Amelia and the magic torch

For my fellow children of the 1970s.

For my fellow children of the 1970s.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that too many writers use the famous opening line from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to kick off their articles.

Yes, it’s a brilliantly ironic line (in the true non-Alanis Morissette sense) from a master writer, but I reckon it’s time to branch out and steal from other authors. Dickens does a nice line in, well, opening lines.

It is also a fact that the more my five-year-old daughter Amelia learns to communicate – in both speech and sign language – the more I am beginning to truly know her and understand the cogs that drive her quirky child-machine.

For the last few years it’s as though my husband and I have been engaged in an endless game of charades with our girl, or at least some kind of mind-bending puzzle, to try and work out what she wants, what she fears, who she is.

We had the picture on the box to guide us, but some key pieces had clearly escaped down the side of the couch.

In the past, if Amelia was unsettled or distressed at night for instance, we never really knew why. Was she sick? Did she have a headache or a sore stomach? Did she fear the dark that enveloped her room after lights out? We didn’t know and she couldn’t tell us. Her language skills just weren’t there yet.

So, we’ve been miming and prognosticating like crazy, making suggestions to her, offering theories to each other until I’m sure she just wanted to make like Greta Garbo and tell her mad parents she wanted to be alone.

Until recently, we had to rely on more explicit signs of Amelia’s preferences in life or trial and error solutions to problems raised by sudden outbursts of screaming or fear.

But I think there’s something magical about age five and the first year of school. Amelia has flourished and progressed in ways we never dreamed she would. Especially where her speech and language skills are concerned.

Every day since term one, I have been in a constant state of delighted awe watching my little girl rush from her bus to tell me about the exciting things she has done with her class.

Amelia will dive into her bag to show me the new book she is slowly beginning to read. Or the letters she learned to write that day. Two months ago, she could only write in reverse from the right of the page to the left. Now her writing compass has switched due-East and she is copying whole, legible words with increasing confidence.

But it’s the improvements in her speech and language, and with them the expression of her innermost thoughts, that we cherish the most. The other day, my husband heard Amelia talking to herself in her room about writing letters of the alphabet. “Mmm…I can do S, I can’t do a K, I can’t do E…”, and so on went her private recitation.

In this small example what I hear is Amelia’s deep interest in learning, her personal reflection on what she is able to do and what she is hoping to work out for herself in time. I can better understand her and I never want it to stop.

Last week, she woke up in the middle of the night which is generally out of character for her. When this happens we might hear crying or yelling to tip us off that something is amiss. This time though, her voice flew out into the hallway with a single, urgent message: “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

There it was. An answer to a shift in behaviour before a question had been signed or spoken. When I went in to see her she repeated her fears by furiously signing ‘scared’ on her chest over and over again. Amelia could not have been clearer about her feelings.

We were able to calm her down but it was obvious that we needed to learn more about what was frightening her so. The next morning I met her at school for her Monday speech therapy session with the lovely CN.

Partway through the session, the subject of Amelia’s early waking came up. Without any probing she said, “I’m scared of my room”. I tucked that little clue under my arm and later in the evening I had a chance to probe her about what she feared so much about her room.

I asked, “Amelia, what are you scared of in your room at night?”

She didn’t miss a beat, “I’m frightened of the black dark”. She emphasised black dark with a punctuating rise in volume to make sure we knew just how spooky it was.

I continued, “The black dark? You don’t like the dark when the lights go out?”

“No, I don’t like it. I’m scared.”

Now we knew for sure what was wrong, I said, “Amelia, would you like me to put your red torch on and leave it on your shelf after you go to sleep? It’s a special, magic light and it’ll keep the black dark away”.

I was reaching back into my memory to a cartoon called Jamie and the Magic Torch. My brothers and I would re-enact the magical properties of Jamie’s torch in my room with a mirror that reflected a circular shape on the wall. I was afraid of the black dark too.

I turned on Amelia’s torch to show her how the kaleidoscopic colours would glow warmly in that black dark. She really liked that idea, shouting triumphantly, “go away black dark, go away!” Her hands slashed mightily through the air as she shooed her imaginary terror out of sight.

After Amelia was safely tucked up in her bed and snoring softly, I switched on her magic torch, ready to stand guard over the scary darkness. The night passed without event. There was no screaming from her room, no movement, no sounds of fear or anxiety. The torch won.

In the morning, my daughter who now has whole conversations with me, said, “I like the little dark, not the big dark”. Amelia was saying to me that the torch had taken the edge off the dark for her and made it better. She was not feeling so scared anymore.

Some people find Amelia’s voice hard to understand and she is shy to share her speech with people outside of school and home. I know people who are surprised when I tell them that she can speak at all.

I also notice that she doesn’t sign as much when she is around people she doesn’t know very well. Perhaps that is a language she associates more with her deaf school friends, teachers and close family members who share it with her.

But now she’s talking and signing like a demon at home, she never, ever stops. Unless she is without her hearing aids when she’ll tell me earnestly, “Mum, I can’t talk…we need sound”. I have a new understanding that Amelia doesn’t like to talk a lot without her aids in.

As per our routine, I put them in yesterday morning and she beamed at me and said, “Now I can talk! You talk Mummy, GO”. It was an instruction, not a request. I said, “Hi baby girl!”

Her answer was short but ever-so-sweet. “You can talk, Mummy. You can”.