Her name is Goldie. She’s the sweetest little thing with a personality that shimmers. She’s energetic, bubbly, and very curious. Yes, that’s right we have a new member of the family. After some thought I took the plunge with a net into the tank and brought home a goldfish. She’s not some common carnival prize type fish she’s a fancy orange fantailed goldfish who now lives in an overpriced vase I bought at the Colorado Mountain Fair.
Goldie isn’t our first fish. We started with Woody and Buzz when Luke was in kindergarten but Woody ate Buzz and that left us with just one fish. He was a great little fish though. Not particularly handsome for a fish but he was playful enough. That was back in the days of the more traditional type bowl although it was a little more hip than most. It wasn’t one of those drum shaped bowls where the mouth is a small circle at the top. No we had a round bowl where the opening is as wide as the circumference of the bowl. My Aunt Mabel and Uncle Morris had that kind of bowl and in my opinion it’s much better. Your fish can swim laps instead of just up and down.
Woody had a great life in his old school bowl and he kept the boys very entertained from his spot on the countertop while they ate at the table. Something about his circular swimming fascinated them and kept them still long enough to eat a meal thus elevating Woody’s status to a bona fide pet and member of the family. Then it happened, our first pet crisis and we were totally caught off guard. I know you’re thinking how can she remember this but trust me it was a big deal so much so that when I asked my friend Arliss to go pick out a new fish with me after tennis one night she exclaimed, “Oh my gosh I remember when the first one died!”
It was a school day and Luke was in first grade and it was Wednesday the day the class took their spelling pre-test which made hump day tense. Tense because with his perfectionist personality Luke had to ace the test or he would meltdown because having to take the final test on Friday was completely unacceptable to him. In first grade it was a ten word test but by the time he hit eighth grade it was twenty-five. In his entire nine year Lutheran school experience Luke only failed to pass the practice test a handful of times and every time whatever teacher he had would give me a heads up at pick-up time so I’d know what to expect when Luke got in the car. Spelling for Luke is as consistent as Brett Favre at passing. He’s all-pro and rarely misses. Wednesday’s were game day.
It was the fall and I’d dropped Luke off at school and then got his brother to preschool which left a small little window of time for me to breathe. Before children a three hour block of time could be completely wasted with no afterthought but with two full-tilt kids every second had to count. I came home from the second drop-off thinking I’d pay the bills, get the laundry done, and maybe squeeze in some exercise but when I went to grab a glass of water I saw Woody sideways and floating. I thought surely he had just discovered a new stroke or was playing dead but after a few taps to the bowl it became clear that Woody had swum his last lap.
I stood there staring at the bowl wondering what in the world I should do. I had a brief flashback of a fish burial when I was kid where my brother dug a little hole and put our dead goldfish in it and we offered a little prayer. That was always an option. The boys and I were walking the beach on Bainbridge Island in Washington with their Grandpa and we found a small dead shark that we named Charlie and buried under Grandpa’s deck so I thought the boys might want to bury Woody. Giving a shark you don’t know a proper burial suggests you’d probably want to give your beloved goldfish a funeral with maybe even a wake afterwards but who knows? Anticipating what will go through the mind of a six year old boy is as precarious as guessing what a man in the throes of a midlife crisis is thinking. It’s not possible!
That, however, is exactly what living with a six year old hyper-vigilant autistic kid is like. You have no idea what is going through their minds but you know that when a meltdown happens it’s not going to be pretty so you’re going to do whatever it takes to avoid that. This isn’t an uncommon experience for many parents but for those with particularly sensitive children it’s all about taking off your shoes and walking around in socks so that the other shoe can never drop.
Unfortunately every parent carries a little baggage with them heading into the job and because a lot of unexpected bad things have happened in my life I’m prone to being a bit hyper-vigilant myself. I’m not autistic but I can relate to this aspect of my boys personalities because I know how unsettling sudden change can be. Whether it’s good or bad any new reality that emerges quickly on the scene can trigger a great deal of insecurity.
That being said the fish is dead and it’s a Wednesday and while I was confident Luke had those spelling words down pat I couldn’t be certain so one more thing in the mix was just too much. I panicked and then the quest to find a replacement started. My plan – find Woody’s twin after all he was just your run of the mill goldfish so it couldn’t be too hard.
My first stop was Walmart because we’d bought Woody there so it seemed reasonable to think I’d find his twin there. No luck. All the fish were too small. Of course they weren’t as well cared for as our Woody and they were younger but these were discoveries I hadn’t reasoned through in my haste to find a replacement so next stop was the only real “aquatic” store in town. Now of course I’ve swum to the other side of the fish pendulum and we have all sorts of fancy varieties of goldfish that look more like koi fish. This won’t do so off I go to the pet store where I find myself standing in front of several tanks staring at goldfish. The clock is ticking and my anxiety level is rising and after a great deal of inspection I find what I think is a suitable replacement.
I rush home and get the new Woody in the bowl after flushing the old Woody and head out to the preschool pick-up. This will be the first test. If Woody II passes Chase’s inspection then there’s a shot that Luke won’t notice anything or at least his observations will all be things I can explain away. I bring home the boy and get some lunch on the table acting as nonchalant as possible. Chase eats and nothing is said. Of course he was a man of few words at the time but still the first hurdle had been jumped.
Now it’s time for pick-up and I’m nervously optimistic. One minute I’m thinking about spelling and the next I’m wondering if the water-level in the bowl is just right. I get to the parking lot and see Arliss who wants the full report since she was fully aware of the morning’s events. I mention this because I consider her an accomplice in the whole fish bait and switch. No bad plan is ever hatched alone! (Pardon all the obvious puns here!)
While Arliss and I are talking I see Mrs. Hollatz, Luke’s teacher, come out and as soon as she gives me the nod signaling a successful spelling test I breathe my first sigh of relief. Luke hops in the car and we head home and I’m hopeful. Worst case Luke will meltdown but it will only be fish related and not a double whammy of spelling grief and fish grief.
We get home and head into the house and before Luke even has his backpack set down he spots the faux Woody. He immediately asks, “What happened to Woody?” I try for about 30 seconds to play dumb and then lose it and confess that Woody died and as hard as I tried I couldn’t save him and so I went out and got a new fish. There was a brief pause and then the meltdown started. Every imaginable question was raised and every answer to those questions was offered. For example, “Did you take him to the doctor Mom?” asks Luke. To which I answer, “No Luke I didn’t because they don’t have fish doctors?” Luke counters with, “Well what about Dr. Patrice she’s smart?” Then I respond, “Yes, Luke she is but she only works with children not fish.” Then you can guess he asks, “Why not?” and the silly endeavor of reasoning with a six year old continues.
After several volleys Luke bursts into tears and goes to his room and this is when I begin to question my parenting skills. Of course I don’t have much time for that but while I’m keeping the household going the thoughts racing through my mind are all about why and how this has to be so hard? I’m asking myself why anything can’t be simple. Why is it that we can’t have a dead goldfish in our house without a meltdown?
At the time answers to these questions eluded me like a Rubik’s cube. I could twist and turn my mind through every possible scenario to explain things but ultimately wind up with one or two squares that just didn’t fit. Everything felt hard with my boys and I was worn out. Manic goldfish hunting is a sure sign of that. Whenever you experience a response on your part that is way out of proportion to the stimulus take notice. You have probably tapped into some deeply hidden emotional hurt.
Yes, I was afraid of the meltdown and that somehow we wouldn’t recover. Life for parents with a special needs kiddo often involves what is referred to as the DIF/NEI equation. All children have meltdowns, they sass back, and say no. Every kid gets sick and all kids like structure and routine. All parents have to deal with teachers and school stuff. These things are part of the parenting job description. The events involved in raising a child with a disability are not that different from the events that are part of raising any child. The difference is in the duration, intensity, and frequency multiplied by the number of exceptional issues.
The list of issues for the boys at the time was long and I was worn out. When Woody kicked the bucket I just didn’t believe I had what it took to go the distance on the fish issue. Looking back what time and a little perspective have taught me is that if you don’t believe you have the strength to lift any kind of burden be it as light as a paperclip or as heavy as an ox you don’t.
I didn’t think I could handle it so I couldn’t. I’m not suggesting here that I thought I had to muster up the emotional fortitude for the situation at hand. I didn’t think that. I knew I didn’t have it. What escaped me at the time is that God would supply me in my need. In my manic spiral down I’d shrunk God’s power down to the size of a goldfish and a ten word spelling test. I didn’t believe that, “Nothing is impossible with God.” The promise that, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”, was nowhere to be found in my database. The normal frustrations of parenting life had been multiplied and amplified so much the voice of the Holy Spirit had been drowned out. My spiritual vocabulary had been pushed to the farthest corner of my mind because I felt pressed on every side.
What I needed to find wasn’t a solution (e.g. a new fish). What I needed was a quiet moment of reason where the still small voice of God could move from behind the situation and say its okay. Luke can rebound. Luke will rebound and so will you. This crisis which feels like a storm is really just a bump in the road. Fix your eyes on me not the waves around you. This too shall pass. I’m with you and I will carry you through this. This burden is not heavy but the enemy wants you to think it is.
Now looking at my new friend Goldie I have a perspective that time and perseverance bring because we survived the first fish crisis. It was several days of questions and more than one meltdown but when I look at Luke across the table he appears unfazed. When Goldie appeared a bit sheepish the other day I moved the bowl because I didn’t want to see her go belly up while we were eating and I was surprised when Luke noticed. He asked why the bowl was missing and because I didn’t want to lie I said I thought she might be dying. I paused thinking he might be concerned and then he nonchalantly said, “Oh well fish die. It’s no big deal we can get a new one.” Wow I thought we certainly have come a long way.
My prayers for flexibility, adaptability, resiliency in the life of my boys have been heard. My prayers for strength and stamina to go the distance with them through it all have been heard. Not in response to, but in spite of my manic efforts at times, God has been faithful to provide. He’s met our needs one day and one crisis at a time and He will meet yours. He will meet you in the small seemingly insignificant things like a dead fish or a missed spelling word and He will meet you in the big stuff – your anger, fear, shame, grief or loss. Your crisis is His opportunity to speak if you stop to listen. You don’t need a solution, you don’t need a replacement you just need to be still and He will show you He is God and nothing is impossible with Him. Looking into the faces of my growing boys I see that more and more every day. God is good his mercies are new everyday!