The purity and generosity of a child’s heart can be astounding —and humbling. A child’s experience has not yet shaped the walls and barriers that we erect to protect us from life’s insults, injuries, and injustices. Children, somehow, have an uncanny ability to see the heart of a person when they are given a chance to spend some time with them. It is evident in the way a small child will shy away from a family friend or gravitate immediately to a seldom seen relative. Their radar is highly accurate when we give them a chance to use it and listen to it. The gifts we can receive from this can be profound —perhaps even miraculous.
My in-laws arrived on Tuesday night. As I wrote in this post, I was filled with trepidation, anxiety, and resentment at the intrusion. The history between my MIL and me has been cordial —on the surface —but strained as far as I am concerned. There is a lengthy history on her part of passive-aggressive behavior —toward even her own family—lying, secrecy, condescension and resentment when things do not go according to her plan. On my part, there has been anger and resentment at her manipulation of her own family members, her intrusive questions about aspects of our lives which are none of her business, and —the most damning sin in my eyes —her cavalier attitude about her only grandchild, my son.
My father-in-law is a man of very few words —to anyone; he spends much of his retired life outside the house. I don’t know if this is to avoid confrontation at home or to fuel his rabid obsession with trains —all things trains. Knowing what I now know about Autism, I might venture to guess that he falls somewhere on the spectrum but I cannot say for sure. In any event, when it comes to maintaining family relationships (or not), my FIL simply goes along for whatever ride his wife directs. My FIL is cordial and affectionate enough when it comes to me; I don’t think he harbors any resentment or ill-will. I do think he is simply tired of fighting in his own home so he tunes out or goes along. The net result is the same —ineffectual.
The last time my in-laws saw Nikolas was June of 2006; it was a few weeks before he started school. At that time Nik wasn’t yet standing on his own and he wasn’t doing much communicating; he was a happy little boy in his own world which, sporadically, he would open up to others. On that last visit, he wasn’t terribly interested in his grandparents and, frankly, they didn’t know what to do with him. They were at a loss as to how to be with him.
I understand that uncertainty may have fueled much of my MIL’s misinformed and intrusive inquisitions —about Nikolas and how we are raising him —in the intervening months since that last visit. Perhaps, as my husband once suggested, she was afraid of what she would see when she came to visit and so she stayed away. Meanwhile, she created an alternate reality in her mind —a reality which was far from what we experience with Nik and of Nik each day. In spite of our assurances that Nik really is making tremendous progress, I think my MIL could not bring herself to believe our words. Yet, on the other hand, she could not bear to see for herself if her imagined reality were to be true.
My logical mind understands and appreciates the difficulty of her dilemma —truly. But the proud mama, the loving wife, the woman who wants to share her bounty with the world has such a hard time not being angry and resentful.
My son, it seems, would have it be otherwise between us.
From the first moment my in-laws saw Nikolas on Tuesday morning (he was already asleep when they stopped by Monday night), my hackles were raised; I was in my full protective-mama regalia before they even walked in the door. As I sat in the loft, making notes from a conference call I had just completed, I could hear my MIL talking in a baby voice —in the third person —to Nikolas (who was in his seat having his lunchtime tube feeding), “Ooh, what songs does Nikowas know?” “Grandma’s so happy to see Nikowas!” “Grandma wants Nikowas to use those toofies to chew-chew-chew.” Nauseating. Infuriating. I could hear my FIL asking Niksdad, “Does he sit in that chair all day? Can he roll around on the floor? Can he crawl yet?” I had to wonder if they even listened to all those weekly phone calls from their own son, Niksdad, telling them about all of Nik’s milestones and progress. Did they even look at the pictures we’ve sent on a regular basis?
To say that I could feel the visit rapidly sliding downhill would be an understatement —a gross understatement.
Yet, somehow, after a crappy partial day in which Grandma cooed and talked baby talk between bouts of grilling us about “Will he ever…” or “Do you think he can…” and “Have you tried…” and a near family meltdown over a miscommunication —in which no one was blameless —we managed to go out for a nice meal together to celebrate Niskdad’s birthday (which is today). I was so upset that I really didn’t want to go but I love my husband very much; when he told me it would mean a lot to him if I went —that it wouldn’t feel like a celebration without me —a swallowed the lump in my throat and went anyway.
I don’t regret the decision. Somehow, in the intervening hours between the cloying baby talk and having my buttons pressed, my in-laws found their equilibrium with Nik. The baby talk stopped —well, for the most part —and they really began to engage with him. As you can see in these pictures, Nik rewarded them richly for their efforts. They both expressed such surprise —tinged with grandparently pride —at all the things Nik is doing now. They marveled at his problem-solving aptitude, his laughter and music, his independence in so many things; they were bowled over by his charm. Finally.
When Grandma and Grandpa stopped by today to say their goodbyes, Nik was sound asleep (see adorable proof here). It gave my MIL a chance to spend some time talking with Niksdad alone. She made it clear that she didn’t want to be interrupted so they went to the living room. My first reaction was that I was miffed; I thought she was snubbing me in my own home. Since we live in a small townhouse and my MIL wasn’t making any effort to speak quietly, I eavesdropped —shamelessly. I don’t regret it one iota. In fact, I am so grateful that I listened; I gained tremendous insights into some of my MIL’s attitudes and behavior —and why she has nearly severed all ties with her siblings. The latter fact has baffled me for years and Niksdad has never been able to shed any light either.
Since it is not my story to tell, suffice to say the story my MIL told left me stunned and horrified —and feeling much compassion for her as a woman. I know it doesn’t change the behavior she has exhibited through the years, but all of a sudden I felt like I had been looking at her like one of those Rorschach ink blots and only seeing one thing. What I overheard today gave me a different picture and made me pause to think about her actions and attitudes more as her defense mechanism. Much like I often do with my own son, I had to put her behavior into a different context than the norm I expect in most relationships.
When Nik awoke, he was ecstatic to see his Grandma and came right over to climb up on her lap to play. I watched them laughing —both of them chortling with glee —as they had their little love fest. Nik’s Grandpa even joined in —in his own stoic way. I took lots of pictures and was struck with awe at the unfettered love and joy I saw through the lens. The tenderness with which Grandpa stroked Nik’s cheek reminded me of my own husband; a man of few words most times, he can convey so much love and tenderness with a touch or a look —whether it be toward Nikolas or me —and it melts my heart. I could see the family connection being made before my very eyes.
It’s been a long, long time coming. I know there will always be the same behaviors from my MIL but I have new knowledge —a different context in which to see her. I also, apparently, have the world’s most charismatic child —a spirit capable of healing tremendous rifts in people’s hearts and souls and of teaching important lessons to those who are willing to listen and learn.
When the student is ready, the master appears ~ Buddhist Proverb