I’ve been dreading the holidays.
The magic began its silent ebb years ago, when work ballooned into the spaces needed to prepare and reflect. I’d hoped to recapture some of the wonder and joy with the kids, as they played with tinsel and nutcrackers, and crawled under the Christmas tree to gaze up into the kaleidoscope of colored lights glowing through the the branches. I’ve wanted to give them glimpses of God’s glory, to witness the awe all children intuitively know, that window into God’s grace and goodness toward which this season always hints.
But the truth is that holidays are always hard for Pip. It’s difficult to muster excitement, when I know that the change in routine and the cacophony of visitors will overwhelm him. When I know that instead of welcoming our guests with open arms and listening to their stories, Pip and I will spend half of the time squirreled away in his room, deep breathing, inching him back from a meltdown. The best for which I can hope is that he won’t start growling, screaming, and upsetting friends who’ve joined us for conversation and cranberry sauce. And I worry that the trauma of voices too loud, crowds too big, every little sensation too much, will warp and stain his holiday memories. Memories that at this age, should unfold in cinnamon and candleglow, replete with enchantment.
On Thanksgiving yesterday, I greeted the frigid morning already on edge, my head throbbing behind my eyes. I winced at the sound of Pip racing and yelling through the house. He was already nervous, already overstimulated. I just prayed the day would pass quickly. That the tears would be few. That he would reap joy from the day. That I would reflect grace, and the love of Christ, rather than my own waning patience and brittle resolve.
The spread mirrored the usual splendor of the day, the platters overflowing with turkey, and bowls stuffed with mash and dressing. We gathered with friends round the table, and hand-in-hand lifted up prayers of thanks for fellowship, and for food, and the warmth of home. But this familiar theme progressed not as a smoothly orchestrated dance, one delightful moment ceding to the next. Instead, disarray and awkwardness punctuated the laughter. Growls happened. So did a sudden appearance without a shirt, because his initial outfit (even with a compression shirt) felt intolerable. He dove beneath stuffed animals for half an hour because he’d had too much. He writhed on a chair, tears blurring his eyes, with me kneeling before him, “Breathe, buddy. Breathe. You can do this. You’re safe. I’m here to help you. Tell me what you’re feeling. Please, find the words.”
He actually made eye contact in that moment, a never event when he’s in sensory overload. And inspiring deeply, as if gathering the words hurt, he blurted, “I’m irritable Mum.”
“Yes, I know honey. Good. What is it that’s making you irritable?”
“The talking. All the talking is too loud.”
“I understand. What tools can we use? We have ways to deal with this. Let’s help you feel better.”
And he listened.
He didn’t fight, as he has for so, so long. He held my gaze, and he took a deep breath. And another. And then another. I saw his shoulders relax, the awareness return to his face, as if he were emerging from a trance.
A year ago, I had also abandoned guests around the table multiple times, for them to laugh and dine without me as Pip and I worked through his turmoil of just being. But in those moments, we didn’t know what was so troubling him. He, in his panic, would fight like a caged animal, resisting any attempts from us to help.
Now, we know so much more. As does he. And as I looked at him in that moment, this incredible, loving, brilliant little boy who adores space and fractions and stuffed animals and climbing rocks, but cannot tolerate a roomful of people talking, I saw his incredible courage. And I saw how hard he was trying.
I ached to gather him into my arms. . . but I couldn’t, because in that moment, when a touch on his shoulder felt noxious, even a hug would be too much for him. Even though he needed that closeness so desperately. Even though he needed to know he was loved, and not alone.
So we prayed together. We talked about the One who so loves Him. The One who will always treasure him as precious, whose love for him will never fade.
And we returned hand-in-hand to the table. He sampled pineapple upside down cake, and delighted, invited our guests to return with more the next day. He conversed, and told stories, and played.
A while later, he struggled again. But his dad and I saw, and understood. And Pip listened when we guided him. He didn’t fight. He didn’t yell back. He said, “Ok Mum.” He took breaks. And he returned to the table.
It’s easy during these holidays to give thanks for our abundance — for all that so visibly goes well, like the right job, the home, the friends. But it’s through the hard moments that God reveals His steadfastness. Its in the calamity shattering the greeting card-worthy images, where He reveals that He remains with us. That He hears our prayers.
Thanksgiving was not easy, and in this journey, it will never be “typical.” It will always be hard. In our house, the holidays will never mirror the revelry and peace yearned for throughout the year.
But God remains with us, even when things don’t go according to plan. Even when holidays take on a different rhythm than those we treasured from childhood, He is there, pouring out mercies upon us.
He is there, with His Spirit working in our hearts, prodding us toward wisdom. He is there, walking with a little boy, who in the tumult of the everyday, is learning to trust those who yearn to embrace him.
To deep breathe. To come home.