when words fail
“Hey now, offer him grace, okay?”
She sits in front of me, tears pooling in the pit of the day, and I wash onions off of my hands with soap meant to smell like a sunrise sail. It won’t be enough. I know that, but I try anyway. Hours from now, my fingers will still smell pungent and sticky-tart–unless of course I do some sort of treatment with lemon juice or something, and my wrists will smell faintly sweet from the soap. Zoe blinks at me, waiting for me to understand, waiting for me to stop telling her what she’s known about her brother since the she was old enough to know anything at all.
Really, the interaction between them has been typical in ways comforting to me. She asked him to do something he didn’t want to do; he said no; she asked again; he said no–louder; she asked again—tagging on a please, please; and he said NO, as loud as he could without drawing a reprimand from me. I don’t mind emphasis, but I draw the line at yelling.
“He doesn’t have to be so rude to me,” she says angrily, biting her lip, enunciation suffering at the edge of the last syllable, where her voice warbles.
This is an old grief of ours, something as common as the shadow of grease splatter on a garment we have no choice but still to wear. It lingers, like that onion tang on my fingertips. At the end of this poured-out day, I gather up my daughter’s sudden tears and feel deeply weary. Life can become so abruptly heavy sometimes, cramping up the muscles in the back of my neck. I reach up, massaging the knot with still-damp fingers, and a stray drop of water travels down my arm. Water without reminds of living waters within, waters that will never run dry, waters enough to forever quench my thirst.
“You provoked him,” I say, but only a few of her words had actually come to me clearly as the knife thunked and slid against the cutting board. I’m really only making an educated guess, based on their history.
“Not this time.” She shakes her head, leaning back to look at the ceiling, as if somehow that will make the tears slide back into her head. “I wanted to play a game with him. I really did. He never listens to me. He always just says “no, no, no, no, NO.”
“He doesn’t always say no,” I tell her. The always is emotional; we both know it.
“Well, he does most of the time.”
“And most of the time, you’re provoking him on purpose.” I try smiling at her, but it doesn’t take.
“But I wasn’t this time. I really wasn’t,” she says, sighing. The sigh turns into a sob, and she crumples.
Some things about autism will always be hard. Because words are difficult for Adam to decode and require patient effort, he memorizes tones and depends on familiar routines for context. He would not immediately realize that this time her entreaty was sincere. And anxiety makes him struggle against spontaneity so much that no almost always is his gut reaction to interruption. Very likely, he meant to convey his own urgency, not rudeness. Listening involves so much more than interpreting the words we all say out loud, and both of my children still need to learn to hear each other.
I glance toward the window, measuring the softening light. I have supper yet to finish, have barely even scanned the refrigerator for possible side dishes. Adam bends over his calculators in the living room, balancing himself in a full–but leaning—tree pose. Periodically, he walks into the kitchen looking for signs of supper, his eyes lost to calculation. And she has chosen now to grieve autism, or rather now has chosen her. Grief is like that; it catches us up right in the middle of ordinary, when something or someone innocently grazes a bruise. Zoe sweeps a thumb across her cheek, smearing a tear. Behind me, Kevin wordlessly moves around the kitchen, putting things away, listening, and Riley suddenly stops checking off her to do list and moves toward her sister. We have learned that in the spaces where our words fall unevenly, feelings can be equally shared in silence.
Sometimes the language barrier between us feels like a knot, and we are each one caught in a different part of it. I can point out the tangled places but I can’t untangle them myself. This kind only comes undone with prayer. “He doesn’t always understand,” I tell her, and my neck feels as tight-snarled as the problem separating my children. Zoe blinks back more tears, but they come too quickly, spilling over before she can brush them aside. I’m not helping; my words only draw hard lines around the wound.
“Won’t it be nice,” Kevin says after a moment, “one day in heaven when everything is redeemed and Adam can finally talk to us?”
I can scarcely imagine what Adam might say then, how he might explode into conversation when every broken thing is finally healed. But as wonderful as it is to imagine how that might be, I’m not ready to give up on more than we ask or imagine right now. God keeps reminding me that the power that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in me–in us—today, that faith as small as a mustard seed can still move mountains. And I have already seen more glory than I could ever have expected.
“We need to pray,” I tell them, because I’m trying to learn to access the power I have, in faith. “Pray that God will make it so now, too.”
Kevin nods, placing one hand on Zoe’s back, and just asks, for all of us. He asks for conversations, for words, for understanding, for the mending of things torn and lost, for the relationship Zoe wants to have with her brother. And as he prays, I give thanks that God doesn’t require our certainty to act, just the tiniest seed of faith that He can–faith enough to ask.