
When we open our eyes, she has found her smile. “Mom? God is with me,” she says, speaking the same truth as on those false alarm days, when she finally comes out from behind the door and meets my eyes.
“Yes. He is,” I say, and Zoe and I wrap her in our arms, and for a few minutes, we just stand knotted together, a cord of three not easily broken. And in just that way, she teaches me what to do with my fear, my uncertainty, my overwhelming inadequacy. She teaches me to pray, to trust, and to obliterate trembling with the truth.
The virgin will give birth to a son, and they shall call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”). ~Matthew 1:23