Shock and awe

Drawing strength from his little girl

I DIDN’T tell her everything.

How could I? It was hard enough to hold the trauma of it in my own head.

I didn’t tell Amelia that her Daddy had collapsed at the hospital, on the hard, cold ground of the car park.

That I thought he’d fallen over behind me until I saw the way he was lying, arched forward in a twisted ball of agony.

I didn’t recount for her the sounds coming from his mouth in that moment. His urgent struggle to breathe. Unforgettable sounds that escalated to a primal wailing that ripped through his body and ricocheted through mine.

What use to her would it be to paint a vivid picture of that night, flashing in my mind like a horror movie every time I closed my eyes?

I see it all in colours and let me tell ya, it ain’t no rainbow.

There’s the white of my tensed knuckles gripping onto her Daddy’s shirt as three of us tried to keep his convulsing body on its side.

The hideous transition of grey to blue as his face changed hue. That was the moment when his heart stopped. For one minute, then more. Seven all told.

To me, the time stretched into infinity. Seconds expanded into excruciating intervals of pain. I thought he was lost to me forever.

After that there was no colour at all, only panic and movement. Doctors and nurses running into the car park from the hospital corridor with life-saving instruments. I was dragged away.

It turns out it wasn’t our sweet man’s time to die that night. Maybe Lady Luck was smiling down on us. I’m part-Irish, vaguely Protestant, wholly atheist, but I thanked the Gods with all my heart.

Damn it, they owed me one.

Next morning, it was my own mother’s job to pass on the news with careful hands to her grand-daughter. I can think of no-one better for such an important task.

She said: “Honey, your Dad had a sore heart and he went to the hospital feeling sick but he’s much better now. He’ll be home in five days.”

Amelia paused over her breakfast, eyes suddenly shining with almost-tears but her internal dam walls held them in.

My brilliant Mum recognises that explaining time frames to our girl helps her to feel safe. Together they counted out the days on their fingers, reaching Monday as the likely date of her Daddy’s return.

Amelia nodded and her eyes cleared; she could cope with that.

The note from school the next day read: “Amelia seemed a little sad today.”

I watched her out of the corner of my eye, looking for signs of melancholy or worry. As usual, Amelia’s deepest emotions remained just that, buried in the subterranean depths of her enigmatic heart and mind.

But I know that just because she’s not asking questions doesn’t mean she’s not thinking intensely about the world around her.

So in a light voice, I asked her straight out: “Baby, are you feeling a bit sad that your Dad is in the hospital?”

Her reply was prompt and awe-inspiring: “No. I’m strong.” She followed this with a typical Popeye flex of her arms.

Conversation over.

No. I’m strong. You could have picked me up from the floor.

Her response signalled two things to me. One was that she really didn’t want to talk about what was happening. That her way of dealing with the sudden change in our lives was to soldier on as though all was well. I could only respect that.

On a more literal level, Amelia really was saying to me, “It’s okay Mum, I’m tough. I can handle it.”

This wasn’t some statement she’d heard somewhere and was parroting back to me without meaning.

At six, sometimes Amelia’s behaviour still resembles that of a three-year-old. But here she understood that strength is something intangible you call upon in the darkest moments to make it through.

I saw this understanding take further shape when she saw her Dad in the hospital for the first time. She didn’t speak but she held him in one of the gentlest, longest hugs of her life. His silent tears poured into her hair and she held him longer still.

So, I didn’t need to tell her everything, did I? There was so much she already knew. Talking was hard enough for me anyway. Eating and sleeping almost impossible.

Amelia’s very real strength rose up to bolster my own. At night, I held her body close to mine and she placed a hand tenderly on my cheek. She kissed me there with wet lips but I didn’t wipe the moisture away. It made me feel alive.

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Never say Neverland

The boy who wouldn't grow up

The boy who wouldn’t grow up

QUESTIONS, always with the questions.

“What’s your name?” Amelia asked me for approximately the hundredth time that week.

I am forever* patient. “My name’s Melinda. What’s your name?” It’s always quid pro quo with us.

A shy smile. Amelia answers, “I’m Peter Pan … and I can fly!” She took off then, milky-white arms aloft, reaching for the sky. Well, the ceiling, anyway.

My six-year-old daughter is Barrie’s boy who wouldn’t grow up. And she can fly.

The meaning of this fantastical claim was not lost on me. I have carried heavy facts about Amelia around in my head for years, details that told me she was very far from flying.

From walking, from talking. Hearing. Learning. Connecting. Growing apace with her peers.

My Peter Pan was tethered to the tarmac by words like “abnormality of development”, “lower border of the normal range”, “limited”, “requiring substantial support”.

Those were the diagnostic words. Deaf and autistic was the poster copy.

It’s one thing to be told harsh things about your child’s development but it is quite another to absorb them. To believe them as the natural order of things.

Her cognitive test scores painted a bleak picture of her abilities when she was four. But who’s to say that was the whole story of who she would turn out to be?

Not me. I just held my breath and waited to see what would really happen.

Time has passed and Amelia’s progress has stunned us and all the people who love her and work to support her.

She can read. Read! By herself in her room, she reads out loud and asks for help with the tricky words and then goes on. “I can do by myself.” Yes, you can.

She can learn, about numbers and rules and abstract things thought beyond her grasp. She is interested in the patterns that shape her world and how things work.

She can sign and speak and tell us a little about her fears and feelings. She can express herself in two languages and through ribald jokes that make me laugh like a drain.

Amelia in full flight

Amelia in full flight

She can listen and hear enough with her hearing aids to learn, to recognise our voices, to feel present in the world. She asks me to sing and holds her ear close to my mouth. Be still my heart.

She can run and jump and do forward somersaults in mid-air and suspend herself in a handstand on the front wall of our house. She is strong and confident in her body, as she proudly tells me with flexed arms, “Me muscles!”

She can, in a quiet voice, ask other children to play with her in the park. Take their hand and show them how to climb. Watch out for the little ones on the slide. Join in.

She introduces herself thus: “My name is Amelia and I wear hearing aids. I’m deaf.” Just like that.

See, she really can fly.

I love her unbridled passion for Peter Pan and all of the whimsy and magic that his story entails. He is brave and so is she, so the velvet-green cap with the feather truly fits.

But part of me wants to tell her that she is better than him, that fictional boy who fears growing old and who is trapped in the arrested development of the endlessly immature.

Peter Pan lives in Neverland, which is a wonderful place for feisty fairies called Tinkerbell and curious children to dream large, but it has its limits, as Barrie himself discovered. Never say Neverland, I reckon.

My Amelia lives in a more wondrous place than that, unimagined when she was two and four and dark limits blocked the sky from view.

Last week she said to me, “Mum, I can’t wait to be older.” Because life is exciting. Growth and development are a cause for happiness and celebration.

For now she is content to play at being Peter Pan, flying high around the lounge room and leaping from the couch launching pad to the stars.

But in Amelia’s ever-expanding world, growing up is the real aim. As time goes on, my quiet faith in this girl grows louder, more insistent. I don’t believe in fairy tales anymore, but I do believe in her.

As Barrie wrote so beautifully, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”

* This statement is caffeine and sleep dependant