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?

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.

Not Fabio but he’ll do

FlowersStorm_avoncovers_first_web-200x327

After all my work to get in shape, this cover was rejected.  Dang, wish I’d a thunk up that title, though!

The cover design credit for Raising a Child with Autism goes to Elaina Lee, who worked with our publisher on the concept.

Our initial suggestion was that the cover be more cartoonish and humorous – maybe a confused guy holding a leaky hose over a withered plant.  Our working title was Blooming Idiots, intended to reflect the on-the-job, trial and error (lots of error) learning  that comes through care giving.

But our publisher had a wise insight as release date drew near: Can you imagine a Facebook status or tweet something like, “Just read a #book about #autism called Blooming Idiots” ? People are going to think you wrote a book that calls people with autism idiots.

Darn it, we liked that title.  But the publisher was spot on.  Sampling the title around to potential readers indicated that it provoked a negative reaction, as if we were using the R word.

So, we tried to go artsy and suggested stuff like Our Family Garden.  But that made it sound like a book about, well, gardening.

Finally, the publisher decided to go with a straightforward approach, and Raising a Child With Autism went on the cover.

That didn’t lend itself to our original cartoon concept, so the cover art team went with a sweet image of weathered, older hands and tender toddler hands holding some earth with a sprouting plant.

We had problems with it.   One was that it was too gentle.  Our hands and Joey’s hands didn’t always work cooperatively.  Care giving verged on combat much of the time.  Plus part of our story is how Melissa and I labored together as a couple, and the cover concept featured just old guy hands and no mommy presence.  The artists went back and tried to capture that, but the result was too busy and would have cluttered the cover.

book-coverSo Elaina Lee creatively and rightly shifted the focus to the child, and that’s the cover you see.  No, that’s not Joey.  He would never wear a hat because of his sensory issues.  He is seldom that still and focused.  And as we share in at least one chapter of the book, he can be pretty hard on plants.

But he does smile, he does delight in simple things and our reward as care givers comes through those kinds of realities.  So there’s a sweetness in the cover that rightly draws the caregivers toward the person in their care, and the hope and joy found in new life blooming.

Interested in your thoughts on the cover.  What does it say to you?   And how would you symbolize your experience of care giving?

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)

Beer, bang, blood & BS

O, God, where to start retelling last night?

Got home from work in the late afternoon with two consecutive days off coming up. We had a fun Chinese pick up dinner; Joey downed his own weight in Lo Mein.

Melissa and I were settling in to binge watch something and I was so relaxed that I had a second beer.  Then a third.

Then, a floor shaking bang and noise  like the fusion of snoring, opera and a train going by.  Joey had a seizure.

It must have been abrupt because he usually senses them coming and gets to a couch.  This time he was down on the floor in his closet with his face shoved into the floor.  It was hard to get to him and we needed to make sure we could keep his airway open.

I’d just downed that third beer…

Melissa managed to wedge herself in with him, get a hand under his head and get his nose and mouth out of the carpet so he could breathe.

When she got her hand free, it was covered in blood.

As the seizure subsided, Joey began to rouse himself a bit and we were able to get him out of the closet and inspect his head.  There was running blood all over his left ear and we couldn’t tell if it was coming from an external cut or from inside of his head.

Melissa said, “We need to take him in,” meaning to the ER as it was evening, and she was right.  But I’d had three rapid beers and she was going to have to drive.

So we loaded up, her hair a mess and no makeup (that doesn’t bug me but she hates going out like that), Joey and I in shorts despite the winter temps.

I had the presence of mind to call the ER and let them know we were on the way and what had happened.

OK, OK, I need to back up just a bit so I can tell you about the BS.  As soon as we realized that we had to get to the hospital, Melissa had the insight that Joey gets combative after a seizure.  He just wants to sleep and doesn’t want to be poked, prodded, asked questions… it is like a man-cold on steroids.  He can get violent if pushed, no matter the pushers’ good intentions.

So she showed Joey her bloody hand and said, “Look, Joey, mommy has an owie.  I have to go to the doctor.  Will you help take mommy to the doctor?”

It worked.  She actually turned him into a caregiver, and, although we could see he’d rather do something else (hey, that’s a working definition of care giving, ain’t it?), he wanted to help mommy be OK.

This morning I realize that autism worked in our favor.  His older brother, the engineer, would have asked, “Hey, if mom’s injured, how come she has to drive?”  No such problem with Joey.

At the ER, Melissa quickly informed the staff of the BS story under which we were operating.  It was wonderful – all of them, from the receptionists, to the nurses, to the admitting clerk, to the doctor – adopted the line.  “So, what happened to you,” they asked Melissa, “and where are you hurt?”

Meanwhile, they convinced Joey that getting his blood pressure would be helpful to treating his Mom.

They very dramatically cleaned the blood off her hand so Joey could see mom getting fixed, then told him that some of the blood was on him and they needed to clean him up, too.

Thanks be to God, the bloody wound was an external abrasion.  No stitches, just some topical disinfectant and a day of rest (today) at home.

And, because of Melissa’s impromptu and epic BS, no combat.

No pics to share.  I wasn’t thinking of blog illustrations at the ER.

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So here’s one of last night’s empties and some morning coffee.  In a mug that Joey painted for me.

The Aftermath of Disasters

Melissa is feeling beat up today.

I was invited out last night and she stayed in with Joey.  Disaster struck twice.

First, a dinosaur attacked.

Our 22-year old son with autism took a fancy to this on his internet surfing, and played it over and over at high volume.

This is the guy who can’t help with chores or muster the fine motor skill to sign a thank you note without hand over hand help. But he can find, play and replay videos on the internet. And adjust the volume. Mainly up.

After the dinosaur attack, there was a tragedy at sea,

Yes, it was a concert for the ages as Barney was just an opening act for Celine. Vegas can’t top this. Jurassic World and Titanic as a double feature? And thanks to Joey’s computer skills Melissa got a few hours of both in Dolby high def.

Needless to say, Melissa was worn out by the time I got home. And today she’s had a nasty headache. I had the day off and we had plans to go out but the Monday night mayhem scrubbed all that.

Caregivers are happy when those in our care find simple things to enjoy. But as we say in our book,

It is a short step from “Thank God I’ve found something he likes,” to “Please, God, make him stop bugging me about that.”

Out with… with… I forget

So here comes the obligatory New Year’s post.  Although I think I neglected the compulsory Christmas post so I’ll cram them together.

Joey begins perseverating about Christmas presents – aka movies on VHS – in the summer.  We get mad and try to make him change the subject; Melissa makes him dictate a written list so at least some constructive interaction takes place; our eyes roll back in our heads…

presentsThen Christmas day comes, we wake him up for breakfast and presents, show him his loot ‘neath the tree, and he says…

“NO!!!!!”

and goes back to his room.

We eventually prevail upon him to open the gifts, which he does with grumpy histrionics before again retreating to his room without them.

Eventually, over several days, he begins watching his long desired movies and seems happy.

Well, this year we resolved (see that New Year’s hook?) to try a new approach, which was no approach at all.  We simply let him ignore the presents to see where his thought process would take him.  We offered them to him and then left them under the tree and waited.

Our older son and his wife flew in for the holiday, and we exchanged gifts with them a few nights after Christmas.  Joey seemed to get into the second gathering and opened his presents then.

Hypotheses include a) he wanted his brother there, although he did the whole “NO” schtick throughout the years his brother lived at home; b) he doesn’t want Christmas to come to a crashing end but wants to sustain the gift getting pleasure; c) oh, hell, I have no idea.

Here it is New Year’s Eve-day and I’m sitting here yelling at him to turn down the volume on the movies, which he’s enjoying.

I’m not big into resolutions.  But here’s a favorite scene that reminds me to be open to change, to quit pounding my head against autism or any other wall…

May 2017 bring you blessings, especially freedom from old ruts. May you have divine favor upon all that you offer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV)

Let It Snow. For Joe.

After a lingering lovely autumn, we caught the first blast of winter yesterday.

For me, it means clearing snow (and this time it’s the wet, heavy stuff rather than the light fluffy variety).  If you don’t live in a snowy part of the world, you might not know that this is going to have ambulances rolling because out of shape people suddenly plunge into heavy work and the ERs do Black Friday worthy business.

It means suiting up to go out in the cold and work (uphill, both ways) while my relatively healthy, 22 year old son is in the warm house in shorts and a t-shirt watching movies and surfing the internet.

joe-snow-pathAs you can see from this pic, I got home from work yesterday and cleared a path for him to get in without trudging.  His bus driver spotted it and pulled up to open the door right over my perfectly positioned trail head, which was kinda cool.  I mean, I’m a caregiver and I want everything to come out just right, right?

With Joey safely home, Melissa and I made our first fire of the season and that made for a cozy evening.  Well, along with hard cider.

Joey loves winter.  It’s a math formula where A = Winter, B = Holiday Decor and Traditions and C = PRESENTS (mainly videos).  A + B = C.

Unlike adult sullen acceptance of winter, Joey lights up.  In his shorts and t-shirt in a warm house, of course, but he just lights up when the season changes.  Over the years, autism’s craving for predictable patterns makes the run up to Christmas (aka Winter) a time that he anticipates and in which he even participates.

Melissa gets him to articulate his Christmas list and writes it down for him.  It is funny to come into the front room and finding him sitting on the couch reviewing it, with all the earnestness of Santa checking the naughty and nice lists.

We keep an Advent Calendar, and Joey is already saying “First we have to read the Christmas books.”  The calendar has mini books that unfold the story of Jesus’ birth and then hang on the Christmas tree.  Joey reads more of the words for himself each year and picks the spot for each book on the tree.  That’s been a delight for us.

OK, OK, I’m sitting here drinking good coffee and musing and typing.  Time to man-up, uh, I mean, caregiver-up and do stuff like clearing snow.  For now I’ll just note that Joey’s enjoyment of this season is a precious part of our lives.

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Crass plug:  if you might want to win a Kindle, our book or other books by some good authors, here’s an opportunity:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No Trick

Don’t know what the publisher had in mind but today (Halloween) is the release date of our book.

If you go to the Amazon.com page, you can see the front and back covers of the book and even peek inside.  It’s available in paperback and Kindle formats.

If you shop on Amazon on some regular basis, check out AmazonSmile.  You can set up so that a portion of anything you buy on Amazon is donated to a worthy group of your choosing.

If you are so inclined, you can identify SD Achieve (aka LifeScape), which is the organization that provides wonderful service to our son, Joey.

Thank you!  More care giving antics to be blogged soon…