Where Your Feet Are
“You need to learn to be where your feet are, Mom. “ Wisdom beyond his seventeen years spilled from my son’s lips like crumbs from the oatmeal cream pie he was happily devouring. Sprawled across my kitchen counter again, the boy I call Barefoot Sage offered commentary as I lingered at the sink. I washed a stack of dishes and pinched my mouth shut to hold back my retort; he should learn to pay attention to where his feet weren’t supposed to be. After all, he wasn’t demonstrating good kitchen etiquette for his little brother who was wandering in the bewildering maze of autism.
The journey with the small red-headed riddle I call Youngest Mystery was exhausting me. Although we had been trudging together to therapy visits and neuropsychiatric evaluations for years, I couldn’t escape the nagging sense that he was drifting away from me. He seldom expressed any emotion except anger. Thoughts of his future terrified me, and I didn’t want to live terrified, so I worked to stay in the present. I gathered bouquets of the smallest joys—his sudden burst of laughter as he understood a joke, the skip in his step as he carried the mail to the kitchen door, the intricate drawings he created on the Etch-a-Sketch.
We navigated homeschool curriculum, social skills training, and medications. I held my breath as he settled into the saddle for a therapeutic riding lesson. His feet dangled so his instructor adjusted the stirrups. He leaned forward; his small hand stroked the neck of that massive animal with more gentleness than I’d ever seen. My heart lurched. For one hour every week, I paused in an island of sunshine and stillness, watching my boy succeed in controlling something bigger than himself. But we couldn’t take that island of calm with us; the storms at home seemed to be gaining strength as this son grew.
Barefoot Sage became Youngest Mystery’s best bud. They rode bike for miles, camped out in the backyard, and swiped cookies from the high cabinet when Mom wasn’t looking. But I knew only one of them could reach that shelf. Youngest Mystery found tools and scrambled under the truck to help with repairs. “We’re the Magic Express Turbo Brothers,” he proclaimed, his grease-streaked face shone with pride. Two pairs of bare and filthy feet trekked through the back porch on the way to the pool. They threw themselves over the side and splashed each other to clean exhaustion.
And then, Barefoot Sage graduated and set off across the world on a journey of his own. He was itching to travel, to make a difference in the world, so his bare feet walked the red dirt paths of Africa. Orphans climbed on his back and laughed at the hair on his toes and watched him fix every broken thing they brought him. He had magic hands, or so it seemed to them. He tinkered under the hood of the van with a bit of metal he’d bent in the machine shop ensuring their ride to school was smooth and quiet. He carved little wooden pieces to repair their toys. And, when vandalism threatened the cluster of houses, he helped construct a palisade fence. But the fence could not keep out the darkness, and shots sometimes rang through the night. Thieves brought bolt cutters that bit through locks; tools were spirited away. When daylight finally spilled across his tiny porch, it could not wash away the seeds of fear planted in the dark soil of night.
At home, I was pressing onion sets into rich brown earth with quiet joy. From the garden, I could hear the thud-thud of a soccer ball against the shed door. Youngest Mystery perfected his goalie kicks, dancing through the back yard in his brightly colored shoes. He had just sobbed his way through a math lesson. The day before, he came to me and said, I probably shouldn’t have said this, but I called so and so a thus and such. He was right, he should not have. And, with the transformational speed of the Incredible Hulk, every strong emotion morphed into anger. But give the boy a ball? He knew just what to do. He dove, he reached, he focused, he flipped, he excelled. My feet fidgeted beneath me at his games, barely allowing me to stay seated. They wanted to join the game, to help him win.
With every part of me, I wanted to help this son, but still I couldn’t seem to reach him. His responses were unpredictable; the rage was always lurking in the shadows like a wounded water buffalo, ready to charge. He was a puzzle I could not unscramble—the picture had been torn from the box, and some of the edge pieces seemed to be missing.
As those soccer shoes increased in size, I tried to learn the steps to the dance of autism, clinical depression, and mental illness. The music whirled wildly, then mourned and lamented, and so did I. My feet were trampled and bruised. And so was my soul as he hurled words of hatred and fury at me that no one else heard. He wasn’t a small boy anymore, and his strength added danger to his anger. He punched holes in the walls and threw dishes across the table. Some days I wanted to walk away and never look back. The journey felt all uphill, and being where my feet were had never been more difficult.
And then, Barefoot Sage came home to stay. He’d been back and forth a few times, regaling us with the tale of the chicken who laid an egg on his couch, showing us a picture of a storage container that they had renovated into a tiny one room preschool, hinting at dangerous incidents in crowded squatter camps where no one traveled after dark. He brushed off our queries, but inside, his soul kept a tally of the robberies, the danger he lived in every single day and the injustices he had witnessed. He carried the spit he had wiped from his face and the betrayal of the friend who had arranged to steal from him, until the scales tipped, and he was nearly crushed under the weight of all that pain.
He arrived home lugging a suitcase full of PTSD. Bleeding, swollen faces haunted his memories. Ideals lay shattered at his feet like shards of plate glass, and night after night, hope bled out in his nightmares. He wasn’t barefoot anymore, and he had no idea where he wanted his feet to be – anywhere but there.
At about the same time, my world became dangerous in the turbulent wake of Youngest Mystery’s unraveling mental health. The stakes were higher than ever; his threats could not be ignored. Brokenness surrounded me—doors, vehicle consoles, his own bedroom walls, my heart. I had to look realistically at the trajectory of his future. I explored other paths for his wild and restless feet. Where could we find help and healing?
That summer, I woke every morning with rocks in my stomach. Fear dogged my steps more closely than a shadow. I stayed sane by hiking the mountain and wandering my long country road. Each night as I watched a vivid sunset smear across the sky, I knew I had made it through another day.
And then, when Barefoot Sage shuffled back into my kitchen and stood before me like a shield, I could not have thought to ask for such a gift. He brought the PTSD with him and often stayed just a few days until his dreams sent him packing. But the next week, he’d return, and I’d watch him live out his own advice, figuring out how to be where his feet were—right beside his brother as they created in the woodshop or sweated their way around the block. Three days, sometimes four, every single week, he swooped into our driveway, with his kind heart and bare feet and made life easier simply by being present. He helped me survive.
Now, Youngest Mystery wears hiking boots all day every day. “Soccer’s just not my thing anymore, Mom,” he explained to me last week as we drove back to the Wilderness School where, for the past year, he’s been untangling the shoestrings of his soul and moving forward on paths that he’s helping to maintain. When I dropped him off, he said, “I love you Mom, and you know I miss you,” then he grinned. “But I’m anxious to get back.” He’s preparing for another long hiking trip, two weeks hefting a backpack holding everything he needs. It’s where he wants to be. Every home visit, he dreams aloud about the days when he’ll be old enough to trek those trails sporting a staff t-shirt.
Barefoot Sage visited home again for a few days recently. Late one evening, as I hovered over a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, the Sage called out clues from the crossword puzzle he was solving in the chair next to me. The French word for water had us stumped. As we sat in the silence, a burp erupted into the space between us. And again. What? Then I realized he was playing the pronunciation app on his iPad. The word, “eau” burped between us again and again. We laughed and laughed, and I heard the healing bubbling up between us like a mountain spring. I didn’t nudge him with the walking stick of his own advice, but I felt it, propped on the chair between us like a silent old friend. Hey, I whispered, you’re learning to be where your feet are.
Brenda Zook writes because it’s less embarrassing than being caught talking aloud to herself. She loves her Amish neighborhood, asparagus, and memoirs. Her prayer of choice is “Oh help,” also known as the prayer of Pooh. She writes about her Hickory Lane country life and autism and grace and gratitude on her blog at www.brendazook.weeby.com and her work has appeared in Ruminate, Purpose Magazine, and Mothers Always Write.