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March 15, 2020

Sea Turtles

When I was sitting at my kitchen table recently, eating lunch, I noticed something uncanny.
6 min read

When I was sitting at my kitchen table recently, eating lunch, I noticed something uncanny. Sharing the tabletop with my soup bowl were two sea turtle toys that belong to my son. Of all the toys he owns, these might be my favorite, since they emit soft music and light rather than fraying my nerves with loud visual and sound effects. As I ate my soup and glanced down at the Korean spoon in my hand, I saw that it, too, had a turtle embossed on its handle. Tiny, but definitely there.

Now, what were the chances of me reclining at the table, so to speak, with three sea turtles? I’ve been using that same spoon for years and have never noticed its ocean-themed embellishment. Why now, when two other turtles happened to be sitting inches from my eyes?

Something was afoot. Or a-fin.

When I take a step back and look at the larger context of my life, I begin to suspect that my trio of turtles might have been addressing a development that had brought me to my knees in terms of fear and stress. A few months ago it became apparent to my husband and me that our son needed additional therapy to address his developmental deficits outside of school. While he was thriving in terms of his academic goals, he required more help with the challenges of everyday living: how to tolerate a haircut, walk safely through a store or parking lot, handle a dental visit, or sit properly through a meal at the table. We were already wait-listed at two local organizations with little hope of getting help soon.

As I sifted through a long registry of providers advertising treatment for autism, I discovered that many so-called specialists were hardly qualified. Then an associate of my husband’s with decades of experience helping autistic kids pointed us toward an organization that offered comprehensive, high-quality services for special needs children. The upside? They were the best of the best. The downside? They were located a good 45 minutes from our home, and they wanted to see our son twice a week for two hours at a time after school.

As I considered what it might mean to pursue treatment for my son at this center, my mind took me back to the days when I was completing my doctorate at Boston University, commuting from Connecticut 2.5 hours each way multiple times a week. The experience was grueling and borderline traumatic in terms of the mental and physical strain it imposed on me. At one point, I had to take a medical leave of absence because I was so run down. I remember well the hours spent in my car gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, trying to navigate my way between two worlds, let alone succeed in my classes. It was all too easy to superimpose the current situation with my son onto the memory of that sometimes miserable marathon, where the program that proved the best fit was far away. Was that how it was going to be this time around? Me driving my child back and forth long distances, while also trying to be part of his treatment at the center?

Immediately, I felt anger ignite against God which quickly flared into fury. Because I grew up under a father who was frequently cruel and unreasonable, it doesn’t take much for me to jump to the conclusion that my heavenly Father acts the same way in any given situation. Now that I think of it, my own reasoning becomes quite narrow-minded and simplistic on these occasions. If I had been pushed to the very limits of my endurance to secure my PhD all those years ago, why wouldn’t I be made to do so again, only this time with a special needs child in tow?

It’s hard enough as a special needs parent to resist becoming bitter in your heart as you meet the rather unique and complex challenges of each day. While other parents around you celebrate milestones on time, converse with their children ever more deeply, help them form social connections with their peers, enjoy outings with them and extended breaks away from them, you spend hours at therapy sessions, school meetings, and doctor visits, all while remaining hypervigilant over your kids lest they hurt themselves or someone else. You cannot help but ask why you and your child have been chosen to travel this thorny path when people all around you have it so much easier (and often don’t even realize it).

So these were the elements in play that were putting me in such a bad place: (1) an all too vivid memory of having to commute long distances at great cost to get what was needed, (2) resurfaced childhood trauma of having to comply with a father who bent me to his will no matter its effect on me , and (3) an underlying resentment that I was put in this position in the first place by the autism my son suffers, a disorder I dearly wish he did not have.

In essence, as I ate my bowl of soup, I was stewing in a cauldron of ingredients that had long afflicted me. Real faith-killers, all of them. The kind that would make you shake your first at God in abhorrence, if you had the guts (or energy) to do so.

As I sat with the turtles, and the torrent raging within, a recent conversation came to mind that I had hurriedly tucked away at the time, but now examined with greater interest. I had been talking with a writer friend who prays consistently for my son (and our whole family)—explaining my dread at having to start this new therapy regimen when I felt I was barely holding things together as it was. I just didn’t want to enter a battle of attrition I was sure to lose. Having been raised by a loving father, this friend immediately saw things from a different angle. She said, “What if the odds are so dramatically stacked against you because God wants to show you from the very beginning that it’s up to HIM to provide the way to do this?” In other words, she was asking: what if it looks impossible because it IS impossible for you? So reserve judgment, pray, and see what He provides.

Alas, statements about my heavenly father choosing the kindest, gentlest path for me often go straight into one ear and out the other, but apparently this one got lodged somewhere in the middle. After some thought, I realized that if I could have someone else handle the driving, the whole project would seem a lot more manageable. I would be able to sit in the back seat with my son, help him eat if he were hungry, and take a little break myself. After my husband assured me that God had provided the means to fund this part of the equation, and that I had his support, I secured a driver without too much trouble. We’ve been to the center twice now, and although we are still building up toward our target number of hours per week, I can already see that this road is indeed possible—not the descent into hell I thought it was going to be.

Back to the turtles. What I think they were telling me was this: sometimes circumstances are going to coalesce around you that appear very familiar, and not in a good way. You are going to feel surrounded by this challenge and that challenge, difficulties that place demands on you that practically killed you in the past and left your faith in tatters. When you see these repeat offenders swimming your way, you will be sorely tempted to be angry at God. Like me, you may think, “How dare He ask this of me again? When I’m already stretched so thin?”

(Incidentally, Jesus’s disciples asked a similar question of him when he initially did nothing to combat the storm that was overtaking their boat: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” [Mark 4:38 NIV].)

As one who has succumbed to many a dark thought about God when stressed out, let me offer this suggestion. While it’s always good to voice our outrage rather than holding it inside in sullen silence, perhaps we might pause, even for a moment, the next time it looks like He’s re-imposing some ordeal that we barely withstood the first time. Maybe we can take a deep breath and say: I know this looks like that, but are You actually doing something else here? Something good? Something that will heal the way I see You?

Truth is, we can be surrounded by old elements that will come together in a new way to offer a fresh perspective. Two plush toys and an eating utensil helped me glimpse an infinite heart wanting to protect me as I took steps to provide for my son. He was never asking me to do it on my own, but to do it with support that respected my needs as well as my child’s. Also important: he’s using flesh-and-blood people to do it—my friend, my husband, and my driver, as well as other loved ones with whom I have processed this whole affair.

One last thing: don’t get caught up in self-condemnation if you have raged against God and then discovered that his plans for you were more benevolent than you thought. He can take it. Just say sorry and ask for help to interpret things more calmly and clearly next time. Something tells me you’ll get it. I would love to learn what you see.