A Hymn to Him

An unapologetic love letter to my Dad.

I don’t know why you have been on my mind so much lately, it’s twelve and a half years since you died. Perhaps it is watching your  small wobbly granddaughter achieving her small significant steps, and hurting that you never met her or knew of our struggles.This morning I saw a bright, quick, robin with worm in beak.I stopped and we made eye contact.I smiled quietly. Somewhere I heard an old story that robins were spirits of loved ones popping back to check up on us. Oh I think this is nonsense, but just like children want to believe in Father Christmas I want to believe in this.

A huge rush of memories was undammed by this bright eyed creature, smells, sounds, questions unanswered.So many stories trail behind all of us and you were quite secretive about yours.

In white working class Essex, I did not know anyone else whose Dad had been brought up in India, with servants and in what looked like a stately home.Your Great Grandmother was half Goan.With  Anglo Indian heritage in what was then Bombay your family did not really fit. Too English to be Indian, and too Indian to be English. How was it for you I wonder? I know you had an Ayah, and that she was too young for the job and gave you Opium to keep you quiet.I’m told this affected your lung development and led to the chronic problems with breathing you suffered from throughout your life.I know you loved your Cook and spoke Hindi to him because you told me suddenly in a rush of memories as we were washing up one day. He cried when you left for England. I expect you did too. You told  too about the riots during Independence, and the servants coming to find you in a shop and hiding you in the back until the trouble had passed. This memory when voiced was so precious, so rarely heard that I did not push you for more information and now it is too late.

The Hounslow girl who you met at a dance and later married, tells me that your mother was ill prepared for life in a London semi, terribly untidy and that your untidiness was due to servants picking up after you. Who would have thought that a Council House girl and a diffident chap from Bombay would have so much in common? She thought you looked like Clark Gable, she reminded you of Ingrid Bergman.I’m so glad you met, and that the Doctor who told Mum that with your chronic emphysema you wouldn’t make 40 was wrong.I  have a particular interest in that part of the story as I was the “autumn blessing”when you’d already got well past the babyhood of the one of each who were already there.

I know I get my work ethic, drive and ambition from you.You also passed on a strong faith in God and politics. People  found you gruff, and plain speaking to the point of offence at times. Your views were very black and white, there really was no grey. As I hit my teens this was the cause of huge arguments, theological and political. You had been in and out of hospital and had near misses so many times that I was always concerned that I would be the one to trigger, through stress, the final asthma attack. I think we both knew you were too stubborn for that.

Your best beloved told me not to come home if you died while I was away doing my degree, she would manage just fine, but no you carried right on on your one functioning lung, moved to a new area, made new friends created a new and beautiful garden, gave me away on my wedding day. I remember  (I seem to have something in my eye as I type) the speech.You couldn’t believe in arranged marriage you said, as you could never have chosen anyone as perfect for your beloved daughter.(You were right)

You haven’t seen them growing up, my children, the eldest receiving university offers. You stood up and cheered at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester as I walked across the stage to receive my degree, the first in our family to do so. When I think of you I am still trying to make you proud, but I know you were proud of us all, Big Girl , My Son and Girlie .No one calls me Girlie now.

You would have been proud and worried about my boy, who has struggled with depression and life. When he was diagnosed with Aspergers I was adamant. “He’s not on the spectrum he is just like his Grandad” Oh Dad I think he really is and that you would have been a prime candidate for late diagnosis.

As for the Pearlie Girlie, no one could fail to love her, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to meet.

Dad you would have been particularly proud of mum. She cared for you so beautifully at the end, after a lifetime of caring. She was determined to keep you at home with the hospital bed in the living room and very little extra help. Driving that road and not knowing whether you would be there when I arrived, in and out of hospital again, but you stubbornly clung onto life. I will never forget the phone call “the terrible day has come” and there you were looking so young and peaceful in the living room while we just had a cup of tea.

She has gone on that girl of yours to carve out a life in her community, move house to be nearer us, and start all over again. I see her getting on, but missing you.She still says “we think” as if you have discussed it. I suspect you probably have.

More than anything, the thing that hits me right here is a cuddle from your best beloved and the phrase “your Dad would be so proud of you all”

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Rear Window

In which the state intervenes in the parenting process,but fails to offer any sense of direction.

Imagine this. A bright room, full of children and toys. A one to one adult to child ratio. Music. Paint. Glitter. Lovely.

At the rear of the room a large mirror. I am sitting invisibly on the other side. It’s dark. There are a lot of other parents of various shapes and sizes I’ve never met before. I can see Pearl, she can’t see me. I can’t help her. I can’t touch her.

For an hour and a half adults neither I nor Pearl know, interact with her and the other children, in a variety of ways. They play, they question and touch her. They also occasionally share knowing glances with each other. I have 18 months of experience of what Pearl can or can’t do, and how best to help. I can see through the glass when she has not understood, even see when biscuits are being given out and Pearl is asked “Do you want a biscuit?”, “eh” (yes) the reply. She is asked again,replies again.The TA looks exasperated and asks again. Finally the Occupational Therapist who was looking at another child’s hand control intervenes  “Pearl said yes”.  A beat. “Well I can’t understand what she is saying”replies the TA-who disappears mysteriously in the weeks to come. I sit on the other side of the glass, invisible and shrinking into myself. The parents of children with Down’s Syndrome have formed a group, two other parents who have loud opinions on everything are holding forth in a corner. I am slowly reducing in size, wanting to pound the window, pound the TA’s head, feeling utterly disempowered.

This may sound to you, gentle reader, like a hellish dystopian future where the state judges, you, your child and your parenting. It is in fact The Child Development Centre.

As Pearl’s difficulties became more pronounced, and as the Professionals utterly failed to recognise what a beauty and genius she was, we had somehow accessed an open play session at the CDC. We arrived once a week to play with the children, have access to therapy services to ask questions, and chat.

It was fun. Pearl and I were speedily fast tracked into the CDC proper, which is where you find us. Fun and soft observational assessment were quickly replaced by standardised tests,sessions with all the therapists and a growing sense of desperation. I have since found out that the children who attended were thought to be the ‘worst’ in the county. The one redeeming feature for me was the presence of our amazing physio, who continued to provide appropriate exercises, useful suggestions, and spoke to me like an equal. Apart from this I’m not sure what the CDC was for. I had briefly thought that Pearl would receive the golden “early intervention”that would cure her and get her back on track to join her peers, but as the months went on this seemed less and less likely.

What did I gain from this early intervention then?  Well I found out about Disability Living Allowance. Although there were in session, two specialist TA’s a Special Needs Teacher, an Occupational Therapist, a Speech Therapist-the person who told me about this was a parent behind the mirror. I met a ridiculous continence nurse,  who came to give us everyday advise on potty training, and seemed peeved, when a few of us explained that we did not see it as a priority as our children could not walk, talk or sit up on a chair let alone a potty. Later it was another parent who told me that we would be eligible for nappies-not mentioned by the continence nurse. Nobody would advise me on what would happen to Pearl as far as nursery or school was concerned-because it was not their decision. In the end another rear window parent told me about a School for Parents  in the adjoining county, which Pearl eventually went to before being accepted into the attached school.

In a sense then I did learn something about Special Needs Parenting. Firstly that no one would tell you anything, that you would have to find out for yourself. That other Special Parents could offer incredible support and point you towards resources. That some parents operate a kind of reverse competitiveness “oh she sleeps through the night, lucky you, mine doesn’t sleep AND has fits AND is autistic AND has reflux AND… but she did start walking at 18 months so I expect yours will too” Avoid these parents at all costs. In retrospect I can see this was a coping mechanism, but never let someone else’s coping mechanism interfere with yours.  Just don’t. Hopefully these parents found their tribe. I found mine and met some parents whose coping mechanisms involved coffee, cake and dark humour. I also met our current Paediatrician who is just wonderful, got Pearl and us, and begins every report with “what a delight it was to see Pearl in clinic today”.

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So Child Development Centre Professionals and your ilk, what would I say to you?

Don’t become overexcited by the assessment process and forget the child.

Don’t congratulate yourselves on providing “early intervention” if the parents don’t know the purpose or see the outcomes you are working towards.

Use your common sense about human interactions, introduce a group of parents to each other before putting them in a darkened room together, perhaps use this time to lead a group looking at resources or an introduction to Makaton.

Remember that in these early stages many parents will be in denial. Others will be overwhelmed. Do not assume that they will take everything in. Tell them your plans.Tell them again. Tell them again. Write it down. Put it in a handout.

Make sure your TA’s like children.

Explain to each parent why their child is in the group and what you hope to achieve. For example “because they are struggling in some areas we will assess and give you ideas to help at home. We aim to put together information that will form the basis of an individual plan to help them on the educational setting, we want to involve you every step of the way and help you decide what kind of a plan and setting would be most appropriate for your child”

Check that parents know all about support available, do they have a social worker? Do they receive  the relevant benefits? Are they accessing hydro therapy?  Do they have appropriate seating,  adaptations?  Do not EVER for one minute assume that these things are already in place.

Do not forget, DO NOT EVER FORGET, that parents can see EVERYTHING through that mirror. They can see if you are exasperated with their child, they can see if their child doesn’t like you. They can see and hear if you are talking over their child and ignoring them. Treat watching parents like you would an Ofsted inspector. Show them your working, planning and best practice, and then do it again the next week, and the week after that, and keep right on doing it. These parents are your partners.These children deserve it.

 

Echoes

In which the past though a foreign country, suddenly hijacks me on the Millennium Bridge.

There was a road that led home from my school, a long endless road it seemed to me, although I was much smaller, and my legs much shorter. I walked home down this road every day from the ages of 5 ’til 18, often twice a day when I went home for lunch.

I remember small girls thoughts inside my head. Would I always be walking here?  Did the Jane of yesterday and the Jane of tomorrow walk along here at the same time as me?  Could I one day bump into myself?  ( I was a solitary bookish child).

I recalled this when I hijacked a works trip to London with Father of Pearl.  London was so close to my Essex home, that school trips, gallery visits and teenage forays all started at Liverpool Street station. F o P dashed off to his meeting while I moseyed over the millennium bridge to catch a tube to the V & A.  I found myself face to face with St Pauls, and wondered if a primary aged Jane crept around the whispering gallery, awed, excited, nervous.

I stride, child free and grinning from ear to ear over the Millennium bridge. Briefly I was taken aback and wondered if small girl Jane would believe the world of wheelchairs, special schools and endless fights she would grow up into. Before  I had a chance to feel the sad longing for a ‘normal’ life I remembered.

I remembered the quiet serious, bookish child, who struggled to fit in. The girl who was concerned to keep the peace so her poorly Daddy wasn’t worried into hospital with an asthma attack. The teenager who always wore the wrong clothes, bought at the wrong shops and who was declared” the frumpiest girl in the school” (oh how we laughed) The sixth former who on a trip to this very London threw up in Covent Garden (something I ate?  Nerves? I’ll never know) which triggered a two year battle with an eating disorder which seemed would make her fade away.

And then I think of my ‘non typical ‘ life the profession I had to give up, the hospital appointments, statement reviews and filing cabinets of reports. The tired days the worried nights, and I catch myself.

I’m happy (and well medicated) confident, loved and in love, with life my jumbley, surprising, unexpected children, my fabulous Northern powerhouse of a husband, with this London – and with myself. Truly. And I remember that the solitary, serious Jane always had a huge capacity to love and was always loved in return.

So unexpected though my life has been would I change it? Well some days, yes. On the mornings I wake dreaming Pearl has started to speak I will always feel an aching and a longing.

I bend down and whisper to the skipping infant aged Jane ” it’s going to be alright”.