As we are all learning during this COVID pandemic, being cooped up in close quarters has a way of “outing” whatever vulnerability or struggle lurks within us. I think this proves especially true for those now caring for their special needs children around the clock, without the aid of all the teachers and therapists who work with them at school several hours a day.
Many times this last month I have felt like my 7 year old’s autism has become the boss of our house, as the loss of all his structures and routines causes him to melt down and resort to repetitive behaviors to cope. He seems less able to transition from one activity to another, more rigid in his attempts to control what little he can in his upended world. My attempts to spend quality time with him—taking him on drives, walks, tussling on the floor, playing with toys—are often met with ugly protest rather than gratitude when it’s time to move on. Some days it feels like we’re regressing, losing hard-won ground, and I can’t do a darn thing about it.
Case in point: about three weeks after school shut down, my son started pulling the fitted bedsheet off his mattress at night and crawling under it. It was quite a project putting his bed back together every morning because the entire thing is encased in a special compression stocking that pulls up over the top mattress like a sock over a foot. (Some special needs individuals find that compression bedding helps them sleep better because it holds them in tight.) After some thought, I decided to remove the compression sock and make up my son’s bed in the “normal” way: fitted bedsheet first, flat sheet on top, comforter on top of that. I imagined my son blissfully sleeping under the new arrangement. Me tidying up more quickly in the morning. I found a twin bedsheet in my basement that belonged to my grandmother and put the whole thing together. Then I waited to see what would happen when bedtime arrived that night.
As soon as we went up to his room, my son immediately noticed the new setup (very little escapes him). As I sat before his bed, I watched him completely pull apart everything I had prepared. Within 30 seconds flat my three perfect layers of linen were now a rat’s nest of fabric that my son was wrangling this way and that. I felt myself begin to crumple inside, as if I would start weeping out of sheer exasperation. I so often make plans that my son trashes because he is not neurotypical. By definition his autism causes him to see and feel things quite differently than I do. You’d think I would have learned this lesson by now, but I haven’t. Part of me keeps putting things in place for a child who wants to receive what I want to give in the way that I want to give it. A child who wants to read my favorite stories with me, bake cookies, watch movies, go on outings. But that’s not my kid. And that’s not my life.
My guess is that many of you are slamming up against some hard truths of your own as you try to cope with this pandemic. You are brainstorming (obsessing?) about how to tackle some tough situations. You are trying to figure out how to make beds so that things run more smoothly and there’s less mess to mitigate. And I bet you want to cry in anger and frustration as you watch your efforts go up in smoke. Items in your virtual grocery cart disappear, or the last delivery slot gets snatched. Someone throws mail on the counter you just disinfected. Somebody else coughs on you as you scurry from point A to point B, masked up and distanced. The financial application you spent hours filling out gets denied. Or, most seriously, the person you’ve poured so much into doesn’t make it. And you find yourself combing through each disaster for the clue that you missed, the key that will make your next go-round succeed. You’re the little mouse, running on its wheel, unable to stop even though you already know, deep inside, that the killer pace you’re keeping is going to cost you. Dearly.
Flash forward to a few days after my thwarted attempt with the bedsheet. I had been walking through nearly five weeks of the new normal, trying to retain some sense of routine and structure—not only for my son’s sense of security but my own sanity as well. Aside from the enormous challenge of homeschooling a child who requires a whole team of professionals to instruct him, there are still meals to be made, endless messes of my son’s to clean up, laundry loads to be done. I can never say that I’m “on top” of these chores—just endlessly grinding away at them. Squeak, squeak.
I was digging through my husband’s drawer for some gym socks one afternoon when I had perhaps the smallest of spiritual encounters I have yet to record on this blog. As I pulled a pair out, something dropped onto the floor. It was one of my socks that had been missing for some days. As I picked it up and reunited it with its mate, something in me paused for the slightest second and thought: God keeps track of everything.
He had been with me as my hopes of relating to my son in a “normal” way were dashed yet again with that bedsheet.
He was with me now, giving me back a sock I’d been missing just to say: I know. I’m here. I’m so sorry.
Maybe I am making all this up, connecting a sock and a sheet so that they spell out a message— from God, no less. It’s all too easy to read too much into circumstances when you’re sunk deep and long into a crisis. That’s why it’s hard to win a legal case based on “circumstantial evidence” alone. One needs a fact, an eyewitness, something incontrovertible.
But that’s not how it works with faith, especially when the irrefutable facts around you comprise a house of horrors: sickness, struggles, sorrow. In some sense, the troubles of this broken world will always feel more real than the love, hope, and goodness we were originally designed to enjoy in Eden. That’s why many of us pray for God’s kingdom to come, His will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Because it’s so often NOT what happens here. We have to intentionally ask for these exceptions to occur and make way for them to appear.
So what am I saying? Maybe keep a back door open and a porch light on at all times, for a hand to help you and a voice to reach you. Because the intervention you are seeking may come in a totally different context than the one in which you’ve been struggling. God may decide to answer your need in a quiet corner away from all the drama so that you can hear His still, small voice reassuring you that He’s got things under control. All of the things that are proving so draining and demoralizing to you, down to the last detail.
“My times are in Your hands,” (Psalm 31:15) is how one biblical poet puts it, as he wrestles through some tough emotions (fear, despair, dread, and depression) caused by circumstances he cannot control. Whatever he’s contending with is no more of a joke than a developmental disorder or deadly virus. It requires that he fight tooth and nail to find God in the midst of his crisis, and he does this by dialogue. Alternately hollering for help and offering hallelujahs for the rescue he believes he will see.
Maybe you feel like you don’t have the energy to claw your way towards God right now. Maybe “Help!” is all you have in the tank— no hallelujahs. That’s okay. Offer whatever is there—it all matters to the master weaver of your story, the one accounting for every last thread of your life. It’s not your job to make it all come out right in the end. It’s your job to remember that it’s His. And to pause every now and again to make room for intimate messages that may be coming your way. You don’t want to miss those. Like the lembas bread of Tolkien’s elves, every last crumb of those loving expressions imparts strength.
I should mention that despite his refusal to keep the bed as I had made it, my son has indeed stopped stripping off his fitted bedsheet at night. He’s using my grandmother’s sheet (balled up at his head) to good purpose, just not in the way that I had planned. So my efforts were not completely in vain, just inaccurate in vision. I suspect the more I can let go of the outcome of my efforts once I’ve “deployed” them, the better off I’ll be.
Jesus said as much as he breathed his last upon the cross. Notably, he quoted from this same psalm as he let go of his life, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” (Compare Luke 23:46 with Psalm 31:5.) His prayer reminds us that when we have reached our limit, we’re not surrendering all of our “times” into a black hole. Rather we are placing all that we are and all that pertains to us thoughtfully, carefully, into the hands of our Creator, trusting Him to create something immeasurably good out of what we have relinquished.
Got a bedsheet situation in your life? It may be time to turn it over, recognizing alongside Jesus that you need someone greater than you to take over. Journal, pray, talk to a friend or a professional. It may take a few tries to get it all out. But you will be better off for it, I believe—more able to absorb blessing from the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the one who speaks through even the smallest of things.