Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On the Shadow Side of Morning

“For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
When my husband walked into the kitchen and told me there was a shooting in a Connecticut school, my knees literally buckled. I remember being horrified and grief-stricken by the slaying of the Amish children, by Columbine, by the tragic movie theater incident this past year. However, this one is somehow different to me, maybe because it's closer.

As you may know, we recently moved to Connecticut, and Newtown was one of the towns we had considered. In the end, we decided it was too far for my husband to commute, and rush-hour traffic was moving the wrong way. Still... I can't help but wonder, if we'd made a different choice would I be burying a baby this week?

By Sunday evening, I had just started pulling myself together, but then we got word that one of my husband's colleagues lost a daughter in the shooting. The news has left me completely undone.

Ever since, I've been thinking about something one of my friends posted on Facebook. "On days like this, I wish I believed in God so that I could believe in hell." I can empathize with his outrage and the desire for justice and retribution, but I can't find a response. I do believe in God and hell, and it doesn't help me. I'm still filled with this dark, howling sense of grief.

I see and hear people -- kind people with good intentions -- trying to lessen the pain that our whole country feels right now. They say things like, "Now these little angels are in a better place" or "They're in the arms of Jesus."  I can believe it, but speaking as a mom, it feels like hollow comfort. The thing is, before I ever fell in love with my children's spirit or personalities, I loved their bodies -- every miniature part from their tiny fingers and toes to their soft bellies and mewling little cries.

Maybe that's why even parents of less-than-lovable children show such devotion. A true parent doesn't love a child because of what they do but because they exist. It's simply their existence that gives birth to love. I can say that my kids sometimes (ok, everyday) do things that really irk me and I wish they'd stop, but I never tire of their physical beings. I love the warmth of their breath, the pressure of their arms around my neck, their hands as they grab mine, the giggles when I tickle a belly button, silly grinning faces, the sound of their steps coming home from school... I could name a thousand things about them that fill me with joy. To have all these things snuffed out in a moment, I don't know... I guess I'm a heretic, but I can't think of anything that would fill that vacuum, not even hope.

I don't blame or accuse God, but I'm struggling to find some kind of peace in this. I just can't shake or process the senselessness, the total pointlessness of this nightmare. I don't know how to write a card, how to comfort a bereft parent without sounding lame or false or meaningless. And there are other feelings rolling under the surface that I don't even know how to put into words.

Anyway, I will wrap this up because my own little ones need to sleep, and though it's trite to say, I will hold them closer and longer.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mugged by Sound

It's not easy being the parent of a special needs child. I know because at the end of kindergarten, my oldest child was diagnosed with Asperger's, which is on the autism spectrum.

Asperger's is tough in its own special way. My son's biggest challenge is interacting socially because he has difficulty interpreting facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice and even understand what other people are thinking. He's actually a very kind child, but he can seem insensitive (or even snotty) because he doesn't always respond to social situations correctly. Sensory input is another huge challenge for him. Not only is he a synesthete, but a sensory processing disorder was part of his diagnosis. So for him, the world is one loud, bright, mixed-up source of chaos. He spent two-thirds of kindergarten  in a ball under his desk because he was constantly overloaded by sounds. Five years later, he's made a lot of progress, but he still has a rough time in school.

As a mom, my heart hurts when I see him struggling, but I haven't been without my share of issues, too. For me, one of the toughest things to do was learning how to ignore what other adults think of me. They see my kid in total meltdown under a table or saying something that seems mean, and then they glance at me. In their eyes, I see the quick assessment of my total lack of parenting skills and the swift ensuing judgement. Truthfully, it can be more than a little embarrassing at times.

It would be easier in some ways -- people would be more sympathetic anyway-- if my child was obviously different, if he had Down's Syndrome or a physical handicap. But he doesn't. In fact, most people never guess that's he's on the spectrum because he's bright and funny and frequently shows some profound insights into situations. He's a little uncoordinated, but not so much so that one would notice.

In fact, to the casual observer, my boy appears perfectly normal. But I can tell that he's wired differently. For instance, a few months ago, a kid came running up to my son, waving his arms and yelling his name. A "normal" child would be able to tell that this kid was excited and friendly. My boy responded by freezing and reprimanding him. "You don't have to be so loud," he stated. It's instances like this in which, even though my son doesn't register the reaction, I see the startled, shut-out look on his friend's face. I see the other parents' faces as they wonder why my kid is such a snot. I know he doesn't even realize that he's misinterpreted the situation or responded incorrectly. I know I have to draw him aside (yet again) and explain what just happened. And my heart hurts for him. And it steels itself against the reproof I see in other people's eyes. But in the end, I've learned that I really don't care about them or what they think of him or me. I only have to love my child.

So recently, NPR posted this video called Mugged by Sound, Rescued by a Waitress. It's part of a project called Interacting with Autism. I wanted to share it because it touched me deeply. Watching this, I saw my boy. I don't know who made this animation, but he captured my child down to the last mannerism.

Sensory Overload (Interacting with Autism Project) from Miguel Jiron on Vimeo.

My favorite part of this video is the waitress who comes alongside this boy and doesn't say a word. She doesn't touch him, doesn't try to "help." She doesn't add to the noise but just lets him be. I wish I had a penny for every time I've told people to just leave my kid alone and he'll come around. So it moved me to see that some other person gets it.

In any case, I wanted to share this because I think it provides a terrific insight for people that have a relationship with a child (or adult) on the spectrum.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bah! Humbug!

I don't know when it happened exactly, but at some point in my early life, I soured on Christmas. Given the deeply cynical streak that runs through me, it probably had to happen eventually, but I can't remember the last time I truly thought of Christmas as "magical."

I know this is supposed to be the best time of year -- peace on earth, goodwill to men, etc., etc., but it doesn't feel like that to me. Mostly, I view the thirty-odd days between Thanksgiving and Christmas as a period of rampant noise, busy-ness, materialism, stress, and unending, grinding work (as if I really need twelve dozen cookies lying around my house). Maybe if I could just focus on a beautiful baby in a manger, I might feel better. But I can't because, in the words of the immortal Homer J. Simpson, "Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Santa."

To tell the truth, Santa is another problem for me. I'm not talking about the historical St. Nick, who from all accounts was a really good man that saved destitute children from slavery, but the modern Claus. I'm sorry if I offend, but to me, he's just creepy. To demonstrate what I mean, here is a chart comparing Santa (who dominates the contemporary holiday) and Jesus, (who, I've been told, is the reason for season).

Santa Jesus
Even if Santa is supposed to be bringing gifts, I can't get over the felon-like quality of his breaking and entering. Let's say that I was sleeping in the middle of the night and awoke to the noises of someone in disguise with a great big bag prowling about my house, my first instinct would be to shoot first and ask questions later. Jesus is a gentleman. He doesn't push or barge his way in. He doesn't look for sneaky ways in when one is least suspecting. Instead, He knocks on the door of one's heart and waits for an answer. In my opinion, this shows superior breeding and good manners.
There is something Orwellian about the way Santa's always watching and making lists. And now he has little elves-on-shelves spying on and reporting everybody. It feels a lot like Big Brother to me.Actually, Jesus watches and makes lists, too, but somehow I don't feel as threatened. Maybe because He's looking for fallen sparrows and broken hearts. 
Speaking of Big Brother, if you're on Santa's good side, you reap rewards. Otherwise, look out. It's lumps of coal for you.

The problem, though, is that one never knows how good is good enough? I actually have a friend whose children play this online game where Santa tells them whether they've been good enough to get presents. There is a little arrow that swings back and forth between "Naughty" and "Nice," and her kids sit in sheer anticipatory terror praying it lands on "Nice." If you ask me, this game was designed by a shrink looking to drum up business.
Unlike Santa, God doesn't play those kinds of head games. Naughty or nice, it doesn't matter. You get the gift of a baby, of a savior. Actually, this gift is especially for the naughty.

So maybe, if Christmas were about the birth of Jesus, it would be more meaningful to me because I like Jesus, but Satan Santa leaves me nonplussed. I have other issues with Santa, too, like his perpetually red face (which makes me think he's imbibing more than just milk with his cookies), but I'll quit now before I really step over the line.

So anyway, I'm a Grinch, and this year, I'm feeling more Grinchy than usual. To make it worse, my middle child has requested an Elf-on-a-Shelf (ugh) and has professed a deep-seated belief in Santa Claus. This actually shocked me since I've always been very upfront on the topic -- There is NO Santa! (Interestingly enough, he also asked why we don't celebrate Chanukah. So that was another long conversation -- to summarize, I told him it was a lovely holiday for which I am eternally grateful because without it, there would be no Jesus and no Christmas. However, although I would like to help him celebrate that, I have enough dealing with just one day. I don't want to add 8 more on top of it. I know -- I've reached a new humbugging low.)

So I guess, here is the point of today's ramblings... I don't know if it's hormones (yes, I'm going to play that card) or because I've been unwell lately or the new house or unseasonably warm weather or what, but I'm having a harder time than usual getting into Christmas. In fact, I have three naked gingerbread houses that have been sitting for a week -- no frosting, no candy canes, not even a gumdrop in sight. At the moment, even ordinary tasks like laundry and dinner are taxing me. Forget decorating, baking, and shopping. Mostly, I just want to lie in bed with a book and not get up until January. It's quite possible that I'm the worst mom in the world, but this is the honest truth right now. Still, I have little ones, and it's not fair to Scrooge all over their excitement. For their sakes, I'm trying to put on a good face.

So mom to mom -- what do you do? Are you the kind of person that starts the Christmas countdown on Dec. 26th or do you flounder and flail through the holidays like me? How do you keep Christmas meaningful and exciting and fresh?
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