Taking the show on the road

Sunday I preached at a church in Watertown, South Dakota.  That’s about 2 hours north of us.

Because our son with autism has had a string of sleepless (read active, boisterous) nights, and my wife has been up with him so I could sleep enough to work, I decided to chance some chaos and take Joey on the road with me so Melissa could sleep.

The risk is that Joey is an excellent traveler but a terrible arrive-er.  He’s fine on a long car ride or even a plane flight.  He loves looking out windows-in-motion.  But once at the destination, he starts saying, Go back to Joey’s house and doesn’t want to take part in the doings at the new location, at least while it’s strange to him.

On the way up to Watertown, I played music he likes.  He’s a big fan of The Guess Who.  He likes all kinds of music but he’s especially attentive to vocals, and Burton Cummings is no slouch.  I’ve had this Guess Who collection to play in the car for him for more than ten years.  It was important when we moved halfway across the country back in 2004.

20170723_100133Soooo… we arrive at church and Joey is calm but not social.  One person said, Joey, you can sit down wherever you want.  Which of course led to him sitting in the pastor’s seat, unwilling to budge.  The folks weren’t bothered, and they got me a matching chair.

Joey was calm throughout the service and endured listened to my sermon.  I sat next to him when other people offered readings or prayers, and he was responsive to my requests that he use indoor voice when others were speaking.

20170723_110957After the service, he wasn’t interested in visiting, even when pastry appeared.

<–This picture presents Joey’s version of what church-types call fellowship.

Again, he wasn’t agitated.  He just looked out onto the sunny day while the rest of us swilled coffee.

He was patient while I signed a copy of my book for a church member and visited with folks for a few minutes.

I was blessed by one person’s account of having worked at a state facility.  She pointed out the great changes in a very short span of years – it wasn’t long ago that such facilities were, by design, a way for families to keep members with special needs out of sight and out of mind.  Now, family caregivers are more active participants and advocates in the lives of their loved ones, even those who are in institutional settings.

I offered to take Joey to lunch, and listed some of his favorite foods to help him choose.  He resonated with quesadillas, so off to Guadalajara we drove.

20170723_114044Here’s Joey downing some tortilla chips while waiting for the quesadilla to come.  Glad he was in bright primary blue – he fit right into the restaurant’s decor.

We had a very nice lunch and drive back, with more Guess Who.

All in all, it was a sweet day.  Mom got some overdue and well deserved rest; dad and son had an enjoyable road trip.  The fear of chaos didn’t pan out and a few minor misadventures at church were more humorous than anxious.

In case you’re wondering, here’s Joey’s favorite Guess Who track,

Makin’ a list…

In my energetic youth I spent summers on a church camp staff.

We had a string of international participants who were building up camp director credentials.  One of them was from Switzerland, and his English was a work in progress.  One day I came into the camp office to hear him singing Santa Claus is Coming To Town, which was strange enough in summer time but on top of that he only had three words down and was singing the whole song with those.  C’mon, sing with me now,

Makin’ a list, makin’ a list, makin’ a list, makin’ a list…

Anyway we had company last night, and they’d made a list.  Some local folks who visit this blog messaged us about our son’s upcoming move into a group home.  As caregivers to more than one kid with special needs, this is ground they’ve covered and they reached out to offer help with our upcoming journey.

They’d taken the trouble to sit down and think through issues – some small and practical, others big stuff like money and emotions – and written a list so they wouldn’t forget to open up any of the subjects.

Actually, they had a couple of lists.  One was a record of residents’ share of house expenses so we could start wrapping our heads around the budget.  Stuff like trash pickup:

20170713_081849

The care giving community is rich in hard won wisdom.  It is worthwhile to write notes, keep records, journal, *cough blog cough* and/or just go out for coffee with other caregivers to share info and insight.  We’re all holding some great resources with which to help one another.

While I’m at it, a good spiritual habit is to list moments of grace – those unsought, unplanned moments of God’s favor.  Those unexpected Thank you, God interventions. Reviewing these can lift our spirits when the inevitable hard days show up,

And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.”   But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.  (Psalm 77:10-11)

Last night’s visit goes on that list of God’s wonderful deeds.  Our guests shared that it was one of those God things that the first post up on their Facebook feed was our last blog about our son’s placement.  We received kind help and good company (and an addictive dessert) through that divine timing.

Allies: we have the Greatest in the heavens and so many He appoints upon the earth.  Too many to list, but how moving it would be to try.

Only human

Just caught a short, brutally honest article from the perspective of caring for a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

In Caregivers Are Only Human, Rick Phelps writes,

frayed rope

Image from the linked article.

Everyone loses their temper once in a while. People say things to each other that they don’t mean under far less stressful situations. Caregivers are under an incredible amount of pressure, and they are not immune to letting their emotions get the best of them. Dementia adds yet another challenge to the mix.

There are several comments at the article that are worth reading as well.

In Raising a Child With Autism, I describe an ice storm that clobbered our town a few years ago.  The aftermath of that mess serves as an image for caregiver breakdown,

Sometimes physically, but more often emotionally, caregivers sag like ice-burdened trees. We wonder if our groaning means we’re bending with the effort or if it’s the prelude to falling down.

All relationships – not just care giving situations – can take us to our limits and show us at our worst.  As author Anne Kennedy reminds us with a recurring chapter heading in her book for “angry or worn out people,” You Still Can’t Do It.

Which is why care giving or just plain ol’ family life can be the door to discovering the unearned, undeserved favor of a loving and very patient God.

Isolation

The first book signing for Raising a Child With Autism is history, but this isn’t about the book.  It is about the people who stopped to talk at the display table and others who’ve been in touch via the internet.  My prayer list keeps growing with their names and needs.

One man took a break from his job down the street from the bookstore to come in and describe his family’s unique challenges.  They care for a son with autism.

We noticed that people stopped inviting us to stuff.  I think they’re afraid of our kid.  My wife is at home alone with him more and more.  She’s really feeling isolated.

All kinds of care givers suffer in similar situations.  People don’t invite you out or you find it too much of a hassle to go.  Competent babysitters or respite providers are hard to find.  The person in your care is agitated if you go out on your own, but resists going along when invited.

Many Christians will hear a familiar Bible lesson on an upcoming Sunday in Easter season.  It begins with people in isolation,

2012-12-22_09-13-56_966When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…

But the locked door is as powerless against what happens next as, well, our bedroom door when our son Joseph wants to bust in about something.

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

We weren’t able to attend an Easter service.  I had to work and Melissa had to – did you guess? – be home with Joe.  Yet Easter isn’t less Easter to us, because of the one who burst the isolation of his tomb and, by his Spirit, reaches into the isolation that afflicts the human race.

There’s no easy set of “steps” to make this happen, much as I’d like to bottle and sell such a formula.  But I suppose it begins like most efforts to end isolation, with a conversation,

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We are blessed this Easter.  Although we couldn’t be in church, we will soon have dinner with friends who love Joey and welcome him into their home.

We are grateful to all who read what we share, who leave messages and otherwise communicate with us.  You have been part of God’s response when we’ve asked, sought and knocked – you help deliver us from isolation.

May God’s peace be always with you.

Because it stinks…

air freshener

Image found here.

…caregivers have some capacity to freshen the stinkiness in others’ lives (and thereby in our own).

I think that our experiences can give us compassion for others’ struggles, even those not tied to care giving.

Here’s a positive review of our book, which notes that it can reach into situations that are not just like ours:

This is a most amazing book. The writing is phenomenal. Each chapter is divided into three parts, and each connected to “gardening or growing something”. This book is like a meditation and it does not just relate to raising a child with autism, it can apply to any difficulty, one might be going through. It even relates to just life itself. I have given this book to many people and all have loved it. The depth of this small book will amaze you.

I think we can fight off pity parties (OK, sometimes) by getting out of ourselves and helping others with different challenges.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

 

Why did I write that book?

The truth is going to sound wacky, pompous and neurotic.

But I’ll lead with the truth and then list some more palatable stuff.

The truth is that I was in the park with our son, Joey, who lives with autism.  His slightly older, neurotypical (aka “normal” or at least NOT living with autism) brother had just driven away to start college.  I was praying, which was easy as it was a gorgeous day.  Obviously, my heart was full – memories of the kids over the years, hopes for what would come – so I was pouring that kind of stuff out to God.

Not audibly, mind you.  The other parents were not telling their kids, “Honey, come over here, away from that strange man.”

And just as surely as I was speaking to God, God spoke back, not in a audible voice (I’m only neurotic, not psychotic yet), but in a thought that flooded my mind and overflowed into my heart: You can write a book that helps other family caregivers.

I knew right away that I would be writing in the midst of care giving, not from past experience.  The book would never be The Five Essential Habits of Excellent Caregivers or something like that.  Rather,

  • I wrote it so that people confined by the demands of care giving would find companionship, at least in the stories I tell but hopefully beyond them in the divine, “patient gardener” who has helped me beyond what I could ask or imagine;
  • I wrote it so that stressed out people could laugh.  You have to find the humor, dark though it might be, to keep going as a caregiver.
  • I wrote it to process my own inner stuff.  As I said, I wrote it while care giving, not after.  And so it was a combination of meditation and therapy for me as much as for any potential reader.
  • I wrote it because I enjoy writing.  It is a gift I have to share and, frankly, I communicate better through writing than any other means.  Well, except yelling or crying and stuff like that.

Ortt book and icon

 

A long time friend shared this lovely pic of the book on a desk where he studies and prays.  I pray and hope that this little book serves God by helping family caregivers in the depths of their hearts.

 

Empty cart, not yet empty nest

shopping-cartI couldn’t resist having fun with the sign on this shopping cart.  I Instagramed (is that the verb?) it, with a caption about how I wasn’t getting any children anyway since I was fasting for Ash Wednesday.

Humor is an important ally to the caregiver.  It is a tension cutter.  Much of our humor is dark, but then so are the situations that generate it.

In recent months it’s been harder for Melissa and me to laugh at some of the quirks of Joey’s autism.  His video watching becomes intrusive noise; I don’t think he’s turned up the volume but our annoyed ears seem to think he has.

The chores of his daily routines – chores we do for him, let me be clear, not chores he does – are not a terrible effort yet they are numbing.  Not demanding physically, but draining psychically.

His non-cooperative behaviors get under our skin more.

We have more wistful conversations about being empty nest, about having the house and the time to ourselves for the first time in forever.  And so we wait for Joey’s group home placement, still loving him and wanting all to be well in his life yet feeling the limits of our own aging and of the two decades dominated by autism.

And that’s followed by a mist of fear that we’ll be staring at each other across a great emptiness wondering, OK, now what do we do?

Speaking of aging, I guess that entitles me to repeat stuff I’ve probably said before but can’t remember if I did.  So, let me say (again) that one way to describe raising a child with autism is to ask parents of typical kids to remember the sleepless nights and all the stuff that went with a new baby – the stuff that in hindsight becomes a source of humorous memories.  Now imagine that much of that stuff never developed into self sufficient adulthood and you kept doing it for five years, then ten, then twenty.  Not so funny anymore.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, is what we say on Ash Wednesday.  Indeed, care giving exposes every pathetic evidence of sin and fatal separation from God – every bit of selfishness, the limits of love, the capacity for self pity and resentment, the instinct to blame… all of the ungodly feelings, thoughts and emotions in service of the world, the flesh and the devil.

If we are fortunate, it becomes the great weakness that throws us upon the grace of a loving God, who gives us power to live in ways we never imagined,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

…when such a thing happens…

Everyone reading this book – indeed, every human being – needs to know that when such a thing happens, we are not alone.  Victor Lee Austin, Losing Susan, Brazos Press 2016.

If you are a family care giver, or if you know one, Victor’s book (and it really turns out to be his late wife Susan’s book just as much) can be at once a splash of cold water that wakes you up and a strong arm around you for comfort.

20170206_141154He tells the story of his wife’s long terminal illness and his efforts to care for her with great love and humility in a pure sense of that word, by simply being objective and not forcing any judgments.  Some questions are left hanging, and this book gets across how normal and necessary that is.  No tidy answers to the big questions, but great insight into family care giving and a gift of compassionate companionship for those who are caregivers.

Just as many combat veterans need others who’ve been in battle to process what’s happened in their lives, care givers will find in Victor and Losing Susan a level of understanding and acceptance that helps process uncomfortable emotions and experiences.

Reading this is a reminder that care giving thrusts orderly souls like Victor’s into chaos, free spirits into stifling routines, thoughtful people into impulsive action, rational people into irrational situations, spontaneous people into detailed planning, extroverts into isolation and introverts into a land of disintegrating boundaries.  And what’s worse is that this all involves the loss of the person most a part of us and most able to buffer us in life’s hardships.

As I read this book, I was struck by how much I would like to see couples read it while preparing for marriage.  God forbid that they should have to walk the same course as Victor and Susan, but they will walk some part of it.  This book, by telling a family story rather than framing a lecture, brings out the deep reality of

In the Name of God, I take you to be my wife (to be my husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.  (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

That kind of promise will take us into situations for which we are radically unprepared and, in all honesty, incompetent.  As Victor describes so well,

I never had any confidence about how much I should push or encourage her and how much I should step back and just let her be.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have to care for others whom they love, and we always recognize this point of commonality.

This common lack is why care giving can’t be pulled off all on one’s own.  We need companions and, if we can recognize it, we need God’s grace.  Losing Susan is a voice for both.

Trying to cancel a pity party

Care giving pushes a person toward their outer limits.  The repetition of unpleasant tasks and the human desire to receive as much or more than we give can make the caregiver sad, surly, stressed out or all of the above.

Throw in some of life’s normal irritations and it’s time for black confetti, diabolical tunes and spoiled snacks – a pity party.

A wise friend once advised me to get ahead of the onslaught by asking myself, “If I were the devil, what would I do to upset Tim?”  This week, it’s been an overload of all the life crud I’d rather not deal with;

  • Bureaucracy – got a call from the pharmacy that insurance was declining to refill our son’s array of medications, which include anti-seizure and anti-aggression chill pills.  So I had to dig through piles of forms that all look alike, call automated “customer service” numbers, hack my way to a live person who wouldn’t talk to me because of HIPPA (he, they’re my son’s meds, not mine), etc.  Hate doing this on my best day.  Got it fixed but it left me frazzled.
  • Money – I get to pay bills AND do taxes on my upcoming days off.  WooHOOO!  Yay, Me!!!!!
  • Conflict – part of my work has me representing my superiors to two dug in groups that refuse to resolve a conflict and keep trying to manipulate me to to choose between them.  My superiors simply want them to make up or get lost.  I don’t like delivering bad news; I’m a decent care giver because I’m flexible and it is not easy for me to be bossy; I like peace and hate being around people who’ve lost their rationality.  Today I get to call the two faction leaders and tell them, “You’ve exhausted the patience of my superiors.  You’re both gone.”  Even more delicious was the whole night anticipating these calls.

pathetic-7Pity parties make us passive and hapless.  The make us throw up our hands in woe and just let circumstances continue to crush us.  What to do?

  • Stop bundling the problems as one big mess.  Mentally separate them.  Take them one at a time.  They are not related.  They are not God’s wrath coming upon you.  And they will go away the sooner you stop pity partying and take them on one by one.  Don’t look at them all at once or the whole universe will look like your problem.  Give each one its time and place, curse it if you must, and then get down to dealing with it.
  • Delegate.  Can someone else help?  I just realized that someone else is going to see the feuding hard heads face to face before I do.  So, I will still make the bad news phone calls, but my colleague can deliver the formal letter from our superiors.  One less bit of stress and wasted time.  Don’t play the hero; accept offers of help or better yet, stop waiting for an offer and ask for it.
  • Practice spirituality.  Stuff that’s hard can be turned to your advantage.  As a follower of Jesus, I’m aware of the words  In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’  (Acts 20:35).  Yes, care giving is about giving more than you get back.  In our animal flesh, that’s a big negative, but in the mystery of the Spirit it’s a way to find blessing, that is, deep and abiding happiness.  So wrestle with the invisible possibilities instead of just slogging through the pathetic feelings.
  • Take your times of rest and recovery.  Sometimes this means just turning away from the problems when you’ve done what you can do.  Other times it means to celebrate because you’ve knocked something off the list.  Rewarding yourself for a victory will help you go out and win other battles.

I’m sure there’s more stuff to list but you know what?  I’m tired of thinking about it and I’m going to drink coffee and get those stupid phone calls out of the way.

Hope your weekend is good.  If you have a pity party planned, cancel it.

We’ll leave the light off for ya

People with autism connect with the world through repetitive behaviors.  I mean, we all do, right?  None of us want to live in a town where red light means stop on Tuesday and go on Wednesday.  I think.

But people with autism take repetition to the nth degree.  One of the the behaviors that led to our son Joey’s diagnosis was a daily pattern of running around the house, clockwise, pausing to touch certain objects in sequence along the way.  That’s a game a neurotypical kid might create, of course, but then a typical kid would lose interest and create a different game without having to be coaxed out of it by a therapeutic intervention.

20170121_085218One of Joey’s current repetitive behaviors is turning off our house’s outside lights.  It’s almost like he’s adopted a daily chore, which would be nice, except we can’t figure out the timing.  It’s irregular and sometimes inconvenient.  Why he’s even aware of those lights is a mystery, since they don’t glow into the window or anything.  But he’s taken to turning them off, sometimes while waiting for his morning bus, sometimes when he gets up to get a drink at night, sometimes in a cantankerous little gesture just after we’ve turned them on.

Joey’s repetitive behaviors create repetitive behaviors in his caregivers.  Now my wife and I have to check the light switch every time we go by at night.

Today is Saturday, and the whole family engages in a big repetitive behavior based on Joey’s imposed pattern of glazed doughnut with chocolate milk.  It means I have to get up earlier than I want, including on bitter winter days; the dog expects a car ride to the market; Melissa has to go on seizure watch while I’m out, during which the cat nags her for a brushing.  This pattern, almost down to a minute by minute precision, has been in place for years.  All because Joey is happy with his doughnut and “off” – possibly to the point of a seizure – for the rest of the day if it doesn’t show up.

When I got back from the market, I knew that Joey was awake.  How?  Not because there was a light on in his bedroom window, but because the lights in the driveway were off.

These repetitive behaviors can infest the care giving family in a couple of ways.  Obviously, they can become a grind.  Or, they can become cute and sentimental, preserving the feeling of caring for a child long past childhood.  This can create a void when the person with autism moves out, as Joey might at any time.

Then you have husband, wife, cat and dog all staring at one another wondering what to do.  Care giving can create some patterns of relationship, but it can also make those a facade ready to collapse when the person receiving care leaves the pattern.

Care giving is a consuming, sacrificial act of love.  But we have to be careful not to dramatize it or sentimentalize it, because it can take over too much of reality like some kind of idol.

One of the ways I resist that is to have my own @^%*#@$ repetitive patterns that aren’t tied to care giving.  I read during my lunch hour at work, for example.  This week, I got something worth sharing.  Hope it helps where you are:

We fill in the center with something or someone and ask it to be the fulfillment of all our desires.  We attempt to quench our thirst for the infinite with something finite.  When this happens, we terribly distort whatever it is we are asking to be our god.  No one, and nothing, can bear that responsibility and so we begin to squeeze the life out of our loves.  And we die, too, because we need the nourishment only God can give.  A lesser god means a lesser self.  (John Welch, O. Carm., The Carmelite Way)