From the sand dunes of time, a diamond was born. Through heat and fire, she formed, a babe, naïve, innocent, part of the universe, part of me. The sky her life, until the ground reclaimed her.
Chanelle Mathews. She announced her arrival, in that cold and sterile birthing room, with a war cry that rivaled the Huns of old. I laughed, then. It was endearing, symbolic of her unfettered heart. My first child, dimpled hands and cooing sighs. She was perfect, beautiful, in that breathtaking wonder babies radiated; a wonder that charmed my soul.
She grew. She crawled. She walked. The feats of running and jumping arrived with a speed that contended with the great Olympians. She was a study of energy. Forget physics, and the theory of relativity or law of gravity. She defied them all. Dance was reinvented. Agility redefined. The concept of danger escaped her.
Possessed of a curiosity I marveled at, exploration governed her days. She was mesmerized by her own existence and her relationship with the earth upon which she lived. She at once, enraptured and confused.
Speech eluded her. Many things did, hugs, cuddling, play. Her social interactions consisted of the dismissal of human existence. She removed herself from the group. She didn’t respond to her name. Toys were lined up, by colour, shape, and size, the parts more fascinating than the whole. Worry carved its probing fingers deep into my core.
“This one is different, she is.” That’s what they said, in whispers that slithered through the sands. I bristled with anger. She was my daughter. How dared they? Anger roiled within as the rattling chain of a dislodged anchor, until the voices of the ancients called to me. “Yes. But who is the different one?”
I relaxed, serenity grounding my emotions. My daughter was different, no doubt. But I loved her, loved her for who she was, not who I wanted her to be. I floundered on, alone in the desert sands, searching for answers, yearning for the reciprocity of emotion. Affection being a gift she could not give; my heart an empty space.
Speech found its home, though its roots sprouted crooked. I read to her, every night, teaching each word, sound by sound. Distraction haunted her as the batting wings of a hunted crow, frustration a relentless predator that haunted us both. We struggled on. Each night, curled up in her bed, books spread before us like sacrificial offerings.
Her bedroom, painted blue, was decorated like the ocean. The orca was king in her mind. She drew orcas. She painted orcas. She gazed at orca books. Plush orcas swam the length of her room and breached aside her bed. ‘Killy’, she called her favourite. She couldn’t sleep, without every orca placed just so, a centimeter off flooding her with anguish.
I taught her how to behave through drama, her plush orcas the actors in my play. She needed the visual, as words confused. She couldn’t understand, her mind belonging to another world where language existed in a different form.
It was wintertime. Cold winds rattled our two-story house, sneaking into crevices and window frames, the branches of a pear tree scratching on window’s glass, like a wild cat clawing at my patience.
I pulled out a warm sweater for her. She had never seen it before. It was new. Panic spread across her face, as if seeing a demon of epic proportions. She flung herself into her closet, her body curled in a ball. Rocking. Rocking. Rocking. A high-pitched shriek sprung from her depths. For three hours, she rocked. We were late that day. I did not explain, shrugging off the disapproving looks flung my way, my patience dissolving like ice on a summer’s day. She was my daughter. And she was perfect. Different, yes. But perfect in her difference.
I learned to understand her world. She heard sounds deaf to my ears, the hum of overhead lights, grass blades bending in the breeze, the sound of clouds moving through the sky. To her, the scratching of pencil on paper equaled the horrifying screeches of wild witches. All sound competed for her attention, like the steady throb of a drummer’s beat. Noise, more than a distraction. She cringed, hands over her ears, rocking, as if firecrackers were exploding in her brain.
In malls and grocery stores, any public place, she over-stimulated, too many sights, too many sounds; panicked into frightened fits when strangers smiled at her. I could smell her fear, through her sweat and salty tears. People stared, pity etched in their faces, their sympathy prickling my senses.
“Mom? Am I an alien?” she asked one day. She was eight, then.
“An alien? Where would you get an idea like that?”
“That’s what Justin called me.”
“Has Justin ever met an alien?” I asked, incensed that the question had been posed. “Ahh, I thought not. Honey, Justin is just being mean. Ignore him. Besides, you can’t be an alien. I gave birth to you, and you are my daughter.”
Her face scrunched up, as it did when she was thinking, blue eyes and angel’s hair framing her perfect face. “Are you an alien?”
I smiled. “Do I look like one?”
“No one knows what aliens look like, Mom. Only the aliens do.” She paused, thought reflected in her eyes. “Mom?”
“I love you.”
Her arms embraced me, our spirits bonding, my heart a mixture of hope and loss. This was my first hug, more of a tackle, really. She squeezed till it hurt, gentleness a notion beyond her. Her hug lacked warmth and tenderness, threatened to knock me over even. Yet I was ecstatic, more so than over her first spoken word. It was a hug, after all, given in the way only she knew how. I would take it anyway it came.
School was a nightmare for her, and for me. She couldn’t follow instructions. Her speech was poorly understood. Written assignments elicited from her a large black ‘X’ through her page. While other children wrote stories, she sat, right hand gripping her pencil, knuckles white, a picture of tension and rigidity. Half her school days were spent in the corner, under a desk, crying. A growing disquiet gnawed my tranquil exterior.
“She’s a slow learner,” some said. “She needs to be in a school for special needs children.”
“But she’s a brilliant child. She can learn. It’s just different.”
I had heard such statements before. First, she needed more discipline. Then, she was lazy. Now, she couldn’t learn. I wanted to scream. Scream until I toppled the Leaning Tower of Pisa, my frustration over their ignorance, my exhaustion, my sorrow the source. She wasn’t lazy. She didn’t need more discipline. She could learn. She was bright. It was just different. I could have shouted from the rooftops, the depth of my frustration carrying my voice to the ends of the earth.
I smiled, instead. I had always been so, self-controlled, self-contained, emotions but for myself to bear. Yet it reached deeper than that. I knew what was amiss, the reason she struggled so. I knew, in the same way I knew maple leaves would change colour in the fall. I knew what made her thus. And in that same way, I knew she was bright, exceptionally so.
Not until she was ten, did I learn her diagnosis. Autism Spectrum Disorder. Grief, despair, loss, fear, relief, hope, love, it overwhelmed with the crushing weight of Rodin’s statue, The Thinker. Though I’d known all along, I’d hoped to be wrong.
Therapy began, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational, and behavioural. Life a blur of emotion, a roller coaster ride upside down. She grew and developed, at times with bursts of advancement. At others, setbacks and regression occurred. Together, we rode the waves of the sea, without a ship, or a map, my instincts our only guide. At times, I fell short of her needs, and my ideals.
Her birds died one day, three zebra finches, all in the same morning. She was devastated, beyond consolation. A few weeks passed.
“Mom? When are we getting new birds?”
“I don’t know, honey. When I save up enough money to buy more.”
“Are we getting new birds?”
“Yes, when I save up enough money.”
“When are we getting the birds?”
“I don’t know. When I save up enough money.”
“Are you buying new birds?”
“When I save up enough money.”
“Is it going to be three birds?”
“I don’t know, yet. We’ll see.”
“When are you buying three birds?”
The conversation went on, intermittently for three hours, before exasperation made its mark. “If you ask me one more time, there will be no new birds.”
Tears sprung to her eyes, confusion etched within. “But Mom, I’ve only asked once.”
Bewilderment deluged me like the torrential rains of the season. Was she trying my patience? Being oppositional defiant? Perhaps others were right. She needed more discipline, more treatment, more therapy. But her confusion, so real, and so honest in its realism, became my confusion. My instincts prickled. I contemplated it for hours, long into the night, before understanding dawned at my bleakest hour.
She was right. She had asked but once. Repeatedly, but never using the same words twice. Autism spoke but one language, a language of literal interpretation. Did one punish a child for that?
I chose to educate. Together, we embarked on a quest, a search for the abstract and figurative meaning of language in all its nuances, her to understand it, me to teach it, a journey more challenging than transforming a frog into a prince. But learn she did, initially by recognition, then a grudging acceptance. Comprehension and integration were the last to dawn; unleashing us from the shackles her literal language had bound us to, deepening our bond.
I taught her about autism, the ways in which she was different, both the positives and the challenges. I listened to the experts. I read the books. Yet I followed my own path, my instincts my guide. It was her eyes that grounded me. They spoke her inner truth, giving me clues, signs, confirmation of my discernment. That’s what shaped my choices, her eyes, so ethereal, yet compelling, eyes that lit my world.
I was told to structure her life. Me, the queen of non-structure. Structure smothered me, strangling the energy upon which I thrived. The appointments alone threatened to overwhelm. Trying to get an unwilling child to participate was like pulling teeth from a crocodile, her lack of awareness the root of her unwillingness. She saw no need for therapy, only a need for control. I struggled to provide more structure, much in the way my dented Cavalier chugged uphill; at the same time, teaching her to accept less.
I encouraged her to relish in moments of spontaneity and laughter, a notion that met with blank stares and puzzlement, bafflement, really. I failed, time and time again. But success knew no bounds like a mother’s determination.
By twelve years, she laughed with me. I teased her. She teased back, an easy banter; inconsistent, but present, providing a thrill unparalleled by any adventure I’d yet encountered. Seeds of reciprocity were defining our relationship, shared emotion, warmth, connection.
I introduced her to spontaneity. She taught me about it, her celebration of a sunset when I was exhausted from chores, her delight in a robin’s chirp when I was rushing to appointments, her wonder over a red maple leaf, when we were late for school. It both challenged and enriched.
Time did not exist in her world, a concept too abstract for her to grasp. She lived in the now, and in the energy of life around her. Nature was more than her haven. She was one with it, intricately tied to its life force.
Once, a buzzing fly grated my tired nerves. With one swat of the bath towel, I killed the fly. She looked at me in horror, big eyes wide with shame. “Mom! That fly was my friend!” I shrunk from her gaze. Never again was a fly killed in my home, nor a spider, nor an ant, nor a moth. Each and every one was spared, gently removed and restored to its natural habitat outside.
She talked to trees, apologized to the grass for stepping on it. The chore of pulling weeds was a task that brought anguish to her soul, as she heard their cries of agony. She revered the world most took for granted. I revered her. She had grown, beyond expectations, intellectually, socially, emotionally.
Her eighth grade was a pivotal year, blessed with teachers who taught to her potential, not her limitations. Philosophical thought sprouted, her mind exploring the wonders of the universe with an insight that awed and humbled. New interests materialized. The study of science beckoned. Academic gifts appeared on the horizon. A flair for writing emerged, her words imbued with the power to emotionally transform. Autism still defined her world, a roadblock often painful to observe, but it no longer defined her. Those who looked beyond saw more, a soul perhaps greater than their own.
High school was a difficult transition, but one she persevered at with her customary resolve. Her last day of grade nine shone bright. She had known happiness this year, less struggle, more acceptance of herself, friends. She skipped home that last day. With a sassy toss of her braided hair, she passed me a large, white envelope, her grade nine report card. My fingers trembled. This was high school, after all. I pulled her report from the envelope. My eyes focused, scanning the page. A smile crept to my lips. Straight A’s almost, Math a B.
She threw her arms around my neck, gently, with affection. “Thanks, Mom,” she said, in a voice charged with emotion, her intelligence proven to herself. Contentment infused me like the morning’s dawn. Grades measured nothing to me. The real story lay in the comments she received, comments garnered from conversations and reports of recent past.
“This one is different, she is.” That’s what they said, in voices that scaled to mountain peaks. “She’s intelligent, with a powerful writing voice, and original ideas. She cares about the environment, social issues and justice. It’s her difference that makes her so great. The world needs more people like her.”
Joy, pride, call it what you liked, it enveloped me, as warm and tender as her embrace. This was my daughter, so different, yet so perfect in her difference, unspoiled by the naysayers and critics of her time. The ancients knew all along. ‘Who is the different one?’ they called from the seas of time. I smiled. They were right. Peace, fulfillment, the realization of a dream, soothed my soul as the caressing waves at sea. This was my world, a world where diamonds rose from the dust.