“Dad, I’m ready for the new house to be done so you can play with me again.”
I adjusted the rear view mirror to see my son, looking down and fidgeting with his hands. In hindsight, it’s apparent he was hurting and neglected. Instead of comforting or listening to him, I just rationalized my behavior.
“I’m sorry, buddy. Daddy has to make sure everything is going good with building the house. I know that it’s not fair to you that we don’t play as much. I try to take you with me so we can spend time together. There is only a little more of this left. When it’s all done, things are going to be so much better. You’ll have a huge room and Cailyn will have what she needs. This will all be over soon and we’ll have more time to play again. I promise.”
That’s how I lost nearly eight months of my son’s childhood.
The process began with noble intentions. Cailyn had less than 100 square feet of space in our old house. That tiny room was adjoined by the master bedroom, Dalton’s room, and the exterior wall beside our new “party” neighbors. One night, those neighbors made so much noise that Cailyn stayed up wailing and hitting herself past midnight. We approached them multiple times and couldn’t come to a resolution, so it became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. On memorial day weekend of 2016, we decided to take the opportunity to build something perfect for us AND Cailyn. We put our house up for sale.
We were in a dark place, wrestling with Cailyn’s behavior. The new house represented a chance to reboot and would, in theory, fix all of our problems. Cailyn would have two rooms, a bedroom for sleeping and a play room for playing. This would alleviate her confusion with “bedtime” and “playtime.” The play room would be sound-proof, so she didn’t have to wear headphones or hide in the bathtub whenever neighbors mowed their lawn or had parties. Her bedroom would be under her playroom and separated from both our master suite and her brother’s room. We fixed almost everything we didn’t like about that old house and even planned for a semi-independent living area for Cailyn in the basement, for when she got older.
Once the changes began, things instantly felt better. There was hope in everything we did. The house we were renting was smaller. This meant Amber had to move her home-based personal training business to a building downtown. We signed a lease and began renovations. This allowed her to get out of the house and kept me busy and productive. In addition, I was starting a new job so all of my projects were fresh and exciting. Our entire life felt different, as if we were living in a state of “temporary.” Whenever something bad happened, Amber and I would just talk about and imagine the new house. We viewed it as a finish line; a destination that we pretend we could put our current sadness behind for good.
Looking back, Dalton’s statement was a cry out to a parent, who had been lost in this alternate reality. I was using a utopian dream as an escape from all my problems, a “hoping mechanism” for everything wrong in my present. Amber and I were both convinced that our sadness was dictated by our situation…that we were victims of uncontrollable circumstance. Whenever I felt out of control, I visited the work site. Whenever Cailyn had a bad day, I visited the work site. When I should have been helping with homework or throwing the ball, I invited Dalton to the work site. My drug of choice was to look so far ahead, that I blurred what was right in front of my face.
…but future eventually has to intersect with the present.
Everything with the house started out well enough but quickly fell back to our “normal.” It was never quite as good as we’d dreamed. Then, at the beginning of 2018, Cailyn’s behavior got worse. Much worse. Amber and I started to resent our decisions and the house that didn’t fix anything. We began to to discuss how we should have moved into the country instead. We talked about downgrading and using the extra money for vacations. We even looked into and imagined living in different states or countries. One day, I found the perfect home, next to the perfect school, where we could have Cailyn live. As I researched and fantasized, I looked beside me, where my son was laying on the floor with his iPad…and I realized I wasn’t exhibiting healthy behavior. This was one in a myriad of symptoms I was displaying, all of which pointing to an overwhelming absence of joy in my life.
One of the most frustrating behaviors Cailyn exhibits is repeatedly asking for things on her schedule. We’ve tried writing it down, setting timers, and making up songs but it does no good. Sometimes, she can go fifteen minutes or so without asking but sometimes she’ll ask every 30-90 seconds…for hours at a time. This summer, we promised to take her to Great Wolf Lodge for vacation. Unfortunately, we scheduled it too far ahead and she obsessed over it for weeks, to the point of self-harm. On the day of our visit, she had fun for only a few hours before asking to go home. She immediately began to ask for “slime.” Apparently, the promise of fun in her mind didn’t live up to what we delivered and she was already onto the next thing.
As I drove Cailyn home, I became irritated. Why can’t she just enjoy the nice things we try to do for her? Why does she always need something else? Why does she always need so much more? Why do the things she asks for never make her as happy as she thinks they will? As I started feeling sorry for myself, I recognized the irony in my self-pity. That’s when I turned the music up, rolled down the windows, and put my hand on Cailyn’s hand.
We laughed, danced, and sang the entire way home.
The human brain is extremely efficient, using “shortcuts” to handle the constant barrage of data coming at it. A vast majority of what your eyes take in is just “noise” to your mind and goes completely unnoticed. The benefit is that you filter out the unimportant signals, focusing on meaningful changes or patterns you recognize. There are numerous cognitive biases that result, including one known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This describes what happens when you pay attention to a previously unknown pattern and suddenly begin seeing it everywhere.
This is why you’ll sometimes hear the definition of a new word for the first time and begin hearing it much more frequently in conversations. It’s also why, when you are looking to buy a car and start researching it, you begin to see that car everywhere. It’s not that people are suddenly buying the car more. You have trained your brain to now recognize a pattern that was previously insignificant and filtered out.
As a child, I went to church camp every year. Our camp speaker, Jim Smith, had a fun challenge, wherein he would allow a camper to bring a box to each morning service. We could put ANYTHING inside that box and he would preach about it for five minutes. I remember him opening that box to discover rocks, a frog, a diaper, or dirty socks…it didn’t matter. He always managed to frustrate us and accomplish (even excel) in his mission.
It wasn’t until I had to abandon that Great Wolf Lodge vacation, that I began to understand his proficiency. As I drove down the highway with my Autistic daughter, laughing and singing. I saw our camp speaker’s sermon skill through the lens of Baader-Meinhof. Jim Smith lived a life, where he looked for God working in all things…and when your brain recognizes the pattern of God working, you can’t help but see it everywhere that God works: Everywhere.
The same can be said for joy. In that car, I learned that true happiness is neither a condition nor a situation. Our outlook on life is the pattern we’ve trained ourselves to observe. We are the common denominator in all of our sadness, because joy is a function of perspective and not position. When we look forward to a change in our environment to bring us fulfillment, we’re moving all our old problems into a new house. When you make a choice to look for the pattern of God working in all things, however, it becomes a habit…until eventually it’s difficult NOT to see Him.
When God replaces change as my “hoping mechanism,” I can stop waiting on a new home to make me happy. I can stop waiting for my daughter to sleep, for a sickness to end, or for neighbors to be less annoying. When I can find joy in my present, it doesn’t matter if I open a box with a rock, or frog, or stinky socks; I can see God working and I stop throwing away the gift of today by waiting for a tomorrow that never comes.
Live every day with the reverence, that your future self would give ANYTHING to get it back. I only wish I could go back to that moment where my son cried out for his absent father. I would turn the music in the car up, put the windows down, turn around and throw the ball with him…because I now know he will never be five years old again.