My autistic sons aren’t a version of the cross. They’re an invitation to love and serve.
As soon as I walked into the bedroom, I knew they were there. The sweet-sour smell of mashed bananas hit me like a truck. I sighed and inspected the crime scene. Yep, all four bananas had been pulverized and smeared onto the bedclothes. “O” had struck again.
My first thoughts were about banana removal techniques and the laundry. (Spatulas are handy.) But the bananas also represent the broader challenges of raising 15-year-old twin boys (“O” and “J”) with autism. Indeed, the regular incidence of such food disasters has been a part of my daily life for the last three years or so. Cleaning up food disasters is a mindless and time-consuming task, as are so many of the activities associated with caring for the twins.
Through recent spiritual reading, especially in Ignatian spirituality, I had been encouraged to “find God in all things.” If I was to encounter God everywhere, I must admit that it is hard to associate God with scraping slimy bananas off of a comforter. I have considered two ways of finding the Lord in such circumstances. First, there is the cross. The cross is a burden, an unwanted burden that stems from the suffering, sorrows and adversities of daily life. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Chemo, surgery, radiation, a year of targeted therapy and 10 years of hormonal therapy—no one would voluntarily subject herself to such a marathon. Though I am currently in remission, it is a cross I carry, as we all must carry our crosses.
I must admit that it is hard to associate God with scraping slimy bananas off of a comforter.
“Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” says Jesus. We are not alone in carrying the cross; God is with us and helps us carry it. He also sends others to share our burdens and helps us accept the painful reality of life’s trials. Just because we are suffering does not mean we have to choose misery. We can use our crosses as a source of renewal, a way to reorient ourselves to life, God and others.
But do I want to think of my sons as an unwanted burden? It is true that raising twins with autism has constrained my family in many ways. It is difficult to travel with them, so my husband and I have had to limit our visits with family and friends. Taking the boys through airport security is a nightmare, and given their limited speech and social skills they do not enjoy visiting with others.
We have endured pinching, scratching, biting, punching
It is also challenging for one parent to cope with both twins at the same time, so our work-related travel has also been severely restricted. My academic research relies on primary sources, but I have not been to an archive in years. This has slowed the progress on the book manuscript that will help me earn a promotion to full professor. Sometimes, it is a struggle just to go to the store or work out at the Y.M.C.A.
And then there is the periodic aggression and the fear that our sons will hurt us or themselves. We have endured pinching, scratching, biting, punching and the scariest of all, getting attacked while driving. But it is more heartbreaking to watch “O” engage in self-harm, and pummel himself with sharp blows. It is mentally exhausting to try to keep the boys calm and to forestall major meltdowns. After chasing “J” around the dining room table 10 times before he finally agrees to go to bed, no one is happier than I am to collapse in my bedroom at 9 p.m. to watch nature documentaries, hoping they will still my mind and lull me to sleep.
My sons are something of a burden, and they are made in the image and likeness of God.
In such a constricted world, it is still possible to celebrate the small triumphs of daily life and to be grateful to God for the first signs of spring, a pleasant walk in the neighborhood or a melt-down-free day. But the twins can even cast a pall over the small victories. Just before “O’s” banana massacre, I had been boasting to my husband about my luck in finding four yellow bananas at a store where they were typically green. When I found them crushed on a comforter, my lucky find was rendered meaningless.
My sons are something of a burden. But they were not unwanted. I had longed to provide my now-teenaged daughter with siblings and to expand our family. They are made in the image and likeness of God. They are not broken; they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Instead of thinking about my sons as some version of the cross, they are an opportunity to serve. Our opportunities to serve marginalized populations are sometimes right under our noses. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?” The king replies, “Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Every day, I wake up and have the opportunity to love and serve my sons. I also have the chance to advocate for them and others with disabilities. I have worked with school officials in our town of Norman, Okla., to ensure proper staffing in the school system’s autism programs. Programs to help adults with disabilities are severely underfunded in Norman, and I have worked to spark awareness about this injustice. All of this is typically mundane work, and it is often inconvenient, given the demands of work and other obligations. But serving others is rarely glamorous. If we plan to help others when we can spare the time, we may fail to help them when they need it the most.
Bananas continue to be mutilated in my house. Other victims include pizza, crackers and, my least favorite, corn chex, which can be ground into something that has the consistency of sand. Some days are peaceful; some days I find myself casting about for ways to restore calm in a sea of chaos. Nevertheless, I feel blessed. I am grateful.