Saturday, December 24, 2016


Image result for christmas banner

It was a few days before Christmas

And all through the hospital,
patients were saying, "Why, this is impossible!
"To be stuck in this place at this time of year!
"To  be oh, so sick as Christmas draws near!"

Image result for reindeer flying in the skyIt's not ideal, I will confess,
The circumstances are not the best.
No turkey, no taters, no pumpkin pie.
No reindeer flying in the sky.

No  stockings hung by the chimney stack.
Of Christmas cheer, a dismal lack.
No carols sung, no candles aglow.
And not even a hint of snow!

It's sure not the Christmas we planned for all year.
And it's hard to find any Christmas cheer.
But let me remind you, before you turn glum
That despite your locale, Christmas will come.

It came long ago to a manger afar
No colorful lights, but a bright shining star.
The Infant had no soft baby things
Just straw and hay and three gifts from the Kings.

Where you spend Christmas has nothing to do
Image result for manger sceneWith the gift of a Savior God sent to you.
Whether at home or away this Christmas tide
The reason for the season cannot be denied.

Some will spend Christmas in foreign land
Protecting our shores so our freedoms will stand.
And some will man the emergency phones
Or serve meals to those homeless or alone.

No matter where you spend Christmas this year
Be glad in your hearts; Jesus is here!
Our Savior's the gift that brings true light.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Image result for christmas ballsBonnie and I decided against a Christmas tree. Our income, cut in half, didn’t really lend itself to spending forty dollars on a tree that would be up for two weeks then out with the trash. The pile of medical bills that continued to grow on the dining room table was an additional reminder of the need to use our funds wisely. Plus, we reasoned, we weren’t sure the two of us—with the help of an adolescent boy—could wrestle a six-foot evergreen onto the top of my ancient Celebrity. So, no tree.

Image result for ceramic christmas treeIt was the right decision, my daughter and I told each other. With full-time jobs and college classes and hospital visits to make each day, we needed to conserve our energies. I liberated my grandmother’s ceramic light up tree—the one that had sat atop her television console for fifteen years—and set it up on an end table in the living room.
“Behold,” I said, “our Christmas tree.  Already decorated.”
“Perfect,” said Bonnie. Her cheer seemed strained. But we were all a little bit strained. Ron’s last lab results had not been promising. An infection, yet unnamed, still raged through his weakened body. It looked like another holiday would be celebrated in a hospital room. “It will be enough this year.”

Her little brother was not convinced. At twelve, Allen hovered somewhere in between giving up on the reality of Santa Claus and retaining faint hope that Christmas magic still existed. “Where will we put the presents?” he asked. “There’s no room under the tree.”

Image result for flexible flyer sled vintage with bow“I’ve got it!” shouted his sister. She ran out the backdoor and returned with the Flexible Flyer Sled we hauled out of the basement each winter. Plunking the sled down next to our ceramic tree, she declared it the perfect spot for presents.

"Not much room,” Allen said glumly. “Can’t put too many presents on that.”

Bonnie and I looked at each other sadly. The truth was that there would not be a lot of presents this year. She hugged her brother. “It’ll be fine,” she told him. “You’ll see.”

 Allen remained skeptical. “Just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”

Image result for christmas candles burningWe forced as much holiday cheer as we could into the house, stringing garland on the mantel and lights around the door. Each day when I came home from the hospital, I dropped my school bag and plunked a Christmas CD into the player. We ate our spaghetti or pizza suppers by candlelight, singing along to the carols.  At night, after Allen had checked all the door locks twice and made sure the spotlight in the backyard was turned on because “I’m the man of the house now and I have to make sure you girls are safe”, he went up to bed, and Bonnie and I planned out Christmas.

Image result for Christmas dinner We had a turkey the church had given us at Thanksgiving and which we hadn’t used because Thanksgiving had brought with it an emergency surgery on Ron’s pancreas. We had some canned goods in the pantry and enough money between the two of us to manage the rest of a Christmas supper, even if we needed to transport it to the hospital.

Image result for white porcelain crecheAnd while the presents were few, we had things for Allen and silly items to stuff into Christmas stockings. And we had our white porcelain crèche on the mantel, the one Ron had given me piece by piece each Christmas.

But despite the forced cheer, part of me agreed with Allen. It just didn’t feel like Christmas. Every morning when I left to teach my middle school classes, I noted the empty corner of the living room where the tree should stand, adorned with the plastic ornaments Dad brought home from Germany when he was in the Army and the glass bells that had hung on my grandmother’s tree. The front of the house looked bare without our plastic Nativity set; the complicated lighting had been beyond Bonnie and me.

The hospital I visited each day had its own forced cheer: trees in the lobby, golden garland hanging from the ceiling, red poinsettias clustered into pots in the cafeteria. Each patient’s door held a small red Christmas stocking. 

Image result for christmas tree in lobbyStill, it didn’t really feel like Christmas. The closer we got to December 25, the more excitement ranged in the halls of my middle school. And the more depressing was the news from the hospital. As Ron battled against the infection, his damaged pancreas refused to process food so once again he needed a tube to provide nutrients. No turkey for him. In the ten months since the car accident that had almost cost him his life, we had spent almost every holiday in a hospital room. What kind of Christmas would it be? I asked myself. No tree. Few presents.

Image result for christmas stocking on doorIt wasn’t about the tree, I knew. Or the presents. Since accepting Jesus as my Savior when I was fourteen, the meaning of Christmas was deeper and more spiritual. I sang “O Holy Night” on my way to school each morning, reminding myself that even if there were no presents on the Flexible Flyer Sled for me beneath our ceramic Christmas tree, it would still be a meaningful Christmas. Even if there was no special gift from my spouse of 25 years, no “just because” gift that wasn’t a need but a want, we would be grateful to be together and joyful that Ron was still alive.

And we would all be together. Dennis would be home on semester break and stay with us for two weeks before going back to the city. Bonnie would have no classes at community college and the daycare center where she worked would be closed.  And Allen and I would have two weeks off from middle school. We could spend more time visiting Ron, trying to make it feel like Christmas to him.

I tried to ignore the empty corner in the living room. I tried even harder to ignore the empty corner of my heart.

Image result for national lampoon's christmas vacationIt was four days before Christmas and Bonnie and Allen and I huddled under blankets in the living room to converse electricity, munching on popcorn and watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Dennis would be home tomorrow and there was a slim chance the doctors would allow Ron home for Christmas Day. It would, we told ourselves, feel more like Christmas.

There was a knock at the door. The kids and I looked at each other. We weren’t expecting anyone. The minister had already stopped by with a love offering taken up for us, money we would put towards the mortgage. Bonnie looked out the window. “Someone with a truck,” she said. I went to open the door.

And there on our steps stood two church members. Between them they held a beautiful and fragrant Douglas fir. Image result for douglas fir christmas tree
“Wow!” shouted Allen. “That’s some tree! Is it for us?” He scampered to help Rich bring it into the house.
I hugged Rose tightly. “How did you know?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Pastor Bill called us. We had asked what we could do to help you. He said you didn’t have a tree.”
Tears threatened to spill from my eyes. “Bonnie and I just couldn’t…we didn’t…thank you. Thank you!”
Rose beamed. “It is our pleasure.”
Allen ran for the boxes of ornaments we had stowed away for another year, and Rich set the tree up in the vacant corner with expert care. Bonnie set the tea kettle to boil and made hot chocolate. My heart was bursting with love and gratitude to God and His two servants.
Image result for red box white bowBut God had one more surprise for me. Rose reached into her bag and handed me a red box wrapped with a big white bow. “We saw Ron today,” she said. “And he asked me to buy you this. So, this present,” she said, “is from your husband.”
I hugged Rose tightly and let the tears flow. She patted my shoulder. “I know, honey,” she whispered, “and so does God.”
Rich plugged in the lights on our beautiful Christmas tree, given to us with love.
“Now,” declared Allen, “it feels like Christmas.”
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Sunday, December 11, 2016

VOICES FROM THE EDGE: The tools we gather

We gather our tools, one by one,
Reminders of our heritage, of our homes.
We keep the ones we need, tucking them into
Our own tool belts.
Image result for pizza hut
It is a Thursday, Allen's night to provide supper for us. He has made a call to Pizza Hut and placed the order for the Triple Treat Box. He has given himself enough time to get there and I am looking forward to a night out of the kitchen.

But the front door bangs open with a force only a tall boy can generate and Allen stalks across the room. His hands are empty. "No pizza?" I ask, but Allen doesn't answer me. He pounds up the steps, slams his bedroom door, then stomps heavily around the room.

I pick up my knitting needles and wait. There is an answer to why Allen is empty handed and eventually, when he is ready, he will share it with me. In the meantime, I cast on 36 stitches to begin another child's hat for charity.

My grandmother gave me knitting needles, 
 a connection to the homely arts.
Image result for knitting needles
After a few moments, another door is slammed. We have, thank God, an old house with solid doors. I hear Allen muttering to himself, working things out in his head. I have knit five rows on the new hat when Allen pounds down the steps. Now he is ready to talk.

"I'm never going to Pizza Hut again," he says.

I catch the yarn with my needle. "Why not?" I ask calmly. Allen is on the verge of a meltdown, but an aura of calm often averts one.

"Got my order wrong! No, lost the order! And they made me wait--even though I called--and they charged my credit card but they didn't give me the order. So I left." He takes a deep breath.

My mother gave me the patience
 of her vanishing Powhatan tribe.
Image result for powhatan indians
I continue knitting. "Why did you leave?" Allen has taken a second deep breath. His fists no longer clench and unclench.

"I was getting angry," he says. "And I don't like feeling angry. So I left."

I nod. Anger makes Allen feel out of control. For someone who lives on the autism spectrum, control is vitally important. "You made a good decision," I tell my son. "But now that you're not angry anymore, what should we do?"

He shrugs. "Don't know. I paid for pizza we didn't get."

"Right," I say. "Are you willing to let it go?" He thinks for a moment.

My father gave  me a tire jack and jumper cables,
so I could rescue myself.

"No," he says. "That's not right. I should get my money or my pizza. But," he stares at me, "I'm not going back there."

"Okay." I put my knitting aside. "How would it be if I called the manager?" The decision here needs to be Allen's. He was in a situation in which  he lacked control. I want him to regain that control.

He nods. "Okay." So I pick up the phone and dial, asking for the manager. Courtney remembers Allen clearly and apologizes profusely.

Image result for woman changing tire"We're real busy tonight," she says. "And somehow his order got lost. But it's here and it's ready if he wants to come back."

"That's  not happening," I tell her. "And I know you don't deliver to our area."

"But I could bring it to you myself," she says. "I can be there in ten minutes."

My brother gave me companionship
and a childhood of summer days

And ten minutes later, she is at our door, pizza boxes in hand. "I voided your son't credit card," she tells me. "There's no charge for these. I'm just sorry he was upset."

"Thank you," I tell her as I take the pizzas. "Just so you know, in case this happens again, Allen is autistic. When things don't go as planned, he loses control."

She nods knowingly. "I thought so. My sister is autistic, too. Tell Allen he can always come to me." She is off with a wave and a toot of her horn.

I carry the pizza into the kitchen and lay it on the table. Allen gets out paper plates.

Image result for asd"So," I say to my son as we munch on our pizza, "what would you do if something like this happens again?'

"Ask to speak to the manager," says Allen. "Cause she seems to understand."

We gather our tools, one by one, 
Adding them to our belts,
Knowing they are there
To use as we walk our paths.

Since being diagnosed with autism, Allen has had to find tools to help him live in a world he does not understand. And he's just added one more to his own belt.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Image result for giant robotI knew it had to happen. For 18 months, the "robot" creature in the backyard had  grown to gigantic proportions. While it could be hidden inside a tent or a tarp, I didn't mind so much. It was Allen's project and it kept him occupied. But when the thing outgrew its tent, I knew we were in for trouble.

To no one but Allen would the jumble of aluminum cans, metal pieces, wooden pallets, and wheels resemble a robot. I saw a pile of junk; he saw a creation that would one day move and function. Anytime I was tempted to complain, I reminded myself of just what the project meant to Allen.

 The odd collection of parts began in April of 2015, shortly after Ron was hospitalized--again--with clinical depression and resulting heart issues. Coincidentally, Allen had just been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and while he'd always had learning challenges and difficulties with social situations, the label hit him hard. He was going through job training with Occupational Vocational Rehabilitation and wasn't permitted to have a job. And my kids, all of them, like to work. Allen had time on his hands. I did not. With Ron in the hospital for six weeks and me working multiple jobs, Allen was left to his own devices.

Image result for tentEnter the Robot Plan. Allen made sketches and plans, mentally constructing it in his mind. Then he began to collect the pieces. He saved aluminum cans and cut them apart, bending them into a covering for the robot. He scavenged sides of the roads for metal and wheels and thrown away parts. Each piece meant something to him. He was excited when a pair of baby buggy wheels were found, ecstatic when a large trashcan became available. 

According to SAMHSA (2016), adults on the autism spectrum disorder tend to be introverted and often look for ways to self-medicate in order to avoid a sense of anxiety and stress. While genetics play a part in ASD, a chemical imbalance in the brain contributes to developmental delays and problems with thought-processing and neural stimulation. 7.9 million Americans with a mental disorder self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

I did not want Allen to be one of them. So while he went for job-training and dealt with physical and mental testing requirements, he built his robot. I bought a bigger tent.

Image result for household junk pileTwo weeks ago, the robot was ready for testing. It was a "weight test" only, Allen explained to me. With no moving parts--save the buggy wheels--the robot was not a working model. But when he was able to make it stand on its own and pass a "rock test", he declared it a success.

My neighbors declared it a disaster. I didn't really blame them.

Last week, various parts of the "robot" were taken down and delivered to a storage unit Allen rented. On Sunday, a rented truck from Home Depot carted the rest of the remains away. I wasn't sad to get my backyard back, but I was glad that while Allen adjusted to so many changes in his life and found new ways to learn and relate to society, he had the robot to keep him from back street drug deals and bars. 

Image result for household junk pileA rather irate neighbor asked me why I had allowed such a "monstrosity" in my yard. I started to explain, then wisely shut my mouth. Later on, though, it occurred to me that if I had a blind child, or a child with a physical disability, no one would have complained about a ramp or a "blind child" sign. Allen's disability is invisible and sometimes comes across as cockiness. Nonetheless, it is a disability recognized by the ADA. For Allen, the robot--ugly as it was--was therapy.

Allen assures me that he learned a lot from building the robot, but that future endeavors will be confined to his corner of the basement. As his mother, I can see that while the robot may have been a temporary eyesore for my neighbors, it helped Allen regain some control of his life. In fact, as he took apart the last of it and tossed it into the truck on Sunday, he declared, "I think I've learned a lot about responsibility from this."

Image result for asdPerhaps I was wrong to let the project take over the backyard. There is no rule book that comes along with the diagnosis of ASD. I make this up as I go along. And Allen, God bless him, continues to  help me learn.