John adds spice, energy, and texture to our family. His innocence, quick wit, and academic mind are exceptional for a boy of twelve. His personality pours from the pages of our family journal. A few quotes from years gone by reveal his essence. "I fixed the hole in your sheet, Mama. I stapled it." (He put the hole in the sheet in the first place.) Once when instructed to finish his dinner, John responded, "But I ate forty-five minutes of it." (That would be three fourths to the rest of us.) After I asked him to stop talking: "But I have to talk, I'm a Yak-In-The-Box." A boy with a thousand questions, "Where does steel wool come from anyway? Mechanical sheep?" "Do sharks have tongues? It seems like if sharks had tongues, they would bite them."
John is my firstborn. My crucible child. Sent by the Refiner to remove my dross. I was twenty-six when he was born. He dawdled into the world after three days of intermittent labor. He nursed vigorously and continuously and slept little. He was born to a prideful mother and for years, John fed that pride. He spoke words at six months and sentences at a year. He knew all of his letters and was making up original jokes and puns at two. He played chess and read at three. He was a fierce Scrabble competitor at six. A tenderhearted, funny, creative and strikingly beautiful boy.
In October, when John was seven, Stuart came home with the news that he was being transferred. John responded to the news by touching me with his right hand and then his left. He touched the table, the cat, the wall, me again. Right, left. Right, left. Day after day. He left Rhode Island as a sweet boy and arrived in Chattanooga a stranger. The first week in our new neighborhood, he snuck off. I called and called and hunted frantically. The sun sank low in the sky. Neighbors searched and I phoned the police. Stuart found him in the trailer park behind our house. So much for perfect parenting.
John began to throw raging temper tantrums that lasted for hours and left us all limp and exhausted. At the time, Stuart and I didn’t understand the role that anxiety about the move played in John’s behavior for his life was essentially the same. Same family, same routine. He didn't even have to adjust to a new school because we homeschooled him. My nightstand was piled high with The Strong Willed Child, Dare to Discipline, To Train Up a Child, Making Children Mind without Losing Yours…All good books, but books that said essentially, “If your child does this, you do this…” I was left with the impression that I could control my child if I could only find the right combination of ingredients. I did not know mercy; I did not know grace. I knew discipline, rules, time out, and spankings. I used all of these with consistency.
Testing began. A team of specialists administered tests for days. A hundred pages came back with the diagnosis of Pervasive Development Disorder. A disorder on the autistic spectrum. Autism? My son was particularly interactive and engaging. It couldn't be. One of the main things that a child exhibits with PDD is speech delay. That was not my child so I mentally threw out the ambiguous report. We visited more pediatricians and added a dose of stimulant medication that was so high it made doctors do a double take when they read his chart. The medicine worked. But when it wore off, we paid the price. I became a slave to the clock and the medicine cabinet.
John continued to need me at his side every second at ages eight and nine and ten for chores and schoolwork. He was destructive to property and awake all hours of the night. We finally put him in a sleeping bag in our walk-in closet at night so we could be sure he was at least in bed. I responded to John's antics with words spoken through clenched teeth, cold words delivered in a cold tone, words of ridicule and swearing. He would weep with remorse and ask for forgiveness but my heart was so hardened toward his unpredictable behavior that I would “forgive” him while reminding him of his transgression in the process. I was the saint, he the sinner. When my rage passed, it was my turn to feel drained and empty and incompetent. I loved him fiercely and hated him in turns. I was a prisoner to my emotions. I was paralyzed with worry that we were raising a child who would not experience success in the adult world. I took the things that he couldn’t do and added ten years to his age and believed that in a decade he would make no progress. I screamed at God. “This is not right! He should have had a different mother! I am no good for him! I am ruining him!"
Why share such a personal story? I share it because I have talked to enough women to know that underneath the makeup and the matching outfits and the small talk that make up our exteriors, we are a broken people. To pretend otherwise creates isolation. Thoughtful honesty creates closer relationships and greater understanding. When we share the way God works in the difficult things of life it encourages first oneself and then others.
For some of us, the pieces have been patched and restored and there is wholeness where there was none before. But some of us are walking wounded, barely hanging on and wondering if there is hope. We have a choice. We can either be completely shattered by bitterness, depression and anger or we can lay the fragments before the One who can take the sharp slivers and jagged pieces and create a beautiful, productive life.
When John was ten, he was sullen and moody and difficult and so was I. But I was no longer proud. I had seen too much of my own wretchedness. I was broken, squashed on the Potter's wheel. A dear friend saw that I was losing the battle to be good and strong and loving. She called another friend and we met together for prayer. It was then that God began reshaping the clay of my spirit into a whole new vessel.
Stuart and John and I met with a family counselor. We took with us the test results from three years prior. The psychologist read through the reports and listened to our story and said, “You’re dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome. Your parenting is innovative and creative (I did not tell her about the swearing or the clenched teeth) and I don’t know that there is a whole lot I can tell you that you aren’t already doing.” Asperger's Sydrome. With those words, the pieces of the puzzle flew into place after a decade of wondering what we were dealing with. We were not sorrowful but relieved.
I found an online support group and learned that Aspie kids sleep poorly, that they like small spaces (which is why John loved my closet) and hate change. I connected with parents who understood what it is like to listen to daily monologues about Lord of the Rings or Battlezone. I trundled my stack of parenting books off to the Salvation Army. I learned to discipline in tiny increments. “If you talk like that again, you will lose two minutes of computer.” I learned to relax my standards, to offer mercy and extend grace. I learned to hug and joke and and love even if John was unlovable. I learned that if I did these things, he became lovable.
Today, John is happy. This is the one thing that has changed. He is still tenderhearted and funny and creative. He still has strong academic abilities and he still needs close supervision to keep him on task. Last week he went church with his button-down shirt on inside out. We have to check to see if he has shoes on and contacts in before he leaves the house. He stands in the kitchen and talks about Harry Potter while Lauren washes the dishes. He’s supposed to be helping but he forgets. I ask him to bring me Charlie’s shoes and he comes back empty handed and I ask him again and he brings me a comb. We laugh (usually) and he tries again. I don’t think about him learning to drive or going to college or leaving home. It stresses me out.
The entries in the family journal continue. Once he cut the "chickens" off top of his head because they were bothering him. I had to shave his head to repair the damage. He appeared in my bedroom at midnight wrapped in an orange blanket with his shorn head sticking out and explained, "I'm an insom-ni-monk." He put Charlie down for a nap one afternoon, "I put Charlie to sleep with 'The Song of Invigoration!'" And while helping me in the kitchen, "I did the impossible. I put ALL of lettuce into these two bags!" (He had smashed two heads of lettuce into two small ziplock bags and squeezed out all the air. Two heads of romaine reduced to the size of a baseball.)
I found this statement in a commentary that I was reading this morning and I think it applies here. One of the most common errors evident in the professing church today (is) triumphalism. It is our insistence that Jesus be now what the Bible says He will be and do then—in the future. We all wish to identify with the triumphant Jesus, who overthrows the wicked, and brings prosperity, peace, and freedom from pain to His people. But we do not wish to identify with the “suffering Savior.” I don't know how successfully John will venture into adulthood. I don't know if his story will be one of triumph from a worldly perspective. All I know is that before I fought and kicked against John's difficulties and now I don't. This is triumph in God's eyes.
One day, a long time ago, when we were having a rough day and I was disciplining and controlling because no child of mine was going to act that way, God said, "No. John is not yours. He’s mine." And, of course, He was right. God created John and He has a plan for him and He has been faithful to reveal it one grain at a time. So now there is peace. Now I can enjoy the gift and the wonder of raising this boy. John is a blessing. A great, great blessing. God knew what He was doing all along.