Friday, 11 April 2008

Define "all right"....

This has taken me several days to write. And it isn't very good.

I think I've mentioned this before, but the trouble with journals and diaries is that the keeping of them often involves writing down the sad stuff. I guess it's supposed to be more therapeutic, but often it only seems to make the pain more real. In the same (open) vein, I've been struggling to complete my yearly rundown and have run into a snag with last November, which featured a number of set-backs, failures, and heartbreaks.

Earlier in this past rather horrific week in April, I caught the tail-end of the movie Hilary and Jackie, the 1998 film about the DuPré sisters. Jacqueline, who went on to great fame as a cellist, eventually succumbed to a particularly nasty strain of multiple schlerosis, dying deaf, mute, and in pain. At the very end of the movie, she's an apparition, standing on a beach in the early 50's and telling her child-self: "It's going to be all right."

But it isn't. Just a tad later in that same rather horrific week, I strode up the hill to school with younger daughter, holding the words of "Ordinary Day" by Great Big Sea in my head and heart (I embedded a Doctor Who video to this song in my previous post): "At the end of the day, you just gotta say it's all right..." But it wasn't. Younger daughter was stressed out and more socially-challenged than usual. She was yelling at and physically pushing away her "guardian angel" each recess. She was refusing to join in at recorder practice. To top it off, the so-called student-led conferences were scheduled toward the end of the week, and after months of no homework assignments at all, they came tumbling down, like objects thrown to a juggler. The juggler being me, of course. A few balls got dropped... Here's an excerpt of an email that I finally got the courage to send to the principal and teaching staff: I must confess I've been in a state of bewilderment since last week's student-led conference. My husband and I arrived in (her) classroom at the appointed time, and it was almost as if we were unexpected guests. The other students were cheerfully showing off their portfolios, but hers was nowhere in sight. We killed time looking at photo displays, waiting for guidance, and not sure what to tell (our daughter). This was our seventh student-led conference, the third with (younger daughter), but no one seemed to have prepared (her) for what was expected this time. When the portfolio finally made its appearance, it had the oddest assortment of documents; some were assignments we had recognized from earlier in the year, but others utterly flummoxed us: a Xeroxed fairy tale written in language well below (her) reading ability; what we took to be a prototype of (her) locker shield, except most of the drawings weren't by (her) and it inexplicably had "Grade Three" written at the top; and a penguin project with Xeroxed references to Antarctica despite the fact that (younger daughter's) project appeared to be about penguins living in Australia. Our hearts sank. Is this portfolio reflective of (her) work this year? Perhaps (younger daughter) chose these things herself? The portfolio gave us the impression of a last-minute search to find things to put in it. We felt rather too dispirited to stay long and left at the earliest opportunity.

I didn't tell them that both younger daughter's teachers had approached us and said pleasant things about her that sounded like grasping at straws. I didn't tell them that as younger daughter waded through the contents of this strange portfolio, I was struggling with despair, grief, and the voice inside me wailing: "My God, they think she's an idiot!" And I certainly didn't tell them that I staggered home, turned on the computer, put the earphones on with the Proclaimers full blast and wept while sorting through my family history files.

That night, I took 3 "Sleep Relaxes", but woke at 2:30 in the morning in a sweat with the opening of "Sunshine on Leith" running through my mind: "My heart was broken --- sorrow, sorrow, sorrow...." The thing is, "Sunshine on Leith", isn't about despair; it's about redemption, and eventually, despite the snaggle-toothed gremlins of worry besetting me from the dark of the early morning hour and the steady ache of my knee which is still slowly recovering from the sideways split of a couple of weeks ago, I eventually felt myself relax into sleep. Younger daughter had speech therapy the next morning, so I telegraphed my distress to her speech therapist and had a quick conference while y.d. played with the dollhouse in the waiting room. By happy circumstance, the developmental psychologist who assessed younger daughter five years ago was making a rare office stop-in, and led me into an empty office for a few minutes of compassionate listening and some dashes of perspective. When I left, I was no longer feeling quite so wounded (or murderous). I still diplomatically avoided seeing the teaching staff when dropping younger daughter off at school. It wasn't until Sunday (after some heavy Doctor Who therapy) that I summoned the nerve to compose the above-quoted detailed email which ended with: So, to sum up: May I be allowed to email? May I have notice of incoming assignments? Is it possible to have a regular idea of what (my daughter) is expected to learn? It took seven minutes for the principal to respond. To each point: "Absolutely". He also said he was stunned. I wondered anxiously what I had said to stun him. The next day, I had quite a long impromptu conference with younger daughter's homeroom teacher, followed by an off-the-cuff offer to include her in an after-school ecology survey that afternoon, and, oh Gawd, a sudden increase in homework assignments. Clearly, we're going to have to go over Point Number Two again... Miraculously, over the weekend, younger daughter's extreme anxiety seemed to melt away. Due to my own relief? Reinstating her vitamin regimen? (We'd been running low.) Even after a run-in with a rather notorious class-member during recess that day, her words didn't desert her. The boy pointed at the picture of Cruella De Vil on her teeshirt and (according to the guardian angel) taunted her: "Are you mean?" "Not as mean as you are, Adam!" Of course, now her guardian angel is being accused of putting the words in her mouth. Younger daughter's classmates evidently think such a comeback is beyond her abilities. And "Adam" is on the warpath, referring to her as "stupid". Still. For once we have a confrontation that has a ring of assertiveness to it. Here's younger daughter's take on the incident:

The human condition seems to entail a lot of singing hopefully in the face of inevitable decline, whistling past the graveyard. Is it all right? Reason seems to say not, but reasonability isn't always the best way to survive the day. The late (really late, she only left us last year) Madeleine L'Engle struggled with the "all right" question in several of her books, but I remember in particular the passage from the closing of The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, one of her many auto-biographical works, this one about the her mother's final months. A year after her mother's death, Madeleine is putting her grandchildren to bed and is confronted by the theological in the shape of her grand-daughter: "But, Gran, is everything really all right? Really? It is completely cosmic questioning, coming from a small girl in a white nightgown with a toothbrush in her hand, sensing the unfamiliar surrounding the familiar. It is warm and light in the house, but the greater the radius of light, the wider the perimeter of darkness. . . . I must answer it for her, looking down at her serious, upturned face, and I can answer truthfully only if I have my feet planted very firmly on rock. I think of the warmth of the rock at the brook, and that I will never know more than a glimpse of the ousia of the small green frog --- or of my mother --- or of the two little girls --- and this is all right too. "Is it really all right?" Léna persists. "Yes, Léna, it is all right." This is all I can promise my daughters, knowing that "all right" is a really, really relative term. But the Proclaimers sing: "I thank Him for his work, for your birth and my birth.."
And I do. Because, otherwise, all this seems terribly pointless.


Rob said...

As the father of a fifteen-year old boy with (very mild) Asperger's Syndrome I can recall a few such dispiriting occasions. But now here he is, studying for his Standard Grades (the exams all Scottish kids do at his age) and doing really well in various musical and dramatic things. I'm beginning to think we're getting to "all right".

If the Proclaimers musical "Sunshine On Leith" comes to Ottawa you must see it. I blogged about it here.

Persephone said...

Rob, I'm so glad your son is getting "closer to fine". The challenge for me is remembering setbacks are often a symptom of progress. (Don't know if you experienced a similar phenomenon. The saying "If you've met one person on the spectrum ---- you've met one person on the spectrum" is one of the truest things spoken; there's such a broad range and a myriad of variables from Aspergers to HFA to PDD to classic autism.) This week I'm still dealing with the fallout of a communication breakdown with the school staff that was far more serious than I had thought, and I have to believe that the reason everyone is getting so emotional is because they care so much. As I said, when I get braver, I'll blog about it. Right now, I'm really looking forward to watching Doctor Who illegally on the Internet tomorrow...

I've commented on the Proclaimers' musical at your blog. I'm quite envious!