I recognize the symbol immediately–the faded rainbow lines tattooed onto the back of her neck, the needle-pieced, needle-etched shape of just one part of a global puzzle. The top edge of her taffy-pink scrubs hides most of the word beneath, but I can barely make out the upper third of the black script letter ‘A.’ It doesn’t matter. Autism is a part of me too, and it might as well be written there on the back of my neck, too–in that spot where I collect my stress, on the tender skin at the base of my get-it-done ponytail, right above where the baby hair just won’t be tamed.
I sit in a padded chair, open-palmed, one arm vulnerably upturned to expose the veins—the life running through, while with her back to me she types details into a computer, click click. Before I saw the tattoo, she and I moved under the unforgiving office-grade flourescents as complete strangers. I walked into the room just another patient needing bloodwork, and she just another medical professional working her way down a list of walk-ins. We shared very little up till then, only a cloaked exchange. We were virtually invisible to each other.
“I like your tattoo,” I say, because God likes to insist that I use my words. How else will He ever convince us we were meant to care about each other? It is, after all, the reason I insist the same from my own children. “That’s the autism symbol, isn’t it?”
“Thank you,” she says slowly, turning toward me. “Yes, I have a son-“She lets it hang there, quiet and exposed, like the thick blue vein running the length of my arm, and for the first time, she lets her soft brown eyes rest on my face.
“I have two children with autism,” I offer, which is the easiest way to tell her that there are a thousand things she doesn’t have to explain to me, that I understand, that we speak the same language. In a few words, I sketch my children’s faces for her, giving them life and voice, though I suspect she caught a glimpse of them in my eyes before I ever spoke. “How old is your son?”
“Twelve,” she says, “and getting ready for middle school, and—well, you know how it is with changes.”
“I do.” I tell her about the day this week when I sent Riley to school in tears because I couldn’t find my keys and a carpool friend had to drive instead of me, how it broke my heart that the switch had been so difficult for her. “She struggles with so much anxiety anyway, I hated to see her upset like that right before school. After my girls left, I had a good cry over it.” She nods, holding onto my eyes, and then–
“One, two, three,” the autism mama says, sliding the needle into my arm. I barely notice any pain. I glance at the wall and then back at her face. I don’t care to watch.
“My son has behaviors because he’s afraid,” she says, “and lately, there’s been so many changes.” She tells me about waves of mama-ache, of mama-wandering through the mama-maze, of her own heart literally breaking down right in the middle. “It’s alot,” she says, and I can feel the heavy on her back, the tense-weight collecting right there in the curl of the Autism ‘A’ script-twined into the muscles of her neck. It’s my turn to nod, to hold on to her eyes, to let her see I know. “It took me a long time to recover, to get my strength again. And now they put him in this middle school, and see, he has a behavior plan too, and I don’t know, I just hope it’s a place that can manage both things.” I know she means his education and the behavior plan—two things that should complement but don’t always.
I want to tell her about Dynamic, but I know I can’t. Not yet. To mention what might have been to an autism mama right as she wonders out loud Can I trust these people with my child? would only be a cruelty. I nod, listening, knowing the complexity of that puzzle. Educating our exceptional children tops the list in significance and difficulty. Their vibrant uniqueness, their abilities, don’t fit into the mainstream mold.
“I’m praying this school will be the right place,” she says tentatively, pulling off her gloves, tossing them away. “I just don’t know. But God does.” She watches me, waiting.
“Yes, He does,” I admit easily, and I can see that she anticipated this response, that this too she had felt or maybe found in my eyes. “And don’t you find that He uses your son to teach you so much?”
Spirit rushes, and her hand flies down, smacking against the laminate countertop. “YES,” she says, and then the gratitude spreads across her face, a smile that reaches her eyes. “God is first in my life,” she says solidly, “but I cannot imagine who I would be without my son. I have learned so much from him. So much.” What she feels is too much for the words, and this too I understand.
For a moment, we just grin at each other, two strangers suddenly not strangers at all, but sisters. Mama-sisters. In some way, we are all related. We just have to want to know how.
“You know,” she says to me, relaxing against the edge of the counter, and me leaning forward against the faint-guard on my chair, “the other day my son told me he thought maybe God should give Him a different family.” Her voice trembles, and I find her grief within the modulation of the sound. “And I said, ‘Why, honey?’ And he said, ‘Because I can’t speak your language.’ She lets that soak, looking up at the ceiling and then back at me, shaking her head. The sentiment becomes a swell. I have often felt–and said right out loud—that living with Adam is like doing life every single day with a foreign exchange student. I watch him trying to grasp the language, trying to understand the customs. I watch him navigate the isolation autism threatens, even as I reach for him.
She continues– “We’re bi-lingual, but when my son was diagnosed, they told us we could only talk to him in English because, you know, he couldn’t talk at all then. They said we would confuse him.” Suddenly her words fall easily, and I know she has stopped measuring them carefully for me. “But our other sons, we wanted them to still know, you know, so we kept speaking both languages to them. Now, my autistic son, he feels left out, because he hears us and he wants to have that too. I don’t know if that was the right thing. I just don’t know.”
I feel her words well past the hearing, and what echoes is something written: God forgive them, for they know not what they are doing. It’s a merciful truth, a pleading because He understands, not a condemnation. It’s okay that we don’t know. And none of us really do. We just do a lot of pretending. But she has me wondering what would happen if, recognizing understanding in each other, we could admit to that truth and offer each other that mercy. The only real certainty is trusting in Him.
I am still, watching her tuck back strands of hair that won’t stay collected. Her eyes flash. “But I say to him, ‘No. How could you say that? We are your family, and we all speak this language together,’ because I want him to see that even though we have differences, we have so much the same, you know?” Twelve years, and autism has taught her that communication is broader, more various, than words. She sees what I see, that she and her son speak more languages with each other than his literal mind will yet allow him to comprehend. Despite the graces drawing them together, he still sees the space.
I nod, smiling, expanding her thought. “Yes.we.do.” And she smiles back at me, because it only took us a few sentences to discover the languages we have in common.
She laughs suddenly, throwing her hands in the air. “I’m sorry, I’m telling you my whole life,” she says, and the sound of her voice is full.
“No apologies. It’s good to–”
“—to talk to someone who understands.” She finishes the sentence with me, crossing the room to give me a hug—a mama-sister-girlfriend-strong hug, even though I’ve only just learned her name. Because that tattoo, we both wear it fading and stretched across our necks, and for a moment, our Father lifts us both beyond the space of strangers to the very precious truth that we’re His, together.