this is why I’m here
She apologizes to Kevin like we autism mamas do, ignoring the sharp, slicing pain it brings just to say the words.
I’m sorry, my daughter–she has autism. She doesn’t mean nothing by it.
She says this gesturing over something Kevin barely noticed, a failure to say hello, a back turned, a little stumble over his feet. But she doesn’t know yet that we understand. She doesn’t yet know that I know how it hurts to have to say those things, to have to beg grace for this child she loves with a grip no one can see and tears she can still taste on her tongue. But she says autism, and it falls right in between the words I’m saying a few feet away, and it turns my heart toward her. I raise my eyes and find my husband already engaged with her in easy conversation, lifting an arm to point first to Adam—who quietly stands as close to me as he can get without appearing to stand with me, trying to figure out what to do with his long frame in a noisy room full of people and distractions and party—and to Riley—who now sits at a table helping another child string beads on necklace twine. I know the words he’s saying without hearing them–words of understanding, of embrace, of acceptance.
Kevin’s eyes find mine and draw me to him, and some tiny gesture says, bring Adam too, just as he says to her, “I’d love for you to meet my son.” I touch Adam lightly on the arm and we walk over, and I watch the woman’s weary eyes gather up the stillness in Adam’s face, the quietness in his demeanor. Right away I want to tell her that he hasn’t always been this way, that when he was small he used to fly into destructive rages and throw his own head against the wall. Hard.
She reaches toward Adam as if she’d like to touch his face, but then stops short. “Oh,” she says, and the word falls like a tender caress, light with wonder at the edges. The woman–this autism mama like me—looks over to her daughter, a slight girl shrunken into a dark hoodie who ventures forward and then pulls suddenly away, scalded, lighting only briefly on the fringes of so many clotted groups of children playing games. The little girl has bright, round eyes she keeps carefully guarded and a high-pitched squeal that intermittantly punctuates the buzz of laughter and talk around the room. She is among the other children but singular from them. “He’s doing really, really well,” the mama says, nodding toward Adam and meeting my eyes, and in her expression I see a thousand questions.
“He is,” I say, touching her arm, and then I offer introductions. For just a moment, Adam’s eyes graze her face and in that low voice that has replaced the baby one he greets her by name, and then I watch his expression close, replaced with the desperate effort to focus on less. Children with autism notice everything but lack the ability to prioritize their attention, so busy, crowded places come as a particular challenge.
“He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself here,” I confess to her, and she grins, nodding.
“Well, you know, I don’t really know what to do with myself here, either,” she says, and together we chuckle. It’s not that what our children feel is so different but that they don’t know they’re supposed to hide it.
“We’ve just been here a few weeks,” she says, “but I don’t know if we can stay.” Her voice crumples, and suddenly I remember where we are—in a shelter having a Halloween party for moms and children without beds of their own or front porches or buckets of candy with which to retrieve clusters of neighborhood children.
“Why not?” I ask, following her gaze across the room to her daughter.
“It’s hard for her here,” she says, “–no space of her own to be quiet, nowhere to go. It’s a new place—everything’s new”—and they’re so afraid of new, I’m thinking—“And people, they try to be kind, but that don’t understand her. I feel like we’re always in the way of other people. I just don’t know if I can do it.”
I feel like we’re always in the way of other people… It’s the special needs mom’s secret honest bruise, the feeling that our reality inconveniences everyone else, that our living and loving makes us a burden we’d rather not be. Sometimes, we recklessly try to shoulder the whole heavy mess of it ourselves because for just a little while, we’d like to stop apologizing for our children, for our failure to make everyone else feel comfortable. I look at Adam gently rocking back and forth on his feet, squinting into some right-hemisphere space, trying to squeeze his thoughts into a calmer thimble, and I think, I’ve never had to do this without a home.
We were late again and scrambling into the car, wondering if maybe it was too much to do this; if we had hurdled over another boundary, bruising our knees on the way to the ground, and in the midst of it we forgot to be in awe of the fact that we even have a car to scramble into. We paused in the doorway while Riley checked a box off on the white board schedule she keeps just because it makes her happy, and we forgot to be in awe of the fact that we have a home and white board and a daughter who has learned how to manage some of her anxiety herself. We forgot to be thankful for a thousand details that we take for granted. And now we stand in the shelter and I’m hugging this autism mama and telling her I understand, when this part I haven’t had to know.
Kevin tells her about Riley, about how Riley used to scream in loud places and flatten her hands against her ears, and this mama watches our daughter sliding beads gently onto some twine, tying a necklace around a little girl’s neck, and her eyes brighten with hope, even as she struggles to see how it could have been. “It’s so hard to see them struggle,” Kevin says, “but those battles can make them stronger too.”
“But a shelter?” She says quietly, and the words are touched with a kind of helpless awe, and I can hear in her tone that she never imagined needing to be here. “I just don’t know if I can do it.” She lifts her hands to her face, and in them I see a wealth of things she carries all alone, and I’m thinking, I’ve never had to do this without my husband. But I’m an autism mama too, and I know this is why I’m here, standing in front of her. So I speak mama words about mama things. I tell her I know the struggle she has between what is best for her daughter and what she needs for herself, and I tell her that I’ve finally figured out that taking care of my own heart makes me a better mother to them. “All those things you want to give her—you need a place from which to gather them,” I tell her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders, and it’s only then I realize that Kevin has drifted away to let us do what women do for each other.
“I know,” she says, and she looks at me, and her mama eyes plead with my own, filling with tears. “I just need someone to nudge me to stay,” she says, “to tell me it’s what I need to do.” And that’s when I see another way we’re just the same, another place we can huddle together. Every mother that’s ever lived has led her children through dark spaces, groping and blind, and every one of us knows that as much as we seek out other people to tell us it’ll be okay, we still feel pretty certain we’re going to take a wrong step and drag them right over a cliff. We all know that our children are foolish to trust us to know the right answers. Just then, I feel the gentle tug, the quiet whisper of a wisdom that will outlast all my crazy stumbling: I know the hand she needs and it’s not my own.
“Can we pray with you? Would that be okay?” I ask her, and she grips my arm and nods, and because I know she needs to feel surrounded, I wave for Kevin, for a friend standing right beside him, and she says, “It’s just so good to talk to someone who knows exactly what it’s like.” And I give thanks that somehow out of our chaos God drew us here, to wrap our arms around this woman; that He allowed us to be the ones to draw her by the hand into the trustworthy strength of His arms.
I have very few certainties as a mother, but one of them is this:
It’s only by God’s light that blind mama eyes come to see.