My husband, Steve, is a naturally even-keel kind of guy. He, very unlike me, tends to see the cup half full and has what our grandparents used to call, a sunnier disposition. But every once in a while, he gets hit with a weird pain in the back of his neck that doesn’t let up, often for days. When this unwelcome guest takes up residence in his neck, the whole atmosphere is forced to live with it. Let’s just say, Steve has a hard time experiencing anything but pain when his neck hurts. And even the most joyful elements of life are difficult for him to take pleasure in, simply because every time he turns his face toward the thing he loves, he is stabbed with pain.
I feel for him. To me, it reminds me of the inherent burden we carry in this life. No matter how much we try to take pleasure in the gifts God has given us, there is an aching reminder that pain, although not always mercilessly at our heels, is nonetheless an irremovable component of life.
I’ve had this particular strain when it comes to my son, Holden. For the last year, it has been slowly and methodically made clear to us that something is not right. It started at 18 months, when I noticed that he all of a sudden lost abilities that he had up to that point, that he stopped smiling and laughing, that he didn’t want to look at or touch any other person besides me. As the months continued to unfold, the developmental delays seemed to increase rather than decrease, and even more disheartening, Holden seemed to be disappearing inside of himself, locked up inside and unable to come out.
I was still holding on to an ember of hope. He was young. I told myself, ‘Wait until he turns 3 to grieve, maybe he will come through this.’ I couldn’t wait to grieve. This whole year has been one long, endless, ache. It was like that strain in the neck. I felt this aching burden. How do I be the mom he needs me to be? How can we help him learn? Where is the hiding key that can unlock the door blocking him from the outside world? What if I mess up? What if I fail him? The questions rung through my mind not only daily, but countless times in an hour.
The most difficult part of the past year is that the joy and gratitude I felt were weighed down. There is so much to love about Holden, so much to take joy in, so much to be thankful for. Like the way he cuddles his little body into my own when he just wants to be near me. Like the way his imagination comes to life when he is playing with his favorite jungle animals. Like the way he pushes past his fears, anxieties, and even disabilities, all in order to please us. Like his crazy, supernatural, cuteness. His eyelashes curl above his chestnut brown eyes in a way that stops your breath for a moment. But there was that strain. Every time I looked over at him to enjoy his cuteness, the strain. Every time I felt pride well up in my heart as he overcame a challenge, the strain. Every time he nestled his head in my neck, the strain was there. I wanted to just feel the pleasure in who he is. But the burden wouldn’t let me.
For the past year, I felt more anguish than hopefulness, which led me to fear his 3rd birthday. In my irrational mind, I was afraid that 3 meant permanent disability, which meant permanent pain. I wanted him to grow up, but I didn’t want to accept not being able to know him…truly know him.
March 7th came. Holden turned 3. It was just Holden and I on his birthday. Steve and Hudson were on a trip. Holden doesn’t understand what a birthday is, nor does he understand what presents are. So I knew there was not going to be a traditional celebration. So it was him and I, on the day that all mothers long for but only some mothers suffer through as well. I wasn’t sure how I would feel. All I know is that each moment of strain has been a moment that I have committed to being honest about, and to grieve on God’s timeline, not my own. I thought after a thousand grieving moments that his 3rd birthday would culminate into one catastrophic one.
I was so wrong.
A miracle happened. Holden didn’t wake up on his 3rd birthday and find healing. But I did. As I was sitting with him, cuddling, watching his favorite movie, I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed a breath prayer that I recite many times a day. “Abba, I belong to You.” As I breathed in His presence, I tried to be present in the pain that I feared would be greater than my ability to cope with on this day. I braced myself as I tore myself away from denial and dug my heels into honesty. But what came next gave me no reason to fear, just the opposite. I turned my head, waiting for the strain to pull the joy away with it, and in a moment, I realized…the strain was gone. The invisible burden, the joy-choking pain, the distracting yoke….gone. I wondered, is this a temporary moment of relief? But I knew that it was a removal. It was as if Jesus literally took the burden off of my back and put it on his own.
Because in that moment, all I felt was joy. I knew the burden didn’t dissolve. It was willingly taken by another. I thought it was my burden to carry as a mother. But I have never been so grateful to be wrong. I am still sad that Holden isn’t in a way…free. But the sadness no longer stabs me with pain. I can look over at him as he runs in the sunlight, chasing water drops spraying from the sprinkler, and simply smile. I can see him struggle to use a fork as he eats, and I can hold his hand and guide it with joy. I can watch his tears fall as he cries over his inability to communicate, and I can hold him through it with patience. The strain has been lifted. The work remains.
But now, I can finally rest in the sweet knowledge that…
It is all as it should be.