Wondering about the void

Lake Minnetonka

Looking out from the club’s dinning room onto Lake Minnetonka

While Joey spent the weekend in a respite apartment (that’s respite for his caregivers, mind you, he’d rather be home with his own stuff), Melissa and I traveled to a lovely spot in Minnesota  as guests of a church with a big heart for service to others.

We spoke as a couple at a forum for Autism Awareness Month.  It was well attended by folks caring for loved ones with autism and others who have friends or extended family members living with or caring for special needs.

A number of great questions and comments came up.  I want to return to some of those here on the blog.  They’ll be in no particular order except as to when they pop back into my head.

Melissa brought up what we call “the void.”  Taking care of our son Joey for the last 23 years has blessed, warped, changed or any-number-of-other-verbed every aspect of our family life, our marriage included.

I hear similar thoughts from caregivers in other situations, such as those caring for a disabled or chronically ill spouse, or grown kids caring for parents with dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Care giving takes over everything.  Some relational bonding is put on hold or evaporates, while the care giving routines become a kind of alternative glue holding people together.

Then the daily care giving goes away.  The person under care dies or is institutionalized.  In our case, Joey is on the waiting list for a group home opening.  Our dawn to dark (and sometimes in the dark) duties will move out with him.  Melissa and I will be staring at each other with a lot of “Now what?” space in between us.

Daves dad and joeAs important and immediately refreshing as we found our trip, we were urgent about getting things back to “normal” and we picked up Joey and whisked him to one of his favorite restaurants. Daves mom and joe The house might have been uncomfortably quiet as we unpacked a few bags and…

…and what?

This is ground we’ve not been over, but can see in the not-too-far distance.  We are trying to regenerate some of our couple time together, and keep up friendships, and envision things we want to do when we’re free to get on with them.

But we’re also interested in the experiences of those who’ve been over the territory, especially as couples.  Did you experience the void?  What did it do to your relationship?  How did you (plural you, y’all) come out on the other side?  Or did you?

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.

NO, IT’S NOT BAD PARENTING

Award winning author Norma Gail asked me some probing questions in an interview shared on her blog.

Here’s a bit of it, with some key quotes available for Tweets embedded by the host,

NORMA GAIL:  Autism affects 1-68 children in America. That’s more common than most people probably realize. What are the most basic things you wish people knew about Autism and the families it affects?

Leonidas

Lifted here.  You might find the article amusing, too.

SOMETIMES CARE GIVING STINKS: I think I speak for many families of children with autism who want to scream, “NO, IT’S NOT DUE TO BAD PARENTING.”  It’s a neurological disorder, most likely genetic rather than environmental in origin (although people debate that with some ferocity).  One of the hardest things is that kids with autism are impaired socially and so their parents can invest sacrificial work with little to no emotional connection in response.  We were spared that – Joey is very connected emotionally, albeit in some quirky ways.

There is no “cure” for autism or any one therapy that is useful in all cases.  Families hope for a “silver bullet” that will solve things, and this can leave us open to bad advice, blaming or other traps.

Parents deal with feelings similar to grieving a death.  Various hopes and dreams we hold out for a typical child often have to be given up for a child with autism.  Some kids on the autism spectrum grow up to play sports, perform in the arts, excel in academics or vocational skill, get married and all kinds of other things we think of as making for a “good life.”  But many will never experience some or all of those things.  They have other pleasures – parents have to learn to love those.

Siblings can feel ignored due to all the effort and attention put into caring for the child with autism.  The whole family is impacted.

Allies mean a great deal.  Educators, medical people, community programs, understanding churches (not always easy to find), and just plain caring folks make life better.  There’s a neighbor of ours who routinely keeps going down our sidewalk when clearing his of snow – the time and effort he saves us is a precious gift.

NG: What are some of the greatest challenges faced by parenting a child with a disability?

SCGS: As the book points out, family caregivers – and this applies in situations beyond Autism, such as Alzheimer’s, spousal disability and many other conditions – are trying to fulfill roles beyond the knowledge, skill, energy, patience and finances of a typical individual or family.  We get stretched beyond our limits and, really, beyond any realistic expectation of becoming “good at it.”

In our case, we had to deal with Joey’s “meltdowns.” Kids with autism become frustrated when they can’t understand or be understood by others, and this can lead to a violent outburst.  It’s not the same as a tantrum, in which a kid wants a toy.  It is an all consuming surge of energy in an effort to connect with a world that seems out of touch.  It is heartbreaking to try and contain a beloved child who is putting you in serious danger – Joey would punch, kick, bite and throw objects at us.

There were several years where we didn’t think that Joey or any of us would ever sleep.  The stuff that makes you laugh after the years of raising a baby keeps going when autism is in play.  I sometimes tell people, “Imagine having a combination of newborn and toddler for a couple of decades.”

Parents share war stories of dealing with “the system.”  Some school districts are downright hostile to special needs kids, considering them a financial drain on services for “normal” kids.  Then there are the insurance issues, efforts to see specialists, quests for specialized therapies – it is exhausting and sometimes fruitless.

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Check out the interview.  Leave a comment there on Norma Gail’s blog and you might win a signed copy of Raising a Child With Autism.

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)

Worth reading, discussing and doing

Forbes Magazine has a #LifeHacks piece called 4 Critical Things To Do Before Becoming A Caregiver.  It is concise – almost a simple checklist of ways to prepare “General, Legal, Medical and Financial” documents and plans before becoming a care giver to a family member.

Ideally, discussion and preparation should go on while the family is in good health.  Spouses should talk about plans as they age; extended families should talk things out with parents, grandparents or other aging loved ones.  Families like ours, engaged in long term care of a special needs child, need to get ahead of these matters as well.

Unfortunately, care giving falls into many lives without time to prepare, as the result of a catastrophic illness or accident.  This article will still serve as a valuable resource, even under difficult “catch up” conditions.

While the article does mention getting “Names and phone numbers of religious organization and points of contact,” we would amplify this to include discussion and documentation of funeral/burial wishes, whether religious or not.  Don’t underestimate the wear and tear on care givers and other survivors;

  • the unexpected cost of a funeral, often setting up stress between unexpected price and available budget, leading to guilt and family squabbling;
  • the bombardment of questions – “What music at the service?  Burial or cremation? Who is going to speak?” – that comes in right when survivors just want to be still, remember and grieve;
  • the challenge of providing an event for a large number of people, many of them strangers to the survivors, on short notice;
  • oh, so much more.

It is a great gift to the family to have talked out and written down the loved one’s wishes in advance.  Most funeral homes and many churches have worksheets that ask all of the relevant questions, and having these available at the time of death takes a great deal of strain off of those dealing with loss.

Inside out

I have to laugh at our family on this quiet Saturday morning.

We’ve had a couple of ER trips over the last two weeks, all of which we handled just fine.

Major crises become run of the mill in care giving families.

But little crap can set us off like 4th of July fireworks.

Joey’s birthday is coming up; Melissa got him to articulate a list of desired videos (video = present on Joey’s planet.)

So the other night, a healthy, happy Joey was musing about “Soon there will be presents” and then decided to offer a bit of theater expressing his desire for their arrival.  He went to the front door and knocked from the inside, a perfect tap tap tap simulating the arrival of a package via UPS or FedEx.

The knock awakened the aging dog and set her to barking up a storm.

This in turn rubbed Melissa’s and my last nerves raw and we broke all of the rules about calmly explaining things to a person with autism.  We went into full “Knock it off” mode.

This made Joey laugh – he finds anger amusing to a point and them absorbs and gives it back .  So he started knocking again and the dog started barking again and and and and and and and…

Here’s a video about knocking. I think the only pipe I’ll be hitting is the one with the crack in it.

…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.