Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Sense of It All

It is never a good omen when your oldest spends the pre-performance moments curled in the fetal position and wedged up against the support leg under the church pew.  Then again, I never expected to make it through the entire pageant even at the moment I decided that we were going.  There was simply too much stacked against it.

You see, my two beautiful boys look perfectly normal.  All the spectrum issues have been ruled out, we will be asking for a reduction in hours for one, and they are both doing reasonably well in school now.  Most of the time, you would never know that there is anything wrong.

But then there are the sensory moments, shame triggers, anxieties, and meltdowns.  And in those moments, I am painfully aware that we are not normal...yet.

We've been working on auditoriums for a long time--long before I ever even realized the depth of the big one's issues and before the little one was even born. In fact, our first brush with an auditorium came when I was six-and-a-half months pregnant with the little one and took my 19-month-old big one to see his cousin's/uncle's (depending on your language) spring orchestra concert.  I didn't really expect him to be quiet or still, but I hadn't expected him to climb over people and chairs or to rush the stage attack-style.  When I caught him--in heels and a wrap-around, mind you--and hoisted him onto my shoulder, he called out in the most breathtakingly clear voice, "HEEEEELP!  Somebody help me!"

Our auditorium encounters have not improved much since then, although we fared better because we moved to Korea.  Koreans are much more indulgent of little ones being little ones in formal settings.  Still, big one's antics were always a little over the top.  Just being in a movie theater could send him into hysterics.  Whether it was the smell of the food from the concession stands, the seats that just wouldn't hold still, the extreme air conditioning, or the sheer volume of the sound effects, big one melted down in movie theaters--and they were better by far than plays, gymnasiums, or other public events, hands down!  I can't even begin to count the times my husband or I carried the big one out of one of those places and attempted to calm him down.  It was happening all the time.

You would think that we would have noticed that the combination of stimulation caused meltdowns, but, no, we did not.  We just knew the big one melted down.  He melted down over seemingly random things.  He melted down in the mornings over breakfast and forty-five minutes later over getting dressed.  He melted down because the seam of his socks bothered his toes and again because he didn't want to wear those shoes and yet again because it smelled outside when we walked to the car.  He stopped wanting to go to school.  He had trouble sitting still.  When people would show up at school to observe, he would provoke the teacher as well as become defensive over phantom noises.  He only ate certain foods, only watched certain shows, only sat certain ways.  He never, ever wanted to go to bed--not like normal children don't want to go to bed at 9:00 PM, like, at 1:15 AM he still wasn't ready to sleep.

And in the midst of all of this, we just never had the sense to piece together that it was sensory issues all along.  Well, sensory issues along with a learning disability, anxiety, attention-deficit-hyperactive-disorder, and transition problems, but actually the sensory detail seems to be at the center of it.  Calm the senses, and you can deal with almost anything else.

And so, once my friend and I had had a serendipitous conversation--that it happened was a miracle, but I'll tell you that story another time--I was able to start dealing with the sensory problems, first on my own and later in the States with the help of therapists.

We have almost tackled the movie theater problem.  We manage to make it through most movies now as long as we sit right beside the door, come with one adult per child, bring plenty of distractions in the purse, and are prepared to sit with one or both children on our laps.  Still, it can be embarrassing.  Like me, my children cannot handle suspense, and they will call out questions at the most silent of moments, and when they insist on using English in the middle of the Korean theater, well there aren't many places I can hide.

But now we're on to real plays, and as I said before, the fetal position under the pew did not bode well for the evening.

But I was in luck because (a) he and his brother really, really, really wanted to see the performance; (b) I could count down the time until it began (and it was less than 4 minutes, so he thought he could handle that); and (c) his friend showed up and he wanted to act like a big boy.  So he was extracted from his location and placed on the end of the angled pew that was closest to the door.  The angled pews are special because even if you sit in the back, because of the angle, the person on the end has an unobstructed view of the stage.  I though that this was just perfect.  Until a party of four arrived and the tallest member, a 6' 3" gentleman, sat directly in front of my five-year-old despite the fact that the rest of the row we were in was empty and his own row proffered many spaces.  That didn't bode well either.

And still, it was mostly incredible.  The lights went down, the spotlight came on, and a mature gentleman in period costume stepped to the center of the stage.

The little one gasped.

"Mommy," he whispered with reverence.  "Is that God?"

And the pageant continued this way.  We were all squeezed into the fifteen inches at the end of the pew to avoid our tall comrade, and we enjoyed the play.  The boys had many questions, but they were all on task.  The boys were thrilled that a Korean-American was chosen to play Joseph.  They loved that there were children on stage.

"Why didn't you let me go up too, Mom?" The big one wanted to know.  I didn't answer.  I just remembered the times he had tried to go onstage before--attempts that either began or ended in tears.  I remembered the sweat and the lights and the itchy costumes.  I thought of my son who who hates to be hot, needs sunglasses or a ball cap at the slightest sunshine, and still has issues with itchy socks.  I loved to be onstage, but I am not my son.  Someday, when we have conquered the sensory issues, then maybe he'll be up there too.  Until then, I'll try to keep him on the pew instead of under it.

But the best part was the "suffer the children" scene.  As the kids in costume came out of the woodwork and surrounded Jesus, my kids' eyes just sparkled.  There was wonder all over their faces.  And when the children began to sang, my boys recognized the song from our old Korean church.  Paired with the Korean Joseph, it just suddenly seemed that there was a place for them in God's kingdom.  And in the blaringly loud sanctuary, as my boys (and I) sang along the words we knew in Korean, they were transformed.  You see, no matter what language they speak now, their first language, the language that has set most of their early neural pathways, the language that carries "true" meaning for them, the language they most believe both comfort and threats in is Korean.  There is always a translation veil with English.  Even though it gets thinner by the year, it is still there.  But in those moments, it was gone and my children were, in their hearts, on the knees of Jesus.

Until our tall comrade turned around and said, "Could you be quiet?  Some of us are trying to listen."

He might have added, "please."  I can't be sure because I was suddenly too busy being the girl in the white t-shirt awash in the very cold water of a shame splash.

I tried to be quieter, and so did the boys.  But it was too late.  One of the big one's anxiety triggers is shame.  He heard what was said, and it was all he needed.  He began hyperventilating, biting my thumb (he did tell me he needed to bite something, and I offered my thumb when I found I hadn't brought anything else that he could use), and scratching wildly.  He actually scratched his ear open and tickly blood began to trickle down the vortex of the fold in his ear.

"Let's go home," they whispered.  I nodded, and we ducked out the blackened doors.

But once we got out, they didn't really want to go, they just wanted to leave that place of shame.  Since I had already dosed them with their Benadryl and melatonin, and they were beginning to get calmer and sleepier, I decided that we could probably risk the balcony.  When they are going full tilt, I fear that one will go over the balcony.  But with the medicine, I felt we were beyond that.

As we sat there in the balcony, I had a moment to reflect on the events before.  When I heard the man's words, I was stuck once again in the shame of being an inadequate mother.  Not only can I not control my children, but I cannot protect them from what I feel are undeserved comments.  There may be some who feel they're deserved, but we were sitting as far back as we could go.  By the door.  And it was minutes after the "suffer the children" scene.  Seriously.  Minutes.

And I flashed back to the time on the plane home in the spring of 2010--two years ago to the day of the performance, in fact.  We were taking our last flight home, a little commuter flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I believe.  I was positioned between the big one, who had the window, and the little one, who had the aisle.  Twenty-seven hours into our trip, half a world away from all that they remembered as home, alone with their mother in a world of unfamiliar words and foods, all they wanted to do was sleep.  And that was fine when there was only the elderly couple sitting in front of us.  But there was a hue and cry from the back of the plane, and a business traveler, who "just can't deal with that child right now," was moved from his seat toward the back and placed in the seat in front of the big one.  The business traveler immediately reclined his seat as far as he could into the big one's lap and proceeded to talk at full volume the entire flight.  Both boys were having nightmares--understandable, considering--and I did my best to keep them quiet and calm the whole time.

I thought I was doing an okay job until Mr. Business Traveler turned around from his seat and hollered, "Young man!  Young man!" until he succeeded in waking the big one.  "Young man, do not kick the back of my seat again.  It's very rude." And then he turned to me and said, "I hope you don't mind my addressing him.  I believe in dealing with my problems directly."

I think I said, "No, I don't mind, but if he kicked your seat, it was an accident.  As you can see, you just woke him up yourself.  He has been sleeping the whole time."

What I wanted to say, what I think a good mother would have said is, "If you don't want him to kick your seat, then you might consider getting it out of his lap.  And perhaps, since you have already switched your seat because of a kid, just perhaps, you may already have a prejudice against children and it may be your attitude that needs adjusting, not his.  And beyond that, this child has been traveling for more than twenty-four hours away from everything he has ever known, and perhaps, just perhaps, since you are the adult, you might be a little understanding under these circumstances."

But I didn't say any of those things.  Instead, I sat back and listened--and worse yet, let my beautiful hurting son listen--as Mr. Business Traveler continued to complain about him to the woman next to him.

Someone once said that when something bad happens to women, all the related bad things that have ever happened in their lives become one with that incident.  It's true.  Those moments were the same for me, and once again, I was completely unable to protect my lovely, hurting son.

But something else had happened in between those incidents.  Another friend of mine had a similar plane experience, only she--usually a very compassionate, considerate, patient, and understanding woman--was on the reclining side of the argument.  And while I still think that she was compassionate, considerate, patient, and understanding in that moment, she was clear that she was reclining her chair all the way regardless of the wishes of the woman behind her because she was sick at that moment.  She had a migraine and was nauseous.

And then I flashed to a moment when I was not understanding.  We were eating lunch at one of the local Korean churches shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh.  I hate to eat lunch in churches.  It doesn't matter what type of church it is, I hate it.  In this case, I know where my kids get their issues, and this issue comes from me.  But we were guilted into eating there, and so we were.  So not only was I having to deal with feelings, smells, and sounds that make it hard for me to concentrate, and quite honestly to even be rational, I was also feeling guilty because I didn't want to eat there and nervous because I didn't feel I belonged.  And to make things worse, the child sitting across from me kept making funny noises at me, refused to answer any questions in English or Korean, and seemed to be laughing at me.  I felt humiliated and angry.  Really?  Finally, I said, "Do you really think it's appropriate to talk to an adult this way?  I don't think so."

He just looked at me and said nothing.

A few moments later, his sister came over and said, "I'm sorry if my brother's bothering you.  He can't talk.  He's severely autistic.  I was looking for him, and I didn't know he was over here."

To this day, I blush at the shame of this memory.  Here I am, a mother with two children with issues, and I behaved just like someone who knew nothing about it or, worse, just didn't care.

Although I was angry at the man in front of us, I have come to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong in this situation, only a love fail on all sides.  I don't know what he was dealing with, but my judgment of him is not helpful or, in fact, biblical.  Whatever he was dealing with at that moment, I hope he has found his answer.  And I hope he thinks twice before he sits in front of five-year-olds when there's a whole row free or says snarky things to kids, but, hey, I can't have everything.

Three things also really burned.

First, even though I was mad at him for being short with my children after the suffer the children scene, I was angry with him immediately after Jesus was depicting the Pharisees as blind.  Let's face it.  As I've just shown above, we all spend a lot of our time blind.  And you know what, Jesus loves us blind guys, too.  He never stopped going to the synagogue, never stopped meeting with the Pharisees who sought him.  I need to practice the compassion I want to experience, the kind of compassion Christ extends to me.  If there's to be an attitude change in the other, then I need to pray and let God take care of that.  My job is to love.

Second, when we went up to the balcony, those we met upstairs were all people like us--not quite normal enough to be downstairs.  One couldn't hold still.  Another was taking up incredible amount of room.  Another appeared to be hiding.  I felt like I had entered the land of the lepers and knew immediately that the same Jesus we were there to celebrate came to abolish this distinction.  Where do we start?

And third, God's grace is sufficient for us.  Not our tall comrade's grace.  Not the grace of this inadequate mother.  God's grace.  My children haven't stopped talking about the performance.  The little one is disappointed that God didn't show in human form that night, and he randomly asks about folks in the crowd. And we are all singing that Korean song over and over (oh, and it burns more than slightly that heavenly tongues are okay in that church at any time, but that the spontaneous praise of children speaking in their mother tongue is squelched.  But I'll let God take care of that!). 

But back to the show itself.  No, even in the balcony, we didn't make it the whole way.  The boys know the story well, and they knew Jesus was getting ready to die.  They weren't taking it well and were dancing with anxiety.  But the kicker was when the dry ice came out.

"Mom," gasped the big one.  "They're being gassed!"

"Smoke, Mom," the little one cried.  "It's smoke!"

"Where's the alarm?"

It was time to head toward the door, take the long walk back to the car, and discuss whether or not the clouds could swallow up the moon.

"The two are actually thousands of miles apart, guys," I said.  "They can't actually touch."

"Nuh-uh," said the little one.  "You know none things, Mom."

And maybe I'll leave it at that.


  1. I want to punch that guy in the face!! I"m glad he wasn't sitting near me, because I was singing along in FULL VOICE for most of the show!
    Thanks for sharing. We all need reminded not to be quick to judge someone, even if they are the rudest person ever!

  2. So very much to think about here. Your thoughts about your thoughts align perfectly with a blog post I'm struggling with. And your thoughts on judging are so compassionate and wise.

    One thing I learned fairly early on was to proactively ask people like the tall stranger to please move a bit when options exist so they don't block the view from behind. That's easier when I'm defending a child than myself. Airplane seats? God help us all when we have to fly!