Hi, friends. For your weekend reading pleasure, here’s a chapter from our book, Raising a Child With Autism. OK, the book doesn’t have the cool pictures. Ain’t blogging grand? Have a great weekend, and hope this chapter is good news to you.
XII. Maybe Next Year
Growing up in L.A., I was a fan of the Los Angeles Angels when they were a brand new American League expansion team. This was before they built their own stadium down in Anaheim. When I was a kid, they played in the stadium named for the “real” team: the Dodgers. The Angels were so hapless that some of their advertising highlighted their visiting opponents: “Come out to see Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees!”
Of course, they went on to win the World Series decades later. But in my childhood, they were a “maybe next year” team. Maybe next year they would win more games than they lost. Maybe next year they would climb up from the bottom of the standings.
We have a “maybe next year” tree by the street in front of our house. We needed a tree out there to block some of the summer sun that routinely fried our lawn. We also craved fall color, so when a landscaper showed us pictures of a maple called a “Fall Fiesta,” we said, “Wow, look at all those fiery leaves! Put one in right now!”
So he did. And all the budding leaves fell off and the tree went dormant. We looked at our bare little tree all winter, praying that dormant was something different from dead.
The tree budded in the spring. Of course, it hardly cast any shade, little thing that it was. The lawn still turned brown when summer came.
And the fall colors turned out to be less than a fiesta—some yellow, mostly brown and then all gone.
Maybe next year?
The next year was better. The tree budded in the spring and there was noticeable fresh growth on top. It grew taller. Its leaves seemed fuller. It didn’t shield the lawn from the sun, but it cast a respectable shadow where the dog liked to pee on hot days.
There were some deep red leaves in the mix for autumn.
Maybe something more next year?
Each year adds. It grows taller, the trunk is stouter, and that tree actually shades the main part of the lawn except for a few days when the sun is impossibly high in the sky. And it totally lights up in an array of warm colors to tell us fall is here. Fiesta!
Like waiting on a plant to bloom, taking care of an autistic person requires patient hope. Your heart, and maybe your mind, will break if you are into precise timelines. “Next September our kid will achieve X” must be held loosely. “X” might happen in October, or November, or the following spring, or September two years out, or not for a very long time.
We agonized for years about our son’s inability to tell us when he was sick. He couldn’t say, “I have a headache.” And his dislike for sustained effort meant he wouldn’t cooperate with our “process of elimination” questions. He would say “Yes” to anything just to get rid of us.
“Does your head hurt?”
“Does your stomach hurt?”
“Do cats fly on tiny, little wings?”
Trying to teach him to point at what hurt wasn’t any better. He would wave his hand up and down his body, like Vanna White displaying the board on Wheel of Fortune.
But he had a recent breakthrough. He seemed a bit off, so Melissa asked him, “How do you feel?” Usually, he’ll just say “Fine” or “Happy” even if his face and tone say anything other than those qualities.
But this time, he responded to his mom with, “Do you have a stomachache?” Yes, it was a question when we wanted a statement—but it was his way of sharing precise information with us.
Like hopelessly loyal sports fans or amateur gardeners, caregivers have to keep telling themselves, “Maybe next year.” And in the next year, or tomorrow, or a few seconds from now, a once abandoned hope arrives as a surprise.
Blooming idiots like ourselves must learn and relearn “deferred gratification.” We might want to stick a stalk in the ground and see a tree the next day, and we want to think that one or two sit downs with an exercise book will have our kid reading literature in time for kindergarten.
But when it comes to caring for someone with special needs, it is important to hold a goal patiently. If it is a good goal (helpful and realistic to the person in our care, not a fantasy to please ourselves) it is worth holding onto in heart, mind and habits over many seasons.
Jesus’ follower Paul put it this way, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24)
Like travelers using the four cardinal directions on a map, people who follow Jesus find spiritual orientation from three cardinal virtues: “faith, hope and love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Hope keeps us looking to the horizon, to what’s next. We hope for what we do not see or have, but believe can be out there.
Hope allows us to act with purpose, believing that our efforts are worthwhile and taking us toward a good destination. It means long seasons of waiting, of doing the right stuff over and over even when a longed-for result isn’t coming into view.
When we come to terms with hope, we find that it isn’t really about a particular event, thing, or outcome, but about coming face to face with the one who is calling us forward. It is about meeting up with Jesus and continuing the journey forward with him. Paul seems to have been a blooming idiot of sorts, since he discovered this through much trial and error.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)