The Pyx in My Pocket

 

Pyx

Remember my post a few weeks ago about my daughter’s difficulty with getting out of the house because of her fear and anxiety? Well, something cool happened today.

Sunday mornings can be rough for my girl. She hates going to Mass now, because she’s petrified that she’ll have a seizure—and in such a formal, public place. So I’ve been letting her stay home, along with one of her brothers to keep an eye on her (no argument from the boys, of course). To make up for it, I’ve been bringing Communion to her and her brother every Sunday after Mass. I carry the consecrated Hosts back in a little pyx like the one in the picture, and we sit go sit on the back deck together. We read one of the Scripture passages from Mass, talk about it for a few minutes, pray the Lord’s prayer, and then I give them Communion. Short, sweet, to the point.

“I Don’t Want It.”

Today was different, though. She woke up deeply rattled by two separate nightmares. She had promised me that she would come to Mass today, but the nightmares did her in. There was no way she would leave the house, and there was no way I was going to push her.

So off I went to Mass with everyone else, carrying my trusty pyx in my pocket. In the Communion line, I presented my pyx to Fr. Keith and asked for Hosts for my two errant kids. I’m all too familiar with the drill, and so is he. So far, so good.

But when we got home, I discovered that my girl was too upset even to receive Communion. She was in our bedroom, curled up on the bed, her brow furrowed in fear. Her voice quavered as she begged me not to force her not to come downstairs for our weekly Communion service. “I’m just not stable now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; my nightmares are getting worse, and I don’t want to leave your room.”

“There’s nothing wrong with praying and asking God for his help,” I said. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll feel better afterward.”

“I don’t know why, but I just can’t!”

She was nearly in tears, so I put my arm around her, and offered up a silent prayer. This was worse than I had seen in a long time, and I was at a complete loss. All I could do was hug my girl, with a “loaded” pyx in my pocket.

Ninety Short Seconds.

Then it dawned on me. Maybe the Sunday morning ritual we had established was just too intense for her today. The mere act of going downstairs, getting the Bible, and sitting on the deck was just too much for her to handle. It seemed so easy to me, but not to her. If she just stayed inert in our bedroom, she thought, nothing would change. She wouldn’t have to face her fears. She would stay safe in the little sanctuary she had built for herself.

So rather than coax her out into my world, I tried to enter hers. “I have an idea,” I said. “How about we sit right here on the bed, and I just give you Communion? We don’t have to read the Gospel. We don’t have to do anything special. Just a quick Our Father, and then you receive. Can you do that?”

“I think so,” she said.

It took all of 90 seconds, and we were done. And you know what? It made a huge difference. The anxiety faded. Her smile (a slight one, at least) returned. Her hunched shoulders relaxed, and she breathed a little easier.

The change was so dramatic that I was actually able to convince her to come on a couple of errands with me. Of course, I bribed her with the promise of lunch from McDonald’s, but her willingness to join me was still a marked contrast to how she had been just minutes before.

A Mini-Miracle.

Now, I can interpret this episode in a number of ways. Maybe my persistence paid off. Maybe the memory of her nightmares had faded. Maybe I had chosen just the right words, and delivered them in just the right tone of voice. Maybe the good feeling she got from doing what Dad wanted softened her up.

Or maybe, just maybe, God actually worked in my little girl’s heart and calmed her fears.

This answer makes the most sense from a faith standpoint, but it also makes the most logical sense. The desperate scenario I described above was not going to change. My girl was far too anxious. The only variable that changed in the equation was the impromptu Communion service. She eased up only after she received the Eucharist—which we Catholics believe is the actual presence of Christ.

I know this sounds odd. I know it sounds like I’m trying to justify my faith. But I don’t care. As long as mini-miracles like this keep happening, I’m going to keep believing. As long as I find help and answers in prayer, I’m going to keep giving God the credit. As long as my kids can point to evidence of Jesus’ presence and his work in their lives, I’m going to go with it.

That’s why I’m keeping my pyx in my pocket.

No Rules, New Rules, One Rule

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So last night, the Fourth of July, held a minor victory as our oldest kid did pretty well facing his fear of fireworks. All the kids did pretty well, in fact, with each one showing a little more improvement in the sensory processing realm. Plus, they got to stay up later than usual. Mind you, we didn’t go anywhere for fireworks. We’re just talking about the small-time crackers and roman candles that some folks in the neighborhood set off. Still, progress is progress.

Anyway, this morning we ended up paying for the late night and the extra stimulation. As we were trying to get everyone ready for Mass, we were presented with two very strong tantrum-melt downs from two different kids, one stubbornly tired kid who could barely keep his eyes open, and another one exceedingly anxious about the her siblings’ potentially bad behavior in church.

We tried to roll with it. We really did. But after a while we realized that Mass just wasn’t going to work. It was too risky. So we played hooky. Sort of. Rather than go to our local church, which is only a half-mile away, we loaded everyone in the van and drove twenty miles to Mount St. Mary’s University–my alma mater of a Catholic college.

A Mini Pilgrimage.

The van is a safe zone. Each of them can enter their own world, whether by staring out the windows or by putting on their head phones and listening to music or by taking a quick nap. It’s one way to help them press the reset button, and that’s pretty much what happened. By the time we arrived, they were doing better. Not great, but better.

We spent about an hour there, walking the nearly empty campus and visiting the Grotto, which is a replica of the shrine to the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. We ended with a visit to the grotto chapel, where I had the kids sit as quietly as possible for as long as possible (5 minutes) and told them to try to pray. Then we read the Gospel reading they would have heard if they had gone to Mass, I said a few words about it, and we left. Nothing big. Nothing dramatic. And no other people around.

The kids did pretty well overall. We did have to deal with some sensory issues and low-level anxiety. And our toe-walker started to complain about pain in his legs from all the uphill walking. But I was glad that they got the message that Sunday is more than just another day. It’s still the Sabbath. It’s still the day that we honor God as a family. They saw that the alternative to missing Mass isn’t a free pass to video games.

A New Rule Book.

I don’t like skipping Mass. I really enjoy the closeness to God that I feel there. And for the most part, I can see how it helps the kids. But as far as I could see, there really wasn’t an alternative.

This is one thing that I’ve learned again and again as an autism parent: you have to learn to live by a different set of rules. It seems that everything we do—from church services to school, to recreation to family gatherings—we do differently. And there are times that we have to throw out even our modified rule book. But that’s okay. Because the only rule that really matters is this: Love and accept your kids where they’re at, and they’ll be more likely to follow where you want to lead them.

Who’s Leading Who?

So today is Father’s Day. In honor of the day, I thought I’d dust off a post from a few years ago, update it a bit, and repost it. (That, and I’m too busy being a dad today to write something new.) So here goes:

Who’s Leading Who?

In one of the lesser-known resurrection accounts in the Bible, Jesus tells Peter: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” The passage goes on to explain that Jesus said this to signify “by what kind of death he [Peter] would glorify God” (John 21:18-19).

This passage has always had special resonance for me, to the point of being a kind of interpretive key to almost all of the major events in my life. It sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? All this talk about being led where you don’t want to go and dying—even if that death glorifies God. But that hasn’t really been my experience. Rather, I’ve found a surprise or two along the way as I’ve seen these words unfold in my life.

One major surprise came when I realized who it was who would end up leading me along unexpected paths: my own kids! Now I’m sure that many parents can relate. None of us really knows what to expect when we hold our first child. We can never fully appreciate how much our lives will change now that we have welcomed this new person into our lives. How much more when you are blessed with six children! And how much, much more when it turns out that all six children are on the autism spectrum!

Unexpected Paths.

I named an earlier post “A Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and I meant it as something more than a clever play on words. I can testify that my kids—all six of them—have led me in ways I never expected.

  • They have led me to the waiting rooms of psychologists and psychiatrists and speech and occupational therapists as I have sought to understand their challenges and help them make sense of them as well.
  • They have led me to school conference rooms, where I have advocated for them and labored mightily to convince unimaginative, one-size-fits-all educators to give them a fair shake.
  • They have led me to my knees in prayer—not desperate prayers for their healing, but impassioned entreaties that God will grant them a future full of hope, a future where their gifts are welcomed and where they can make a difference for other people.
  • They have led me down rocky paths as I have helped them work through sleepless nights; relationship challenges; full-scale tantrums; days-long depressive episodes; and anxious, hours-long perseverations.

Death and Freedom.

Now, Jesus told Peter this stuff as a way of hinting at the kind of death that awaited him. And that has proven true for me as well, in a more figurative way. No, I’m not writing from beyond the grave! But my kids have definitely led me to experience other kinds of “deaths”—

  • The death of my dream for a Brady Bunch kind of life. It was a pretty self-centered, self-indulgent dream anyway, and I’m glad it’s gone. Now I don’t have to worry about how clean or dirty the house is. Or about when my kids are going to record their first pop single.
  • The death of any rigidity or legalism I may have brought to my ideas of parenting. I have learned to become much more flexible and creative in my parenting. “So what if she wants to wear all black clothing to church?” “You want to stay in your bed to avoid the noise of the dinner table? Knock yourself out! Just make sure you eat afterward—and clean up your plate.”
  • The death of a few close friendships due to some people’s lack of willingness to “get” our family’s dynamic. This was especially hard at first, but I realized that it’s in times of difficulty that you learn what your friends are really made of. That’s when you have to decide who is really worth your time.
  • The death of a romanticized take on the spiritual life. There are no simple answers. There are no guaranteed formulas. And yes it’s true; sometimes God does give you more than you can handle. That’s why he gave us each other. It’s also why he created wine.

It’s ironic, but each of these deaths has made me feel a little more alive and free. Little by little, my kids have led me to a place of surrender. Not defeat. Not resignation. But acceptance. I have learned so much about myself; about human nature, both the bad and the good; and about God that I feel like I’m a very different person now compared to who I was when our first one was born. And that leads to the final part of this passage.

An Unforeseen Glory.

According to the story, Jesus was pointing to the way Peter’s death would glorify God. Well, I’m not about to think that I give God all that much glory. Not unless he is glorified in huge messes! But I do think that the deaths I listed above have helped me to see God’s glory in new, unexpected ways.

  • I see his light shining through my nine-year-old’s unassailable innocence, both when he’s in full melt down mode and when he’s completely aflutter with the joy of something as helping Katie cook dinner.
  • I see him shedding a tear when my fifteen-year-old gets himself tangled up inside and needs to be talked down from a ledge of self-condemnation.
  • I feel his arms around me every time I dive into yet another parent-teacher conference or begin yet another bitter disputation with the insurance company.
  • I see his covenant commitment every time I come home and watch Katie coaching the kids in homework, making dinner, and trying to help the six-year-old overcome his loud, insistent perseverations all at the same time.

So yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff that comes from these little, unlooked-for deaths. Leave it to religion to be so delightfully paradoxical!

This Is My Body.

 For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, so this last one comes from my faith tradition. More than anything else, I see God in the bread at Mass as he says, “This is my body.” But I don’t just see and believe. I’ve also found the audacity to pray in return: “Hey! Over here! This is your body, too—this precious family you have given me. We’re part of you, and we all belong to you. So don’t pass us over or forget about us. You made my kids this way, so you’re stuck with us.”

Then I go one step further and tell him, “And here is my body, my life. It’s nowhere near the image of you that it’s supposed to be. It’s still too much shadow and not enough light. Still, I offer it to you. Go ahead and keep leading me, even if it’s where I don’t want to go. With all of these little deaths, you have found so many ways to empty me. And I guess that’s fine. But now I need you to fill me and raise me up so that I can give myself—body and blood, soul and humanity—back to my children.”

And the Lord reaches out his hand to grasp mine, and responds: “Amen.”

Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

Hope. Faith. Love.

Groovy Love

For those who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, and I take my faith kind of seriously. I also like to laugh at how quirky Catholicism can be at times. Among all the Christian denominations, we have got to be the most precise bunch. It’s likely because of our ties to the Roman Empire. Compared to the Greeks, who tended to be more philosophical and flexible, the ancient Romans were legal-minded sticklers for precision. How else did they manage to conquer the world?

Off the top of my head, I can think of two ways that our Roman roots show up. First, there’s our almost innate desire to define doctrines to the umpteenth decimal point: mortal versus venial sin, degrees of cooperation with evil, specific requirements for fasting, for receiving communion, and all that. Then there are the numbers. So many numbers. Just look at the sevens for an example: seven deadly sins, seven corporal works of mercy, seven spiritual works of mercy, seven sacraments the Seven Founders of the Order of Servites. Then there are the threes: Father, Son, and Spirit; poverty, chastity, and obedience; Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. And, of course: faith, hope, and love.

It’s this last trilogy that struck me today. I recalled how St. Paul talks about faith, hope, and love being the only three gifts of God that last, and how “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And it got me to thinking about how these three virtues are the most important things we need as parents—and doubly so as parents of special-needs children. Forget Doctor Spock. Forget Doctor Phil. Even forget Doctor Who. All those self-help books at Barnes & Noble? Rubbish. All those listicles about parenting on Buzzfeed? Worthless. If you have faith, hope, and love, you’ll do just fine.

And because I’m Catholic, I will now tell you the right order in which you need them. *Clears throat*

Hope.

Every parent begins with this one. A child is born. He is beautiful, innocent, full of promise and potential. We look on this tiny person that is the result of our love, and we are gobsmacked. We have such high hopes for this little baby. Not necessarily that he’ll be an astronaut or a top chef or a CEO—although that would be great. We hope that he’ll grow and flourish and find happiness and love. That she’ll find her own special someone with whom she can make a family of her own. We dream of school plays and soccer tournaments and Christmas trees and family trips. We dream of (and dread) the driving lessons, the first date, the prom, and graduation day. Holding this little blessing in our arms, we can’t help but dream of the future.

Then the child grows up, and we see things that challenge our hope. Perhaps speech is delayed. Maybe he takes far too long to learn how to walk or use the potty. Maybe she doesn’t know how to mingle with her classmates in preschool. Maybe he always cries at the doorbell or any sudden noise. Something’s not quite right, and we worry about the future. Then the word “autism” enters our vocabulary, and we feel hope draining away. What about the prom? What about graduation? What about finding love? Is it all possible?

That’s when we look to . . .

Faith.

It’s faith that keeps our hope alive. Faith in our child’s innate goodness. Faith that he really does want to do well and to succeed. Faith in the team of care providers that we stumblingly assemble to give him every chance at a full and rewarding life—whatever that means. Faith in a God who would never abandon a child of his.

That faith sees us through the melt downs, the tantrums, the tone-deaf schools, and the unthinking or unaware neighbors. It lifts us up when our kid begins to go south, whether because of regression or oppositional behavior or depression or anxiety. It sustains us through the long, wearying days and helps us sleep at night. When hope begins to fade, faith tells us that despite what we are seeing now, better days are ahead. It gives us assurance that what we hope for will come to pass (Hebrews 11:1). It may not look like what we expected, but it will come. And so we press on, fueled by faith, toward that vision that we have hoped for.

But what happens when even faith wavers? What if the child we have worked with, prayed for, fought for, and even clashed with, simply is not making progress? Maybe he can’t overcome the next hurdle, or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Whatever the case, what do you do when hope has dissipated and you can’t place your faith in any of the resources you once relied on?

You still have . . .

Love.

And in the end, you know that’s all you really needed. Your dreams may not be fulfilled. Your doctors and therapists may be at an impasse. Your prayers don’t seem to be working. Nothing is going right, and you don’t know if anything good is on the horizon.

It doesn’t matter. He’s your son. She’s your daughter. And you can’t help but love. Even when you want to throw up your hands in despair, you know that this is your child, and that knowledge brings you back to sanity. It softens your heart, if only just enough to let you take the next step forward.

No matter what happens, love wins out. It may take years, but it will win. Because a child who knows he is loved, no matter what, will always have a glimmer in his heart, and that glimmer will offer some protection, some encouragement, some guidance in the dark days. Just as God looked at us and couldn’t help but love us, even when we felt lost and hopeless, we can’t help but feel love when we look at our children.

So even if he never learns to use the toilet, even if she never speaks a word, even if he ends up living all alone or in your basement, there’s always love. Good old, stubborn love. Because it’s the one thing—the only thing—that will matter in the end.