Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Last year on Christmas Eve I had an experience that a friend of mine called a "moment of grace." I'm inclined to agree with her. I've been mindful of that day and that moment as we approach Christmas this year. It is a long story, so settle in.

Christmas Eve is one of my favorite days, perhaps my very favorite day of the year. It isn't just the presents--it is going to church at night, candles, memories of caroling on Christmas Eve with my family, warm soup, cold, dark outside, warmth and light inside. I've tried hard, over the years, to lower my expectations of Christmas. I think I cried myself to sleep on many a Christmas Eve when I was a child because I was just plain exhausted, and it was all too much to bear. I know when I was in college I had a very hard time not crying in church when all the lights were out and we sang Silent Night. Okay, okay. I can hear you thinking--so why is this day your favorite? All you ever did was cry???!! (Okay, maybe you are not thinking that, but that is EXACTLY what Dave, my dear, literal husband, would say...)

I like to imagine that I'm more grown up than that now. That I live in the moment rather than dreaming of some ever so much more perfect future. (My Mother is a dreamer--there is always a better way to do everything--the right now is never quite good enough... I've tried hard not to follow in her footsteps in that. There is much to admire in my Mother, but being content in the here and now is not one of her strong suits.) So the Christmas season--with the waiting and the hoping--builds expectations for, if not a more perfect future, for a more perfect minute, day, evening, hour?

Last year, I spent Christmas Eve day with my two boys. Dave was at work all day. I had things to do, but also time to spend with the boys. I don't remember all of the details, but by the middle of the morning Alex had been so naughty I had declared that we were taking one of his presents and giving it to charity. I loaded the boys in the car, grabbed a not yet wrapped gift, and headed to the local charity drop box. I made Alex take the bag and put it in the collection bin. He saw the Pokemon toys in the bag. He wanted those toys. I can't say that his behavior improved as the day went on, but it didn't get any worse.

Joseph, on the other hand, had a full-blown meltdown during the afternoon. I left him alone in the basement for maybe half an hour and went to check on him when I started to hear noises I should not be hearing. He was trashing all the toys. Boxes of puzzles open and spilled on the floor. Books flung from shelves. Legos everywhere. Then the real fun started. I asked him to pick things up. I'm sure he sensed by my voice that he had me--I was totally in his control, right where he wanted me, so he laid down amid the mess and laughed. At this point, I screamed at him. Not one of my shining moments as a parent. One of my worst. I screamed loud enough that I could feel it in my throat. And, of course, that was even better for Joseph--he loved it, and he laughed even more. If my memory serves, at that point I went upstairs and put myself in timeout. Just took a half hour to not worry about how big a disaster the basement was, but stop myself from going too far. During that half hour I remembered all the behavior modification techniques we have practiced over and over and over with Joseph. I had to provide a reward for cleaning up that he wanted more than he wanted to see me lose it. So I went downstairs and told Joseph he could watch TV if he cleaned up the mess in the basement. Magic words. He got up and started putting things away--maybe not in the right places, but off the floor. I prompted him over and over again to continue so he could watch TV, and eventually he finished the job. Again, my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think I let both boys watch TV for the rest of the day.

So much for my "favorite" day. I had a sore throat from screaming, Alex was pouting because he had lost a present, and both boys were parked in front of Sponge Bob.

But soon the afternoon was over. Dave was home. We drove to pick up Grandma and got ready for church. We were the family that was to light the Advent wreath at the Christmas Eve service. Yes, indeed God has quite a sense of humor. The spotlight was to be on us that evening. I was feeling like the worst possible parent, with the most dysfunctional family ever. Seems to me that special days--birthdays, holidays--are the times where having special needs children really kicks you in the teeth. But that isn’t true. Holidays and special days are just the times I turn into my mother, and want everything to be perfect instead of everything to be the way it really is. That has nothing at all to do with autism. That has everything to do with being human.

So, what does this have to do with grace? As we loaded ourselves into the van that evening, heading to church, I looked up and saw in the wood behind our home, a beautiful buck. We see deer all the time in our woods, but this was the first, and still the only buck I’ve ever seen on our property. My moment of grace. At that point, I let go. I let Christmas happen. I was in the moment, not in the future. Hope had come. The buck didn’t turn and run. Alex was able to see him, too. Grace. A moment of grace.

That evening in church, we walked together as a family with the flame to light the advent candles. Alex wanted to play with the lighter, so we let him carry it down the aisle. It was a big responsibility for a little boy who had had a rough day. A year later he still remembers. He told me just yesterday that he was nervous carrying the light. The buck had calmed me, and I was proud of my dysfunctional family.

But God doesn’t let us forget. I was reminded all through church that evening of my part in the day. My voice was gone, so I could not sing. My favorite part of Christmas Eve, and no sound would come from my still raw throat. Perhaps I was taught a gentle lesson. Perhaps I’ll be able to sing this Christmas Eve.

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