At the chiropractor’s office, we take up the whole row of cervical traction units against the wall—Riley, Adam, Zoe, me. We all know the routine. We slip the padded bars behind our heads, rest our chins on the thick foam in front, grip the ends of the chin bars with our hands. Riley and Adam always count out loud the sixty times they bend their knees as the movement sweeps their heads backward. 1,2,3,4,5,6…We must look a bit like marionettes, bobbing up and down.
Zoe and I swallow hard, glaring at each other, sending silent messages back and forth about the book Riley has been reading to us in the car—a story studded with relationships that are disfunctional and loss that’s bitterly sad. To Riley, the words are just words on a page. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t connect them to any reality at all—no blurry faces, no cracks in the way things happen here. Her innocence protects her from understanding that this kind of pain hurts people all the time, that we run our fingers along the broken seams of other lives or reach down to gather up the shards and the brokenness cuts right into our skin and breaks us too, slicing right through the protective layers that hold us all together. But truly this is the way of things, something well-woven into the fabric of our living: Our brokenness always pierces right through the tender skin, shedding the blood of One innocent.
At the end of the last book Riley read, Zoe and I cried, stopping homework and cooking in the kitchen, wrapping our arms tightly around each other. Riley giggled. Laughter was her compensation for confusion over our reaction. But then, laughter is so often the way we all handle what we don’t understand and what we are afraid to acknowledge. I am at once grateful that Riley’s pure heart cannot comprehend all the pain of this life and also terrified that this fact about her nature leaves her vulnerable to calculated evil.
I nod at Zoe, who rubs a hand over her eyes, and we both turn toward the wall, thinking well past the audible chant of Riley’s and Adam’s counting—25, 26, 27—to the observance of our own progress.
“You two need to stand with your feet further apart,” someone says. I turn to find the doctor who is newest to the practice and newest to us standing behind Adam and Riley, talking into the space between their heads as they bob up and down, still counting. …32, 33, 34…
Riley immediately moves her legs wider, correcting her stance, but Adam ignores the comment and continues. …35, 36, 37…
“You too,” the doctor says, smiling, talking toward Adam’s cheek. “Your legs should be shoulder width apart.” …38,39,40…
One of the difficulties we have as humans is that we can’t just look at each other and identify the struggles, the challenges, the sensitivities, the inadequacies we all carry. Children with autism very often have no discernable physical differences from their neurotypical peers, and so they are often stung by misunderstanding, impatience, ignorance, and lack of compassion. I feel like I spend so much of my mothering protecting my children from just these things and from a thousand awkward moments in between. This doctor has no reason yet to know that Adam doesn’t understand all of her words, that his best strategy is sometimes just to pretend not to hear at all.
I stand up straight, forgetting my count. “You’re just going to have to move his legs,” I tell her, returning her smile. “He doesn’t understand.”
“Oh, okay,” she says easily, quickly, as though she’s just remembering a note about him on a patient record, and I am grateful. As I lean over to move one of his legs myself, she moves the other one, and together, we correct his stance.
“Adam, you need to stand like this,” I say to him directly.
“He also needs to switch his hands,” she says to me, gesturing, fumbling a little, and I smile at her again, trying to let her know I appreciate the help.
“You’re right. I didn’t even know he was holding it that way,” I say, touching Adam’s hand with my own. I had been so caught up in the emotions of Riley’s book that I hadn’t even noticed.
“Hey Adam? Hold it this way,” I say, gesturing to my own bar, modeling the grip.
Immediately, Adam shifts his hands, readjusting, and resumes his count. …44,45,46…
“Thank you,” I say to the doctor, turning back to my own exercises, trying to determine a reasonable number on which to begin my counting again.
The kids finish well ahead of me, and together they gather what they need to clean the bars and the foam pads—paper, a spray bottle filled with vinegar and water. They pass these around, each one moving back over to the wall to wipe the unit they had been using.
“No, not the glasses. Don’t touch the glasses. NO. I said don’t touch my glasses.”
“Adam,” I hear Zoe say, urgently.
I stand up straight again, slipping the padded bar from behind my head, giving up on my count. I turn around to find Adam trying to retrieve his books from the table next to the cleaning supplies. He has a pair of eyeglasses in his hand, carefully pinched by the side of the frames. He has frozen, reading the emotion etched on the woman’s face. He understands angry well before he understands the words she’s saying, because he has no ability to give priority to any one type of sensory input. The words will take a moment longer and a bit more repetition than this woman’s patience can tolerate.
Apparently, when she went to use the apparatus on the far wall, she left her eyeglasses on the table, right on top of Adam’s books. He only meant to lift the glasses, retrieve his books, and put the glasses right back on the table.
I would like to say that this is really a beautiful woman, because you will naturally read my emotions into any description of her at this point, but the best I can offer is that habitual bitterness has a way of deeply creasing our faces in certain places. I look at her and I feel her resentment and frustration, sharp and heavy and dark. I see her insolence coloring the air. It isn’t immediately that I look at her and recognize that I can no more see her challenges or her pain any more clearly than she can see mine or my son’s. The truth is that at first, the strength of her emotion surprises me, knotting up my heart and my thinking with it. All I can manage is to pin my arms against my sides, to press my lips together, to flatten the emotions that move through me like the seething tremors of an earthquake. Adam is innocent. He doesn’t deserve her anger. I am not able, on my own, to look past this woman’s impatience and acknowledge that I can’t see her very clearly at all.
I take the eyeglasses out of Adam’s hands, handing him his books. “Adam, don’t touch the glasses,” I repeat dumbly. I watch him turn immediately and walk away from us, heading to his next activity. Zoe stands still by the wall, gripped, her face pale. Riley has already moved into the next room with Adam.
“I’m sorry,” I say sincerely to the woman, setting the eyeglasses gently on the table. I know a thing or two about what annoys those who wear glasses, and I am grateful Adam has not smudged the lenses with his fingers.
“NOT like that. You can’t sit them like that,” the woman says, waggling a crooked, wrinkled finger toward the table. I realize she wants them sitting the opposite way, so I reach down and gently flip them over. And somewhere deep, where she can’t see, I whisper to Him who is able to love even the ones who drive the nails right through His innocent palms: Help. Please, help. I don’t understand.
“That boy had no business touching my glasses,” the woman grumbles loudly to the woman on the apparatus next to her, growling out the words.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her again. “He has autism. He doesn’t understand.” I know that she does not care at the moment that the glasses were completely unharmed, but I think maybe this truth will deflate her frustration just a bit. He is not an ordinary boy. He does not comprehend our social nuances. He was not being disrespectful.
Her eyes burn, flashing at me. “Well then you should have been watching him,” she shoots back, gripping the bar in front of her fiercely, looking to the woman next to her for agreement. Her words pound, but already God has heard me. Already He has touched my eyes. He reaches out and moves my heart with His own hands, the way the doctor and I had moved Adam, correcting his stance when Adam could not comprehend her words.
I never know what to say in situations like these, but God does. I never know how to see, but God does. And He grips me by the shoulders and makes me look again, and immediately I see. Suddenly I know that something has scarred this woman deeply. Some jagged thing has cut right into her, piercing the skin, and maybe it’s still lodged there, hidden. “That’s very unkind,” I say to her quietly, offering her just this simple observation, sealing my lips carefully around the words. “I’m very, very sorry.” I tell her this with a sincerity that comes from somewhere well outside of me.
For an instant, her expression changes, naked with vulnerable surprise, because she knows I am not apologizing again for the glasses. I can only guess that she has caught me really looking, really seeing. And just that quickly, the soul of her retreats behind her anger.
She throws up her hands and lobs the equipment she is using in a basket by the table, roughly retrieving her glasses, making her movements as loud as possible. She storms out of the room, murmuring something to the people at the front desk as she breezes through the front doors. I can’t see her leave except in my mind. I can’t hear exactly what she says.
I sigh, offering God a silent thank you, and then I see Zoe, still standing by the wall. Tears drip off of her face along the chiseled line of her jaw. She shakes her head back and forth, staring at the ground, rejecting what she has just witnessed. No, no, no. I walk over to her and wrap my arms around her shoulders, and she leans into me. Her whole body shakes. And so we run our fingers along the broken seams of other lives or reach down to gather up the shards and the brokenness cuts right into our skin and breaks us too, slicing right through the protective layers that hold us all together.
“It’s okay,” I tell her, holding her right there, while other people bob against the wall like marionettes. But I can only see her, no one else.
“No, it isn’t,” she says into my shirt, still shaking her head. “It isn’t.”
And she’s right. It isn’t okay, this way we hurt each other.
These days, God engraves this truth on my heart with deeper and deeper strokes, in the beautiful script of His own holy hand:
None of us have any ability to understand.
We all need God to wrap His hands right around our own. We need Him to move our legs so we can stand the right way. We need Him to speak, that we might say the right things. We need Him to look right through our eyes in order that we might see.
We need His wisdom to discern the difference between calculated evil and the sharp edges of another broken soul, imprisoned by pain.
We cannot look at each other and see the true presence of confusion, heartache, challenges, grief, or brutality written right plainly into the features of other faces like changes in color on an elevation map. We can’t see, but He can. And so, He must be the lenses through which we look.
This is why He writes slowly over our hearts, again and again, this wisdom: Trust in me with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, submit to me, and I will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5). Own that you just don’t understand, and I will move your legs myself.
It’s the truth—the need—we all need to own, because it’s not okay, this way that we hurt each other.
I wrap my arms tight around Zoe’s shoulders and guide her from the room to the chairs where Adam and Riley sit moving back and forth, warming up their lumbar spines. Zoe and I sit side by side, just looking at each other as we move, until a woman stops in front of me and lays her hand on top of my shoulder. I recognize her as the woman who had been next to the eyeglasses lady, the one the angry woman had looked to for justification. This woman’s auburn hair sits lightly on her shoulders. Her eyes are lit bright green, gentle.
“Some people just don’t understand,” she says, and I can see that she really looks at us, that she really sees. “I’m really, really sorry.”
“Thank you,” I say to her, offering her a smile, a smile I look then to find reflected in Zoe’s eyes too. And in just that way, this woman gently stops the flow of blood with her own innocent hands and an honest acknowledgement of the truth.