Here is Michael’s latest story he sent to Chicken Soup For the Soul: Find Your Happiness. It is called “The Returning Light”. We thought it was appropriate to share it during this holiday season. We hope it gets selected, but if not, a portion of it will appear in our book – Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey – next spring! We look forward to your comments. Please share the story with others you know.
(The story was published and now appears below …)
The Returning Light
“If we shall take the good we fi nd, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every year, as soon as Halloween is over, my son Matthew waits for the lights. He’s been doing it for more than a dozen years. As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, as the temperatures drop and the leaves fall, he waits for the lights. He knows that they will come.
The neighbors across the street always put up a beautiful, brilliant, and tasteful light display for the holidays, and Matthew eagerly waits for them to be turned on, which usually happens right after Thanksgiving. And then, each day between Thanksgiving and until the lights are turned off in January, he waits excitedly from midafternoon on. Each day he stands by the front windows or walks back and forth between the windows and the front door, in energetic and coiled anticipation, laser-focused, undeterred, intent on the moment of their nightly illumination.
And when each evening’s moment comes, you know it no matter where you are in the house. The effervescent squealing. The rhythmic clapping. The dancing around the house, the steps staccato, loud, repeated. It’s pure joy. Pure delight on his face! And it happens every single night.
He waits for the lights. During the darkest days of the year, he stands and waits. Transfixed by those lights brightening the dim, winter sky.
For all his limitations, in the world’s view—his severe mental disabilities, his autism, his two-year-old mind in a twenty-six-year-old body, his inability to speak—Matthew knows something very profound: that light will shine in the darkness. No matter how dark or how long the wait, eventually and without fail, those lights will shine again. No matter how many seasons of the year without them, there will come a season when those lights will shine again. They always do.
Life brings its own seasons of darkness. Desperate, at times. Lonely. Painful. Full of fear. But despite those seasons, a new season will come, and the light will be seen again. Whatever darkness I find within and around me, I look to my son, and I remember that a light can pierce that darkness and can begin to bring beauty and joy again. In that I find great hope each day.
We had just sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner. Fourteen family members, representing four generations, joined to celebrate our blessings and our love. It was late afternoon and dusk was beginning to fall into darkness.
The passing of the food started with its inevitable chaos, before we determined whether it should be shared from left to right or right to left. When suddenly, our son Matthew squealed, leapt in his seat and grabbed my arm to pull me nearer to him. He shot me a quick, intense glance, his eyes burning with joy, and turned his head toward the front window. I followed his glance, knowing instinctively where it would lead.
It was across the street and to the right, to the house he had been watching intently as dusk fell into darkness each night, for well over a week. To the house with the lights, the white Christmas lights that had just turned on. The beautiful lights of the holiday season, illuminated as they always were for the first time each year at that home, on Thanksgiving night.
I first wrote about those lights – and Matthew’s annual, eager wait for them – in my story “The Returning Light”, for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness, in 2011. I wrote of Matthew’s obsession with those lights, waiting for them patiently each season. I wrote of how he would squeal and squawk and dance around the room when they came on – every day as dusk turned into night. He loves those lights and lives for their return each holiday season.
Matthew is now 26. He lives with severe intellectual disabilities and autism. He lives with many obsessions. Those lights are one of them. They are his most endearing obsession. I witnessed that profoundly again this past Thanksgiving night.
Matthew is a child in a young man’s body. He doesn’t talk, can’t dress or feed himself, is incontinent, and so rarely expresses emotion. But those lights, when they come on, turn a key. Those lights unlock a part of him and for a brief moment each night in this darkest season of the year, shine a bright, penetrating light into the mysterious corners of his soul.
And when they do, the darkness in my own soul is illuminated too.
The light of his laughter. The light of his enthusiasm. The light of his joy. The light of his emotion. Each of those things cannot help but bring laughter, enthusiasm, joy and emotion to my soul as well. Matthew’s reaction is infectious. His love of those lights is a light to me, a gift every day in a special season of the year.
We don’t know what it is about those particular lights that captures his attention and grabs hold of his heart and mind. We truly wish we did. If we could bottle that magic and produce it over and over we would. As I write this story he is sitting by our front picture window, waiting for the lights tonight. Two hours before they will come on. That wait calms him. It captivates him daily in this season. He is a different person as he waits – still, quiet – which he never is during any of his waking hours.
On Thanksgiving night, as we sat down for dinner, after the lights were lit for the first time this season and Matthew’s delighted squealing captivated all of us at the table, he was so excited that he just couldn’t contain himself anymore. After grabbing my arm to pull me toward him and his view out the window, he seemed not to know how to direct his joy. So, he did what he almost always does when he is overwhelmed by stimulation. He started to throw things. He took a cup full of soda near him on the table and flung it across the living room carpet. A big brown puddle stained the carpet. The cup’s impact splashed all over the sofa and chairs.
Normally used to this, our defenses were down as we shared in his joy; we hadn’t cleared the table in front of him to prevent him from throwing things. As our son David and I jumped into action to clean up the puddle, my wife Kathy hurried to move everything she could out of Matthew’s incredibly lengthy reach. His thrusting arms went into action, as his eyes darted back and forth, looking for the next thing to throw. Kathy barely kept ahead of him as she kept the good china and serving bowls and silverware and other cups filled with drinks from flying across the room as well.
It’s a well-practiced reaction by all of us in our home.
We’re used to this. It’s simply part of our lives and it always will be. But the occasional broken dishes, the stains that won’t come out no matter how hard we rub or try, and the frantic rush to keep one step ahead of Matthew in his frenzy to throw whatever he can as an outlet for his overwhelming excitement, is absolutely worth it.
It’s worth it for the serenity his waiting for the lights can bring.
It’s worth it for the moment his eyes see the lights for the first time each season, for the first time each night.
It’s worth it for the joy we all feel deep inside, knowing that Matthew is beside himself with delight.
It’s a delight we love and we become beside ourselves with it too. Especially because it comes from a young man whose intellectual disabilities and autism prevent him from expressing emotion as the rest of us do. It’s worth it all just to see him react in joy.
His delight at the lights nightly brightens our home from Thanksgiving through the beginning of each new year.
And we wouldn’t trade those nights for anything.