At first, Riley can’t see.
Bright Sunday morning, and we’re just inside the building where the church meets saying hello, a bunch of mismatched, layered-up family wearing reunion smiles, and I see her bending over her clipboard, too low, too close, one eye flat closed like a patch and the other just barely a slit. She straightens a little just to rub a hand over, like she’s wiping something away, and then bends down down down again. Riley takes her job seriously, with great joy; she loves nothing more than letting God pour out her gifts, and this is where He shines. Riley remembers every name—even if it’s been years since you walked through the door; it’s God in her, her superpower we like to say, which makes her our church hostess, nametag and all. This is maybe my favorite thing about God’s real people, and I’m not talking about all the people in this specific building or wearing some specific delineating name; I’m talking about the Christ-dressed people scattered everywhere who don’t discriminate over a thing like autism. I love this about the true Body of Christ, how every soul has a gift and every part matters, and I’m thinking this as I watch Riley stand up and chirp a sweet good morning to another tight-wrapped soul squeezing in from the cold. But she’s squinting, trying to see them, and her cheeks are red from the rubbing. She shines like a star.
“Riley, are your eyes okay?” I ask, and the words pry her heart right open, and she weeps. What is it about an acknowledgment that offers us permission to let go?
“I just…I can’t see,” she says, slick-cheeked, and I can tell she’s flailing, drowning in some invisible current. “I think it’s my medicine,” she says, because it’s the only life ring within arms’ reach and one that has at times proven sure. A little too much anti-seizure meds and she’s drowsy and dizzy and bleary-eyed. Could be.
Kevin and Zoe walk over and give Riley their arms, and I turn toward the door as the chill sails in and smile, offering a welcome.
“Do you want me to pray for you,” I hear Kevin say, and of course, Riley nods, standing there blotched and blind. It’s Riley’s way to reach for God’s hand; I’ve seen her offer hundreds of silent prayers. So I wonder what next to do, and Kevin prays. His soft, powerful words re-member the strong shelter Riley’s soul sees, and she leans into him, murmuring her assent every time he pauses.
I think maybe if this is her medicine—maybe if she sleeps, she’ll wake up feeling better. All I have is maybes, a whole neat line that keeps falling out of place. So, in the auditorium, I gather Riley beside me, tell her to put her head in my lap, stroke her golden hair with my fingers. I try to pray and can only say His name—Lord, like it’s some torn fragment, a bit of wreckage I pull to my chest. But the wide, dark swells have taught me that prayer is so much more than a litany of words, more than lists. Prayer is being with God and knowing He IS even when you’ve lost track of everything else. Even the words God has promised to supply himself (Romans 8:26). Do you know this? We never pray alone. Life can steal away so many things, but not love and not the with-ness of God. Strike us silent and He intercedes–Jesus speaks, the Spirit speaks, His people speak in our place. There are always words for our pain.
Last song, and I ask Riley if she can stand, and she leans against me, quivering. I flatten my hand against her back. She trembles beneath my fingers. I ask her if she can walk, and she nods, but as soon as I turn to take a step she drifts back down into her chair. She closes her eyes, desperately holds her head in her hands, presses her forehead against the back of a chair in front of her. We try twice with the same result.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
She turns to me, eyes clenched shut against what I read on her face as agony and says simply, “I just have a really bad headache.” Because she’s Riley, she’s still pleasant. These are facts, not a complaint. Two waves crest. This could be a terrible migraine, or it could be some drowning thing far worse. Do you know this? That when you can’t walk, God will give you other people’s legs? And when you’re weak, He gives you other people’s strength. His legs; His strength; His words; His walking, just through the skin and bones of His people. Our friends appear beside us, offering their arms, their legs. They walk Riley and me back out to the lobby, where she’s sick. They bring me towels. I have no thoughts besides that I need to take my daughter somewhere, just to be sure. We wait for Kevin to get the car. And, close but unseen, I hear the voice of a dear friend, praying. I hear Riley’s name and a few other words I understand, soft-powerful words, tumbling over, re-membering the solid-Truth we know. Do you know this? In those moments when there’s “nothing” we can do, this is the something we do. We pray. We become the words stolen right out of each other. Prayer isn’t some only thing; it’s the thing.
This part now, because you’ll want to know: At the minute clinic, they perform neurological tests, and Riley passes all of them. The medical assistant hands Riley a fancy disposable bag for being sick, confirming our suspicions. Yes, this is a migraine. Finally, I have words, but just a few: Thank you. Thank you, Lord. The rest I know will come later, in a nasty flood, but only when we all find land again, only when Riley can walk and talk and see. Hours from now, days still, the words will all come tumbling out of me, some landing still and naked and blunt, some thundering in sobs, because for all my still not-knowing, I still know this: He IS.