Faith Healer (#358)

A faith healer, as I understand it, heals by faith—by spiritual means alone—by the laying-on-of-hands, by prayers. So has faith healing come to be associated with quackery in today’s world of modern, scientific medicine.

Faith Healer is a majestic play by the Irish playwright Brian Friel that Jim and I saw just over twelve years ago at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Jim and I had just met a few months before and the “soul-lacerating story” of the three characters—Frank, the travelling healer; Grace, his wife; Teddy, his manager—that ends with something terrible involving the shadowy, wheelchair-bound McGarvey, has been stuck in my unconsious ever since. The play consists of four monologues, delivered by Frank, Grace, Teddy, Frank, who each appear on the stage alone. Starting with Frank, each character offers their version of the healer’s performance and of their travels in Wales and Scotland, and of the fateful night when they enter Ireland, Frank’s native land.
That spring and summer of 1994, Jim and I saw many movies and another play—Chekhov’s The Seagull in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with a yet-unfamous Gwyneth Paltrow. I met Jim’s parents that June, too, in their living room with the melon-colored carpet and the glass coffee table loaded with photos. They excused themselves for not standing up—their legs were bad. A sort of mustiness clung to everything in the house—-they preferred not to open the windows, rather (as I gathered) for fear of forgetting to close them and who knows what happening.

Now that sleepy suburban split-level is our house. Every piece of furniture in that living room is exactly where it was twelve years ago though my in-laws have long ceased to sit in any but a few items, as their health problems made it too difficult to lift themselves up from the couch and most of the chairs. My father-in-law has (among other things) multiple sclerosis and movement comes hard, slow, and painfully for him. My mother-in-law has not been home since January—since her knee-replacement surgery—in fact, she has been in four different hospitals/rehabilitation centers and, while a bit better, is not what she was.

We drove down with Jim’s father to visit her this afternoon. Charlie and I had not seen Grandma in a few weeks. Grandma was in her wheelchair in the common room and Jim and his father stayed until the end of visiting hours. Charlie had gotten excited and was stomping and grinning quite in contrast to the very quiet atmosphere in the elder persons’ unit and we drove down to the supermarket to get some groceries. Charlie at first did not want to leave without everyone else and insisted on running up and down the grass in front of the hospital and what was I to say?

Charlie is keeping the faith.

Charlie has been talking so well this week and just today. He serenaded us with “God B’ess Amerigah” this morning; said “I can’t find it” while looking for a particular photo of him and Jim this evening; worked on saying “Mex-zee-cann” on the way to getting a burrito for dinner. Every new word, every spontaneous phrase or even a sentence, thrills me: I love to hear the sound of Charlie’s voice.

Not that Charlie speaking better—having more language—is any kind of sign of him being “less autistic” and more like his “age-appropriate-peers.” The more language and communication skills Charlie has acquired, the more we have seen him struggle in other arenas, as if his increased awareness of the world only leads to more frustrations at his own difficulties in interfacing with it.

That is the paradox of Autismland.

And so, while it rings not exactly right to say that Charlie has been “healed,” it does make sense to say that he has acquired many more skills (of speech, of communication, academic, physical) and that these skills help him to get through the days more easily. And that, in that regard, some sort of healing has gone on. Not healing from autism, but from whatever prenatal brain “damage” happened to Charlie in vitro or (as I tend rather to think) in his genetic coding. I do think that Charlie is smart, is intelligent; I know that Charlie is minimally verbal—struggles to express himself in language—and that he presents as of less than “average” intelligence.
I suppose, in years past, Charlie would have had such phrases as “mentally incompetent,” “mentally disabled,” “cognitively impaired,” “MR,” “stupid,” more immediately applied to him. I am sure random and not-so-random people apply all of these to him now. These might have bothered me seven years ago when Charlie was just being diagnosed—-nine or ten or twelve plus years ago, the word “autism” was not part of my vocabulary let alone my worldview, and “special education” was so far from my mindset that I would have had to ask for a brief clarification.

Yes, I was more than ignorant.

Yes, Charlie’s gift to me has been far more than what a child usually bestows upon his needing parents. Charlie has helped me to understand and, indeed, to be a part of the great messy lovely world out there.

Charlie has taught me what it means to have faith. To understand the necessary power of hope, and the powerful necessity of daily witnessing his struggles, his worries, his anxieties, and to gain some expanded understanding thereof, no less and no more. And if he is not “healed” perhaps it is because he needs no healing but it is I, his ultra-worried mother, who does. The quackery rate in Autismland is high—-so many “treatments,” hyperbaric oxygen chambers and cranio-sacral therapy and more—-and yet I do think that parents try these things out (and fork over their money) inspired by the deepest, blindest love to what might be best for a beloved child who is struggling.

Just like McGarvey, the “crippled” man in the wheelchair who the faith healer, Frank Hardy, is challenged to heal by four wedding guests in Brian Friel’s play. And Frank, who doubts and doubts heavily his own healing powers—his own faith—himself—-knows that “nothing will happen” when he walks out of the lounge where his wife Grace and his manager Teddy are sound asleep after a night of carousing. Frank, the faith healer, has been asked to heal a man and he knows that he cannot, and yet he walks outside to try, and “leaves nothing to chance,” for once.

It was just last Friday night late that Jim and I heard an actor speak, be, Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, in a theatre in Schubert Row in New York City. My parents were still here and were glad to stay with Charlie while I took the train into New York’s Penn Station and met up with Jim for dinner and a show.

For Faith Healer, twelve years later, after nine years of life with Charlie and autism. Of IEP’s and IDEA and FAPE and LRE and ABA and MMR; of things I would have found stranger than quackery those long years ago when I first saw Faith Healer at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Jim and I had seats at the almost-back of the theatre and still could hear every one of the actors’ words, their story-telling and their playing with the sounds of language, the “rosary bead” of place names of towns Frank and Grace and Teddy drove through in their van.

As Jim, Charlie and I have driven on so many roads, back from Missouri to the east coast in search of the best education for Charlie; down the Garden State Parkway towards the ocean; down some old state road to Charlie’s neurologist in another state. Something—some elusive belief not so much of “curing” but of “helping “Charlie”—sustains us, even if we know that we will only hear a doctor report back what we just told him, or nod yes to our queries about medication, or simply listen in compassion.

Somehow we keep on going down those dark and winding roads with no goal in clear sight.

It was not an easy Saturday for Charlie. He woke up at 6.00am and wanted “white rice.” After some excited running about, he fell asleep on the couch until 11am and lay around until he gleefully rode off with Jim on his bike. It is not easy for anyone to visit in an “older persons’ unit” in a hospital and Charlie, while pausing to see her so different, was just glad to see his Grandma. He trotted in with a smile and a “muhhhhh!”, a kiss.

Charlie is my faith , and my healer.

3 Responses to “Faith Healer (#358)”
  1. Lisa says:

    “And if he is not “healed” perhaps it is because he needs no healing but it is I, his ultra-worried mother, who does.”

    Kristina–wow. These words hit home. Simply beautiful.

    My best to you, Jim, and Charlie and a happy father’s day.


  2. Wade Rankin says:

    I am reminded of a vastly underrated movie, “Leap of Faith,” in which Steve Martin plays a sham evangelist who unwittingly stumbles into the “real thing.”

    Although I think we are doing the right thing, I can’t say with any definitiveness whether our attempts to “heal” our son are doing any good. But I can say that the faith with which we approach the task has a healing power unto itself.

    Keep the faith, Kristina. And the happiest of Fathers’ Days to Jim, a model for dads everywhere.


  3. Kristin says:

    I see Gabe’s language the same as you see Charlie’s. I actually see Gabe’s language somewhat seperate from Autism. I believe his Verbal Apraxia is the more dominent of the two affecting his language.
    I guess this could sound cliche, but I haven’t met anyone else in my life that has taught me more than Gabe. He pushes me to be the best I can be everyday, because I have to be for him, for myself and my family. That’s just how it is in Autismland.

    Take care,

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