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November 19, 2019

Black Cap

Sometimes I wonder whether there is a spiritual dynamic at work in the world that goes like this: the bigger the problem, the smaller the sign God sends to show that he is dealing with it.
6 min read

Sometimes I wonder whether there is a spiritual dynamic at work in the world that goes like this: the bigger the problem, the smaller the sign God sends to show that he is dealing with it.

The reason I am thinking in these terms is sitting on my desk right now—a white plastic bottle of bubblebath with a black cap on it. The cap did not come with the bottle but was placed there when the original cap shattered after I dropped the bubblebath on the floor. It had slipped straight out of my hands as I was cleaning up my son’s bathroom very early one morning a few weeks ago. As to the reason that I—and my husband, I should mention—were engaged in such activity before 6 a.m. forms the Big Problem part of the equation.

Let me back up. Every ten years my husband, a physician, takes a grueling, all-day test to retain his certification with the American Board of Internal Medicine. The morning of the exam I was woken by the sound of his voice yelling down the hall. Half asleep, I blundered toward the noise to discover my seven year old son, who has autism, standing in his underwear in the middle of a completely flooded bathroom. As my eyes took in the catastrophe, my husband explained that both sinks had been running full blast for some time while we slumbered, completely ignorant of the disaster occurring but a few feet away. (Not only that, but someone had also decided to empty a large container of body lotion by smearing it all over the wall-to-wall mirror fixed above the double vanity). Running downstairs, I found water saturating and even leaking through the ceiling of the first floor kitchen and living room. I marveled, in a panicky, dumbfounded way, not only at the extent of the damage but at the stealth involved in creating it. It had all occurred so silently, without any warnings to help us mitigate the wreckage.

We were well and truly screwed regarding the mess our son had made. Furthermore, since we had only learned of the “sin” long after its commission, it was not entirely clear how to convey to him the enormity of his wrongdoing, much less discipline him for it. He simply knew that he’d been caught having an extraordinary amount of fun, and that mom and dad were really upset as they ran around like chickens slinging every available towel. The most we knew to do in the moment was to force our son to watch us mop up as we repeatedly told him, in high-pitched tones of hysteria, that he should never, EVER do this again.

At some point, our son started to cry from the stress of it all, needing comfort and some clothes to wear—not to mention breakfast (of course it was a schoolday). At some point I shooed my husband away so he could sprint off to his test. At some point I must have gotten myself dressed and fed as well so we could leave for school, although I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is thinking but of course as the bubblebath crashed to floor after we finally got it dry, its top splintering beyond repair. I remember picking up the slivers and using aluminum foil as a bottle stopper, feeling like this last little incident perfectly punctuated an already overwhelming situation. I remember feeling bitter as I so often do when the daily bill comes due as a special needs parent and the amount proves unbearably high.

So much for the Big Problem. As for the miniature sign which speaks to it, I ran across it in my kitchen, where I spend a fair amount of time cooking (which I love to do) and cleaning (not so much). On the windowsill overlooking the sink I keep a small acrylic box for the odds and ends that accumulate in the area. Shortly after the bathroom flood happened, I noticed a black cap in the box, which I must have set aside at some point for a reason I can no longer recall. Feeling oddly compelled to try the Cinderella test, I slipped the cap onto the bubble bath bottle to see if it would fit. Not only did the cap twist on with ease, it featured an open/close mechanism that allowed the contents to be poured out with the press of a finger. Except for its black color, you’d never know bottle hadn’t rolled off the assembly line exactly as it is now.

Yes, I realize that I am talking about a huge autism-related “accident” in one breath and the joining of two plastic objects—both of which will end up in the recycling bin—in another. How in the world do they relate?

There’s a story in the Bible about the prophet Elijah facing his own crisis of epic proportions, one that left him devastated, body and soul. Having defeated a group of false prophets, who happened to be favorites of the reigning queen, Elijah flees into the wilderness to escape her retaliation. There he succumbs to a nervous breakdown so bad that he can only sleep and be fed by an angel, who tells him quite plainly “The journey is too great for you.” (2 Kings 19:7). When the prophet recovers enough strength to converse with God about his dire situation, he is visited by whirlwind, an earthquake, and a fire. God’s voice emerges from none of these, but instead manifests as a low whisper which the prophet hears while he is hiding out in a cave.

As outlandish as this tale may appear to my modern eyes, one feature does hit home. When driven past the limits of his endurance (an affliction the angel clearly acknowledges), God doesn’t dish out more high drama, but communicates with his servant softly, almost imperceptibly. Elijah has to strain to hear that still, small, voice, compose himself in a way he might not otherwise have considered in his previously rattled state. Maybe letting go and surrendering to the silence was precisely what Elijah needed most to get back on his feet again after being bodyslammed to the ground by adverse circumstances.

Looking back, I don’t think I was capable of hearing whatever God might have been trying to say when my son unleashed a crisis that demanded all hands on deck. In fact, whenever autism moves forward in our lives, taking center stage in some awful, unanticipated way, God seems to recede into the background, as if he were either indifferent to—or somehow rendered helpless by—our latest plight. I have some ideas dating back to my childhood as to why this might be so, but suffice it to say that any statement beyond “This crap’s too much for you,” would be wasted when I’m lying face-up, air walloped from my lungs. I’m in survival mode, unable to absorb truths that might correct warped perceptions of God, myself, or my son. Just hand me another towel, please, and pretend not to notice when I use it to mop the torrent on my face as well as the floor.

Interestingly enough, however, the bottle cap got through. Maybe because breaking the original lid seemed so symbolic at the time, like I was being singled out for deluxe treatment at the screw-you spa. Maybe because I know that even the professionals cannot fully assess the damage going on in my son’s brain, let alone his overall life, our lives. Maybe because we humans are constructed so that small gestures of kindness in the midst of the storm sometimes land upon our hearts like a dove bearing a sprig in her beak. Wrapped in a fragile but undeniable silence, we feel singled out for mercy rather than retaliation. We figure: if God bothers to help me with this measly bottle, then he’ll help me with the rest.

And voila, a course correction occurs in our thinking, our being, all because we got quiet in the cave long enough to notice a small thing.

So let me offer this proposal. If your derriere is being served back to you on a silver platter, if you’re regarding the stars breathless and on your backside, get quiet. Shut out the three ring circus from hell for just a second. Ignore the wind, quake and fire. Is that a gentle breeze brushing your cheek? Has some triviality crossed your line of sight? Listen closely. It may be speaking to you in the only language you can absorb right now: simple, simple love. The intimations of a presence who cares so much for you.

Take it in. More will come, but you have to start somewhere elemental when the enormous stuff hits. The journey is too great for you, but the same is true for all of us. Maybe if we help keep a lookout for each other, watch for the little things, we’ll be that much more able to cope. Overcome.

You’re welcome to check my windowsill box anytime for something you might need. Keep one yourself. It might come in handy.