The divine Miss M

Big things come in small packages

Big things come in small packages

I LOVE how easily little children fall in love with things; their joy in new experiences and people.

This is especially true of my intense seven-year-old Amelia who hasn’t yet learned to play her emotional cards close to her chest.

She crushes hard on her toys, on newly-met kids in the park and writes passionate letters (and emails and text messages) to her teacher: “Miss S, I love you so much.”

Our home is littered with tender notes left on side tables, Valentines slipped quietly into pockets and drawers.

Then, there is M, our 16-year-old neighbour. A gentle, dark-haired girl who waves to us in the garden and once picked a red flower, passing it to Amelia over the short fence that separates our houses.

A rose by any other teenage girl would not smell nearly as sweet. And with that flower she did win Amelia’s sweet heart. Like, forever.

A few weeks ago, I found Amelia outside, pressed up against the fence, calling M’s name into the cooling night air. “M! Where are you?” There was a note of shyness in her voice, but there was hope too. Lots of hope.

Before I could wrangle her back inside, M suddenly appeared. She said, “I thought I heard you calling me! Let’s play a game.” And over our little fence, M joined hands with Amelia and showed her how to wrestle thumbs. They chatted and laughed together before parting ways.

It was a fleeting interaction, but it meant so much to Amelia. It solidified something growing steadily inside her. That longed for connection with another human being – friendship. She has so much love to give but not always the facility to show it or receive it.

Soon after, Amelia drew a special picture for her new buddy M. She spent a long time on it and together we put it into a special envelope covered in stickers and hearts. I said, “Should we go and give it to her now?” Um, is the Pope a Catholic?

M wasn’t home, so we left the letter in the safe hands of her younger brother. I forgot about it until the next day after Amelia went to school. I checked the letter box for the daily mail and instead found a small gift box and card inside.

It was addressed to Amelia, from M. I carefully took it out and held it in my hands, as though it was fragile, precious. And it was. I’d been worried Amelia’s intensity might be annoying to our teenage neighbour, but I was so, so wrong.

I put the gift inside, ready for its lucky recipient to return home. You’d be forgiven for thinking the present was for me, the way I paced around waiting for the school bus to arrive in our street, desperate to see its secret contents revealed.

FullSizeRender-1Amelia finally came home and I greeted her with the news falling urgently from my lips, “Baby, M left you a present, it’s inside!”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. “M? For me?”

“Yes, for you! Let’s go!”

We ran together into the house, jostling to reach the little box veritably pulsing with life on the kitchen bench. The card contained a beautifully penned thank you note from M. Amelia’s picture had made her day, so here was something in return. Just for her.

Inside the box was a silver chain with a pretty circular pendant depicting a tree. A thing that grows. Like the friendship between a loving deaf, autistic girl and her sweet teenage neighbour.

They are separated by nearly ten years of age and the small fence that separates our houses. M doesn’t always understand what Amelia is trying to say, and my little one misses plenty of sounds and what they mean.

But these things are not barriers; the distance between Amelia and M is remarkably short. When they touch hands and laugh and send each other letters they are just two girls reaching out to each other and finding a friend.

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The kite runner

12794847_10154062443205127_6526109824158844762_oSHE ONLY let go of his hand for a moment, all the better to chase the colourful kite sailing above their heads. Her arms are raised, as though she can touch the clouds or pull the kite to her with an invisible string clasped in her hands.

The cool breeze brushes against her bare forearms, her face tilted skywards. There’s nothing so perfect as a March day when the heavens are smiling so wide you can almost see their teeth.

The kite is tethered but it is free and so is she. Tethered to her father standing close behind but out of view; free as the kite soaring into the blue.

She follows its path along the clouds, running to catch up but it is forever out of reach. No matter, the joy is in the chasing not the catching.

They had only planned on the park and slides and maybe swings, not kites. Nothing so special as that. They were a surprise bonus.

As was the wonder their simple appearance brought out in her. The thrill in her voice when she came home to tell me that, “We saw kites, Mum! It was a kite festival.” Festival. It’s a new word for her but her voice is clear and true. I understand perfectly.

And the happiness on her Dad’s face, “She held my hand for ages. She sat and painted her face with the other children. She made a little book inscribed with her name. And danced. We both danced.”

They both danced. The kite was reeled in at festival’s end but the magic went on in their heads. All night long.

 

 

I’m deaf and you’re not

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Amelia, free spirit & proud deaf girl

I WATCHED her playing in the park by the ocean. Another little girl approached and asked her in a tiny voice, “Do you want to play with me?”

Amelia was moving past her and didn’t hear the question. The girl was shy and took silence to mean rejection.

I quickly intervened. “Hi there sweet one. Amelia is deaf so she didn’t quite hear you. Come over and ask her again.” I translated.

She was called Alexandra. With names and ages hastily exchanged they were off, running and laughing and joking like the oldest of friends.

I sat once more and drank in the simplicity of childish play. The natural rhythm of it. The ease.

Alexandra had a wand with magic powers deployed most usefully when she was tagged “it”.

Not to be outdone, Amelia held up her hair and declared triumphantly, “I have hearing aids. I’m deaf and you’re not.”

Her face shone with pride. So did mine.

Soil searching

Up the garden path

Up the garden path, with rose petals

I have something shocking to report.

Something disturbing has happened to me in the wash-up of recent traumatic events.

I never thought this would happen to me as we put the pieces of our little family back together and started to breathe again.

Okay, here goes. I have become … an avid gardener. You heard.

I’m the newest green thumb on the suburban block. A woman with soil permanently wedged beneath her previously manicured fingernails and dirt marks smudged proudly on a rouged cheek.

Marks from the earth are my new war paint. I am obsessed and there is no stopping me now I have started.

There is still no cessation of the intense energy (mania) that drives me from morning to night, but you can’t have everything. And, after all, how much pruning could I achieve without such boundless energy?

The garden has never looked so luscious and cared for in the ten years I have nurtured and neglected it in equal measure.

It started with small steps out in the backyard. My husband was in hospital and after my daughter Amelia went to sleep at night, I’d find myself sitting on the cool ground outside, tearing out weeds and overgrown tendrils of grass.

My hands needed to work so that my rattled mind could stop churning, even as the daylight faded and I could no longer see the garage for the trees. So work is what I did, for days and nights on end.

My partner in garden crime

My little partner in garden crime

I rejected gloves outright, preferring to connect with the often harsh textures of the garden. I endured deep cuts, broken nails, rose thorn splinters, and the pitter-patter of arachnid legs down my arm (eek).

The abrasions on my body at the end of the day satisfied me somehow. They were a positive sign of the exertions that were holding me together.

From weeds, I turned to the wild native shrubs that had suffered from months of inattention. They were locked in a permanently coiled dance, branch arm in tortured arm, plant figures robbed of distinct identities.

I took up my gardening shears and hacked and slashed at these shapeless masses with violent zeal. Sweat ran down my back from the effort, from the sun beating down on my pale skin. But I didn’t feel anything. I was too busy to care.

Inside the frenzy of my activity there was always method, always control. A sense of creating something new with my bare hands and sharp steel. Of taming and cultivating. Surviving.

I was an amateur gardener but I felt like an artist. I stood back to survey the landscape; feral forms had been transformed into shapely bushes with breathing space to call their own.

One willowy tree, previously choked by an untamed knot of green mess, was now free to stand tall and swing high in the breeze.

At night I would stand at the back window and press my hands to the glass, looking out at the garden. My garden. I was changing it for the better; my influence was everywhere.

In the newly planted pots of blooming flowers in pink and blue. Or the water trickling down the path post an evening soaking session for my thirsty friends.

In the dark hours of wakefulness over the next few weeks I would imagine new garden beds. And then in the morning I would set about bringing them to life.

Hanging terrariums dotted with shells collected from some forgotten beach. Plans to convert an arid corner of our property into a secret succulent garden. The movement created by long-limbed plants covered in bright blooms, tucked beneath our Crepe Myrtle tree.

Once the garden had taken root in my imagination, I couldn’t let it go.

Amelia joined me on my intense botanical mission. She lovingly tended to her own little patch of green things; her strawberry plant, the flowers, the tomatoes, mint, kale and parsley (she is a child of Melbourne’s hip northern suburbs after all).

Blooming for the first time

Blooming for the first time

And all of this watched over by a cheeky little garden gnome and a solemn statue of a girl who used to care for my Nan’s own garden before she died.

Our afternoons of toil would usually end the same way – with us covered in mud and Amelia stripping off her clothes to play under the delicious cold spray from the hose.

We grew things, re-shaped them and made them come alive again. One native shrub received some much-needed pruning and water treatment. Weeks later I spotted glorious, bright pink flowers appear on its spiky branches.

In all the years since it was planted, I have never seen those flowers before. It made me so happy to see them, such a generous response to the love I had finally given it.

And though our world isn’t spinning so fast anymore, life is returning to something approaching normal, I feel forever changed by the experience.

I need to be in the garden now, not just to distract myself from pain or worry. It’s a part of me; I’ve poured my soul into it and so we are bound together.

At night, I am uneasy if I haven’t at least dug my hands briefly into the soil or splashed some water over the beds, tucking my plants in for the night.

I step out onto the porch and take my time to look out across the garden towards our worn-out picket fence.

I soak up the warm night air and gaze happily at recent nursery additions now flourishing, and frown over a young plant failing to thrive.

Tomorrow I will endeavour to restore it to good health and hope to find some peace for myself. Just for a little while.

For VR who shares my love of gardening and is a kindred spirit in more ways than one.

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.

Sphinx in the sand

SHE’S A ‘force of nature’ kind of girl. I sometimes can’t tell where the waves start and she ends. I try to call out to her and forget she can’t hear me. My voice travels in her direction until the wind grabs it and carries it away.

She’s not looking at me anyway. It’s deliberate, this ‘not looking, not looking’ game. No one is in charge but her and she’ll pay attention when she bloody well likes.

I only want to make sure that she plays in the sand near our feet. Just over there not all the way away. So I trudge through tiny shards of shells, slowly broken down from ocean to shore, just to reach her.

I talk to her with my hands. Come closer to Mummy and Daddy. You can play how you like, just stay nearby, okay? My child-Sphinx thinks on that for a second and then nods. It’s okay.

She runs behind me to our point on the beach and stays within the invisible flags of our agreement. I watch her, fully-clothed, splashing and laughing in the water, and say to my husband: “She’s ours, but she’s a stranger too, isn’t she? She belongs only to herself”.

He can only agree.

Eyes wide shut

Amelia ‘papping’ the Pa-parazzi (get it)

WHEN I look at my daughter Amelia, I see lots of things. I see a wonderfully healthy, milky-skinned towhead with dark, dark eyes.

My eyes rest on her all-terrain body some days and I conjure up images of her in a field, pausing from her work to glance at the sky, the sun, like a stocky Russian peasant, built to withstand the elements.

Come rain, hail or shine, Amelia was made differently to most people, but man was she made to last.

Through my eyes, the most subjective of prisms, she is the most beautiful child I have ever seen. If I look at her for an hour, a month, a year, there will never be enough time to really see her.

I love to look at Amelia’s blonde hair falling in rolling, lazy waves down her back. Tucked behind her ears, some days it’s easier to see that she is wearing hearing aids. To see the physical sign of an internal part of her that doesn’t work the way it should.

Her autism is not so obvious to the naked eye. It’s not etched on her skin or reflected in some mechanical appendage that helps her to think or feel. Amelia doesn’t wear a t-shirt reclaiming the word ‘Aspie’.

You can’t see her autism in obvious ways, but I always know it’s there. I see it in her face sometimes, when her gaze drops below mine, and try as I might to regain her attention, she’s quietly slipped off to some interior room, far from me and my ever-prying eyes.

No matter what the signs – violent temper, crushing anxiety, rampant hoarding – I see autism but I still see Amelia. I never lose sight of her, working so hard to push her little barrow uphill. I see all that she is and I feel I truly know her. I know her and I understand.

Amelia has many people in her life who look past her ‘special needs’ and see only what is genuinely special. What is unique about her. The madcap sense of fun, the tenderness, the infectious lust for life.

What they see is mirrored in my own eyes and in my heart. That mirroring gives me strength and so much joy.

Yet now and then in our travels I am forced to view Amelia the way that other people sometimes do and it makes me turn my face away. I can’t bear the sting of their unforgiving eyes boring holes of judgement into her. Into me.

When she is suddenly, inexplicably loud or clumsy or different – incongruous – in a public space, I feel strangers’ eyes flick up and cast their reductive light over her. Mouths curl up in a mute grimace of distaste. I read their looks and expressions and interpret the words left unsaid.

‘Oh, what a weird child. Look at the naughty child. What on earth is wrong with that child?’

And who am I? It’s simple: I’m the bad parent.

I hate those staring, ignorant eyes because for a second I step outside myself and I judge Amelia too. In that moment I see only her flaws, the things that cannot be contained or controlled. And it hurts my heart.

My inner voice pleads with her, ‘Please won’t you just be calm? Why can’t you walk properly? Stop yelling, just stop it!’

‘Why can’t you just be normal.’

Then there are the people who don’t see Amelia at all, who have trained themselves not to see what is different about her and to try to understand. They focus their eyes on the wall above her head or on the easy going child instead.

They ignore her and I despise them too.

Because they looked at Amelia, but they did not really see her. They saw only gaps and lack and the spaces in-between where a different child might be. And they decided things about her that are only a tiny fraction of who she is. Who she will grow up to be.

I’m not blind to the hardships looming up behind Amelia like a shadow she can’t shake. I know she is sometimes rough and strange and hard to take. I know that because I see how being around Amelia makes some people feel: uncomfortable, nervous, frustrated.

It’s written in their eyes.

But I can’t let those looks and the thoughts that sit behind them slip under my guard too much. They strike me in my nerve centre, and I absorb little shocks and bouts of pain, but they do not defeat me. They could never.

For me, there is always great solace to be found in looking up and seeing Amelia again, maybe running down a path to meet me after time spent apart. She throws her glorious head back and yells my name at the sky and I see only beauty and all that is right.

There are no shadows here, save the ones cast by the sun, warming the head of my sweet peasant girl with her golden hair and those dark, dark, eyes.