Only 11…

Here is what you need to know about Miss A. She remembers. She remembers how the sun was warm and ticklish on that day at the beach, four years ago. She remembers how her grilled corn at the fair last month had too much salt on it and too little butter but was still delicious. She remembers which one of her friends jumped into the freezing pool first to get the party started on her birthday. She remembers the little girl selling flowers by the roadside in India and wonders what the little girl does in summer when the ground is dry and cracked and the trees are droopy and poor. She remembers the old woman with sad eyes, sitting three seats away from us, on the bus last week and she wonders if the woman was just having a sad day or whether she is still travelling across some suburb in town, with a downcast face. She remembers, like I said. She is not partial to her memories. The good, the bad, the dark and the light – everything is welcome in her world. She stares every emotion in the face, she meets its unflinching gaze.

She remembers the movie trailer long after I have forgotten about it. When she says she wants to talk about the movie, I presume that she has comments on ‘The Sapphires’ which we went to see the other week. 

“The little boy,” she says, drawing invisible loops on the pillows, the way she does when she is thinking furiously. “From the trailer of that movie ‘Bully’. What happened to him Mum?”

I had thought that she would remember the movie, the songs and the laughs, instead she remembers the two minute movie clip at the start.

He killed himself, that little boy, he couldn’t take the jeers and the taunts of his classmates anymore and he came home from school one day and he hung himself in his barn.  He was an 11 year old boy and then he was dead, just like that. Miss A, with her strawberry shampooed hair, her panda PJs and her stuffed toy, my safe and warm child under the quilts is 10.

“He died,” I say.

“How?” she says. “I gathered that but what did they mean by ‘taking his own life’?”

She knows about things like gravity and she can tell you all about Harry Potter’s horocruxes . She is reading about Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, she loves history. She knows how to tie her shoelaces and she can set the table and when I am busy, she can do odd jobs in the kitchen. She can play “Ode to Joy” on her viola and she sings like an angel. She knows so many things. And she doesn’t know so many others.

“He killed himself,” I say. Slowly, ever so slowly, every word weighed in iron. Because the truth is heavy like that and yet, sometimes the truth is the only thing that will give you a corner to hide. 

“He was 11,” she says. Her eyes glint.  “How does a 11 year old know how to kill themselves Mum?”

“He was sad, so sad,” I say. “And he probably believed he couldn’t go on, that was his only choice. Fear makes us figure out impossible things.”  It sounds feeble and flimsy but the saddest of things sometimes come with weak preludes.

“How did he  do it?”

“He hung himself,” I say.  “With a rope.” The truth needs to be a like a band-aid at times. Painful in short bursts.

She reaches for my hand beneath the sheets and we lie there like that, silent and sad, her warm palm in my clammy one.

“11,” she says again. “I will be 11 soon.”

“All the things he never got to be,” I say.

She snuggles closer and soon I cannot see her face anymore. This is thing, you can stay there and watch the dusk fall in thick slices or you can turn towards the light.

“I need you to promise me,” I say, my voice breaking up even though I am trying really hard, “that you won’t stand by if you ever see anyone being mistreated.”  Because, there are so many 11 year olds everywhere and children can be so cruel.  I think of the boy and his goofy grin and the way his parents have red eyes. I wonder if their eyes will ever dry up.

“I willl, ” she says. “Because no child should have to feel that way, Mum.”

“Not just for now, for all your life, ” I say. “At school. At university. At work. When you have your own children. Speak up, don’t walk away. ”

I know she won’t because she is fair and loyal and because she speaks up. She needs to know that she has a special gift, that I am proud of my daughter because she is never a fence sitter,  she is never afraid to stand up and say what needs to be said.

Then, this.

 “That little boy isn’t coming back,” she says. “Ever.”

“I know,” I say. “But I also want you to know that you can come to us with anything. Like, anything at all.  We will find a fix.  It is okay to ask for help if you ever need it.”

“I know,” she says.

There is a swirl of tears in my throat. I know her favourite colours, her favourite foods, the people she plays with at school. I know the names of the pets of her friends, I know about the schoolyard arguments and of the friendship groups in her class. I ask so many questions every day, I have re-created her world in my mind so that I know how to find my way around her landscape. 

And yet, I worry on some days that I have missed warning signs, hidden roads, whirlpools that I should have treated with more caution. Because she is only 10 and there are so many things she does not know yet. And as parents, a lot of our walks are stumbles in the dark as we wait for patches of momentary lighting.

“Speak up for yourself too, promise? Don’t stand by and let other treat you unfairly. No one can make you feel bad without your permission.”

She nods and falls asleep in a while, her face relaxing into a sleepy haze, her hair spread out over her garish pink pillow.

I hug her for a bit longer the next day when I drop her off at school. I stay in the car and watch her walk across the schoolyard, with her oversized blazer and her lopsided hat, her viola case.

As I watch her walk past the junior school classroom, a little person who can be no more than five years old flings herself at A and squeals in delight. I watch as A puts down her viola case and scoops her little friend up and is promptly bathed in hugs and giggles. I leave them like that, Miss A and the little one who looks safe and snug and warm in her arms.

The other thing about being a parent is that no one tells you when to expect brilliant light in your world.  No one tells you that sunlight arrives without warning or annoucements after nights full of monsters under the beds.

And yet, it is the sad stories that teach you to look for happy beginnings.  That is all we need to know.

We are so resilient that way, all we need to do is remember.


Word Stains

It is a sheet of lined paper, folded and refolded many times, the questions a squiggle, the space for the answers stringent and economic.

“You need to fill it in by hand,” she tells me. “And use your best handwriting. I could get points for this.”

So, I sit down after dinner and fill in my feedback about Miss A’s learning portfolio. Half an hour later, I have a document that looks a lot like my journal entries from the engineering days. There is, on this itsy-bitsy paper, a need to say and do the right things, there is a need to dot the “i”s and leave plenty of margins. The “g”s are perfectly looped, there is a smidgen of space between the paragraphs, the capital letters are imposing and grand with their curves.

It is like my handwriting of yore,  when words were solid and pebble-like, thick entities that dug their feet into the paper and stood there with bravado, looking you in the eye. Even if you did strike them out, there was a whiff of their presence, sulky ghosts that peeped out at you from behind the lines that beheaded them. The words then were for the long term – they did not cease to exist in their entirety because of a few, fast-tapped, frivolous backspace key strokes. Things were more permanent when the world was younger, when I was a child.

“You don’t write like that, anymore,” Miss A says.

I don’t. I can retract my words now, I am an adult. I understand that words and promises can break and disappear and that there is always a clean slate around the corner. I can say what I want to because when you grow up, your vocabulary grows with you and you learn words like disclaimers and fine-print and clauses that can be summoned when it is time to shatter truths. You can say you never meant what you said, you can forget the pen-strokes and you can reach for the eraser before reaching for the pen.

And yet, here on the paper that my daughter will take to school, alive and present, a clunky yet clear truth emerges in this collection of words that came as my first choice – no edits and no corrections, no afterthoughts, just honest writing with a borrowed pen. This page, she tells me, will be filed into her portfolio and it will come home at the end of the term. I will look at it then and wonder if I should have said something differently, if I should have been more verbose in my praise or less subtle with my criticism. But this, here and now, is a time capsule. And time, that unctuous thief is the only honest one out of all of us.

“I used to write like that all the time,” I say. “Once.”

Once. In another time. A girl with ink stains on her hands and endless  reams of clean paper. Once. When words were supposedly forever.

“You should start again,” she says. And then, with a wink, “I have tonnes of cursive writing you could do for me, Mum.”

“They would be my words then,” I say. “Not yours. And you need your own pages, you cannot borrow mine. And I cannot borrow yours. We have to write our own stories.”

“You were someone else, once,” she says.

And I was.

And so were the words.

And now it is all strange and clinical and precise and there are no ink stains on my fingers.