B is for Bridges (an alphabet of autism and grace)

The healing isn't any more sudden than the breaking was. My spiritual life is like walking across a canyon on a swinging bridge. To turn back is impossible. The bridge disappears.
Esther Emery

I have always loved a good bridge. Bridges are fascinating feats of engineering and beauty, practical and picturesque, and a vivid picture of what we need while loving a child with autism, or any child for that matter. And the living God. We are always searching for ways to connect our hearts to our children, to each other and to God our Maker.

When I was in Architecture school, I took a class where we built bridges in teams using only cardboard and glue. We were to apply the laws of physics and methods of construction engineering in our design. Our models would then be put under loads so we could measure their strength - to the point of failure. With all eyes on each design under stress, we would learn what makes the strongest bridge.

I can still remember watching my team's bridge, a truss-type construction, being crushed under the forces applied during the stress test. All that studying, all that teamwork, all that gluing in layers of corrugated cardboard, all that hope for the strongest bridge broken under the weight of a heavy load.

Now, I live in a city of bridges. There are twelve bridges across the Willamette River each of a different design and construction. Some are made of concrete, some are iron with rivets marching their span, one is a working vertical lift to let boats and barges pass underneath and another one is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture with spires rising through the fog that settles on the water. They all connect two sides of a city, crisscrossing the river as it winds its way to the sea.

The very first bridge might have been a tree accidentally fallen across a stream. Now bridges are designed to make all sorts of intentional crossings over gaps carrying all sorts of things (people, vehicles and resources), all while balancing competing forces of tension and compression. Designers choose the type of bridge by the length of span needed to cross a gap and the available bedrock for anchoring.

All of that sounds like parenting and life and faith to me.

When we began our journey into autism, my natural tendency was to hunker down and attend to our hurting child and frayed family. Part of that was good and healthy, paying attention to what was right in front of us. It is true that our family needed plenty of time and space for rest and restoration. But the dark side of that high responsibility notion was the idea that if we could just get our arms around this autism thing, then we'd be better in community.

What happened instead was a slow kind of darkening, longer and longer periods of time being cut off from support, prayers and community. The dimming happened gradually like autumn days turning into the dead of winter, until suddenly our family life felt like a desolate landscape, like Suttle Lake when it freezes over.

There were so many reasons for us falling into this kind of isolated living. Partly we were hurting deeply, at the very center of what we held so dear, our family life. We felt the sting of failure in our parenting, in our ability to communicate, in what we thought was our rock solid faith being struck without any water gushing out. We didn't even know what to ask for and sadly we did not want to ask.

Even now, I can still fall into that thinking gap; after I conquer this struggle and pain, then I will let you near. That is why I feel exposed as I write to you today. I do not have parenting or faith all worked out. But the living God works through our frailties. He asks us to reach out even when we are broken. His hand is extended even when we look anywhere but to him.

No, I do not have my arms around autism, but I do have my arms around Mac. Maybe I do not even have my arms around my faith as well as I once thought, but God has his arms around me.

A few weeks ago, Mac came into where I was writing and said, "Can I have a hug?".

I calmly said, "Of course." like it was no big deal and stood up so he could squeeze the daylights out of me. All 6'-3'of his frame hugs hard. I know now that Mac likes understatement and steady emotion from his people and his surroundings, and big bear hugs, just ask first.

Despite my nonchalance, my heart swelled inside my chest. My soul swooned. The mighty world shifted on its axis. You must have felt it. My ears rang like after an explosion for the sound of his rare song.

Please know this scene was a long time coming, only after a trail of tears building bridges to Mac. We brushed his skin, we rubbed his earlobes, we kept him safe during tornado tantrums, we asked for hugs and we waited.

We built bridges from our breaking hearts to him and then outward to the hard world when all I wanted to do was fold in and lay down. You see my calendar told a story all it's own. Instead of being filled with playdates and birthday parties for Mac, it was filled with doctor appointments, therapy sessions, blood draws, school safety plan meetings, school suspensions and marriage counseling.

Never had we needed and accepted so many people outside of our family to step inside our circle. Never had I needed the living God so desperately, deeply and piercingly. I spent way too long trying not to need so much from so many or even one so fiercely as my own handsome husband or my Savior. I hate to admit that even when I finally surrendered to accepting so much help, I did so reluctantly and with a sense of deep failure.

But it all started with building bridges. The very idea of building a bridge means there is a gap to cross or a distance to span. It might be over a canyon, a river, an ocean or a heart. Whatever the divide, and autism is a wide one, bridges are designed to connect, carry or cross over to another side.

I am resting all of this talk of bridges on the fact that God built a bridge to us, Isn't a stairway simply a vertical bridge? When Jacob had his stairway dream, the stairway was from heaven. It was already there with angels criss-crossing it when he laid his weary head on that stone pillow. When Jacob realized God was already there, in his awe, he suddenly saw the bridge between heaven and earth began in heaven. Even then Jesus was God's bridge to us.

Our first bridges were needed just to span the distance from us to Mac. We wanted to reach him, but he didn't want to be touched. We wanted to communicate, but he hated noise, including too many words. We wanted to nourish him, but he resisted so many foods. We wanted to connect him to his world through friends, church and school, but he either ignored others, shut them out or lashed out in anger.

We were building bridges under a heavy load. The design of my bridges at the time - consistent hard work, moxie and a sunny faith - were not up to this crossing. We stumbled around trying to shore up our failing bridges, despairing at the drop-off ahead and finally trying to cross new ones.

There are as many ways to reach your child as there are children. Here are a few ways we tried reaching Mac at home, at church and at school.

One of Mac's great fears was separation from family and home. He had nightmares about something terrible happening (to me in particular). That meant church, school and trips away for me and Mike were devastating to him. Though home was not always smooth either, these outside settings were where his worst behaviors surfaced.

Because church was so difficult for Mac and yet so important to us, we had resorted to tag teaming between Mike and I who could attend services with the other kids or we simply stayed home for family devotions. That was fine for a season, and in some ways felt safe for us as parents, (we could try and manage it all ourselves), but neither option gave Mac the opportunity to be included in church life or grow in classroom skills in the smallest, most loving environment. And we were already skilled at trying not to be vulnerable, trying not need help.

Finally, we tried something where we would have to ask for help, which might include other hurting parents and their children, and which might not work at all. Certainly, it did not fit any of my gifts or skills. My degree was in architecture, not teaching, not classroom management and not special needs kids. Maybe that is why I use the idea of bridge building to explain what we were trying to do.

With another mama and the blessing of our Children's pastor, we crafted something new called Friendship House. Friendship House was a small, quiet, very flexible classroom setting for a handful of children with various special needs. And some extra friends. We rotated the parents with adult and teenage volunteers who had a heart for the kids struggling to find their place in our church family. One volunteer, Roxie, brought along her guide dog for the blind, an chill yellow lab puppy whose name escapes me at the moment.

Any classroom setting was difficult for Mac. For school, I sent a photo book of our family and arranged with the teacher that he could have it in his desk to help him organize his emotions and fears and be reminded that he fit right into our family.

I made them for home as well. Whenever Mike and I went out of town together and left the kids with grandmas, Gee or Pay, I crafted little homemade books. The books were simple collages with magazine pictures laminated to the page. There are only two of these books, because this was near impossible to do. We usually came home to grandmas and babysitters in tears.

The idea behind these picture books was to give Kyle an idea of where he was in time and a promise that we were indeed coming back, something, once he was able to tell us, he was terrified might not happen. Finally knowing this broke my breaking heart, so we did our best to make him feel safe and secure while we were gone. Still, we felt we had to go at some point for our own health and marriage as well as his learning that others love him, can take good care of him and he can trust that we will come home to him.

These homemade books offered simple activities and reassurances for the days we were gone in pictures he might love, most clipped from magazines, a few drawn by his hand. The pages were numbered with the date to help him count the days along with the calendar hanging in the kitchen. It eased my mama heart to make them for him. Oh, how I needed to get away and yet dreaded it at the same time.

The cut-and-paste collage-style has a certain charm and a healing process all its own. I recommend it. However, today there are professional options where you can just upload your own photos and add a few words. Have fun trying Pinhole Press, Shutterfly or Chatbooks.

Bridges are a recurrent theme in my life. Bridges open a way, they make passage possible, they connect divided parts. We are still building bridges to Mac today, but also to people in teams for Mac's health and education. Of course, as parents we are building bridges to all of our children, but the ones to Mac have the longest to span and sway in the strongest winds.