This morning was trash day in our neighborhood. Trash day is an important day in our household because my seven-year-old son is obsessed with garbage trucks. Actually, “obsessed” is putting it mildly, but suffice it to say that he gets up early every Wednesday so he can see the garbage truck come down our street and watch it empty the trash cans into its hopper. Sometimes he gets up at 3 a.m. just to be sure he doesn’t miss it, but that’s really beside the point. Today was trash day, and although my son woke up on time, the garbage truck was late.
Unfortunately, school is still in session here, and my son has to go to school regardless of whether or not he has seen the garbage truck yet. This is easier said than done, of course. If my son hasn’t had his Wednesday morning garbage truck fix, he does not want to get on the school bus, and he will invoke the nuclear option. I had a lot of work to do this morning, including getting two of my other kids to their respective schools, so I was pretty stressed out and really didn’t want to manage an autistic seven-year-old who’d been deprived of his garbage truck, so as the clock ticked ever nearer the scheduled bus-arrival time and the garbage truck still hadn’t shown, I became ever more nervous. I really, really needed that garbage truck to get here fast. I didn’t know what I’d do if it didn’t.
As luck would have it, the garbage truck arrived on our street from the north at exactly 7:48 a.m.–about two seconds before my son’s bus arrived from the south. The garbage truck and the bus reached an impasse right in front of our house; the garbage truck couldn’t go any further or pick up any more trash cans until the bus drove away, and I was not going to let that bus drive away without my son. It was a cosmic O. Henry story written just for our family.
You know the old proverb, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it”? Well, if there’s any lesson that God has endeavored to teach me over the years, it’s that He is not a magic lamp, nor a Magic 8 Ball, nor any other magic thing. He doesn’t exist to serve me; I exist to serve Him. Technically, I did not get down on my knees and issue a formal invitation for divine intervention on the garbage truck issue, but I can’t deny that deep in my heart I was performing some type of petitionary prayer–something along the lines of please please please let that truck get here before the bus does–even though I should know better by now. It’s a reflex, and I can’t help myself.
When my first child was a baby, I had difficulty adjusting to the responsibilities of motherhood, i.e. I had difficulty adjusting to the sound of crying that doesn’t stop no matter what you do. Because I was a somewhat devout individual in those days, I used to pray that God would help me to be more patient with my daughter. Because I was young and naive, I didn’t realize that praying for patience would only yield me more opportunities to develop patience. After several weeks of crying and screaming–not all of it the baby’s doing–I finally got on my knees and told God, “Remember when I asked for patience? I was just kidding. I don’t really want patience. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy if I never got any more patience than what I have right now. So let’s just forget I said anything, shall we? Thanks! X’s and O’s, amen.”
It might have been a coincidence or my imagination that my daughter’s screaming let up a little after that, but these experiences have lasting effects on our psyches. This was when I first realized that I needed to be careful what I prayed for because there was no foretelling what divine intervention would try to pull on me.
For those of you who never had to read “The Monkey’s Paw” when you were in school, let me just explain that the story is about a guy who gets this bewitched monkey’s paw that grants wishes to its owner, but the wisher will inevitably be punished for screwing around with fate. I don’t want to give away the plot, but let’s just say our hero’s wishes are granted, all right–with a vengeance! And because of various experiences that I have had over the years, I can no longer hear the familiar standard, “God always answers our prayers, just not always the way we expect Him to,” without thinking of the Monkey’s Paw.
Lately, for reasons unrelated to garbage truck punctuality, my seven-year-old has been unusually irritable, invoking the nuclear option at the slightest provocation (and sometimes, I suspect, just for fun), and it has been extremely challenging for my husband and me to deal with. Last Saturday he was having a major meltdown over who-remembers-what, and I had a meltdown of my own, for which I was immediately sorry, but I wasn’t sure how to repent of it. The challenge of parenting an autistic child is that the part of the brain that you really need to connect with often seems totally inaccessible. My son lives in his own world; to pull him into ours long enough to communicate requires some fancy footwork, and I’m afraid I’m not nearly as graceful as I need (and ought) to be.
As I sat in our upstairs hall, cradling my sobbing son in my lap, I thought, “What on earth am I supposed to do with this child?” I remembered a conversation I had with a friend several years ago. My friend’s oldest daughter was what we euphemistically term a “strong-willed child.” (How many people have weak-willed children, I wonder, and how does one break into that racket?) She said that when things got really bad with her daughter, “that’s when I go into my bedroom and I pray, ‘Heavenly Father, you have to tell me what to do with this child because you know her better than I do.’” My initial reaction was, “That’s really profound,” and, simultaneously, an incredulous “And that works for you?” If I were to have that conversation with God, the best response I could hope for is “I gave you a brain–figure it out yourself, lady!” I shudder to think of what answer I’d get if He were feeling creative that day.
I know that sounds wrong–perverse, even–but I truly believe that God speaks to us in the language we understand, and in my language God’s favorite catch phrase is “There’s nothing much wrong with your life that couldn’t be fixed by you being a better person. So suck it up, we’ve all got problems!” The second most popular is “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” So as I sat there in my upstairs hall with my son (who was still crying and screaming, incidentally), at the end of my proverbial rope but fervently avoiding an appeal to the Power That Be for fear of invoking aforementioned Law of the Monkey’s Paw, I thought to myself how immensely grateful I was that the situation wasn’t any worse than this, and how, considering how much worse my situation could be, I should totally be able to figure something out. Suck it up. Whatever. All I really knew at that point was that I was definitely not praying for patience. God and I have been over that before.
At this point I imagine that some of my friends will read this and think, “So if this is Rebecca’s attitude toward prayer, does that mean that when she says I’ll be in her prayers, she’s actually pronouncing some sort of curse on me?” Oh, no, brothers and sisters. I don’t think that’s how prayer works. I pray for other people all the time with impunity because I think a) God can’t possibly have it in for everybody, and b) as long as my prayer isn’t selfishly motivated, it can’t backfire on me. By this same token I feel safe soliciting the prayers of other people on my behalf, as their hearts are undoubtedly purer than mine in any respect.
Also, I can’t think of the Monkey’s Paw without remembering that Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode where Homer gets the monkey’s paw and in exasperation finally wishes for a turkey sandwich: “And I don’t want any zombie turkeys, I don’t want to turn into a turkey myself, and I don’t want any other weird surprises. You got it?” Then when the turkey sandwich materializes and he bites into it, he says, “Hey! Not bad… Nice, hot mustard… Good bread… The turkey’s a little dry… THE TURKEY’S A LITTLE DRY! Oh, foe, the cursed teeth! What demon from the depths of hell created thee! ” Which in turn reminds me how important it is to keep things in their proper perspective. This is where my prayers are at these days. Mostly I offer thanks and apologies. I try not to ask for anything for myself, but in the event that I can’t control my reflexes, I try to remember that whatever God has in mind, I must not kvetch about the dryness of the turkey.