We find ourselves at Chris’ sister Colette’s house for a long, leisurely afternoon of food and hanging out. Whenever we have the good fortune to be here, Chris and I settle in for some relaxation while the kids become pets, as in cherished favorites of Auntie Colette, Uncle Brian and Grandma Alton.
We eat an early dinner. The kids play hide and seek with Brian. They challenge him to a wrestling contest and win. Colette pulls out the photo albums and we all look though them with pleasure. As usual, I can’t tell baby pictures of my girls apart. I have to deduce to figure out if the photograph is KK or Annie. It’s nice to flip though photos and know that Colette holds the Alton family history in print, since most of our pictures live on the computer. Aunts come in handy, especially an aunt that sends you a mother’s day-slash-thank-you-for-giving-birth-to-my-nieces card once a year.
While Colette and I drink coffee around the table, we talk about Annie.
“She has changed so much in one year. She knows so much more than last year and is happy at school. She traced the entire alphabet the other day without any prompting from me. Last year I would have asked her to do that and she would have refused,” I say.
“She’s like a completely different child,” says Colette.
“A completely different child … what do you mean by that?” I ask. I am curious about her perspective.
“She wouldn’t even look at me when she was little.”
And I don’t really hear the rest of the list. I know Annie didn’t look people in the eye as a baby, a toddler, a preschooler ….. even last year, she was adept at looking way and turning off when she didn’t want to connect. But she always was herself, her full present self, for me. I recall how quiet she was as a baby. But at 18 months and onward, she became louder for us. Yes, speech was always an issue, but even though she wouldn’t talk at her way-too large preschool at age two, she always communicated with us. At the same time she was at the huge preschool she attended a preschool with just 6 to 9 other kids, depending on the day. And although it took her awhile to open up there, she did. The girl always hated crowds, loud noises, too many people. But she has changed, or adapted. When I ran into the assistant teacher a week ago, I asked how Annie is doing in kindergarten this year.
“Let me see,” she answered. “The first thing that comes to mind is her laughter. She participates more and is more social. Little Liam has a crush on her and they were giggling so much together that I had to move her to another chair.”
I ponder these thoughts as Colette continues.
“And you know why she is different and everything you are doing for her is making a difference? Because you pay attention. I worry about all those kids who don’t have someone paying attention,” she says.
Maybe it is as simple as that. We have thrown resource after resource at Annie. I know that I have always seen the girl Colette sees now; the one bouncing happily around her house. It took me a long time to notice that she shut down completely at lots of places and that people had no idea how to turn her back on. Because I can always turn her back on if she flips off. We get each other. We have each other’s backs. For every time I have helped her, she has helped me. “Mom, be kind.” “Mom, calm down.” “Mom, here I will give you a hug to feel better. Do you feel better?”Her presence has made me focus on how I can be present for her.
I know Annie’s growth, this girl who cracks jokes at school and knows more than half the alphabet and can count up to 10 easily, I know part of it is due to our diligence. The six tutoring sessions last year, the two tutoring sessions all summer long, this fall’s numerous tutoring sessions plus the many other things Chris and I do with her in mind are paying off. I also know she is unfolding just like any other child does, growing into her skin and into the world she lives in. I can’t give Chris and me all the credit. This opening up is why I was so hesitant to get extra help beyond speech therapy before last year. I am all for letting children learn at their own pace and in their own time and way. Unfold is the term I thought of often when I worried long before kindergarten smacked us upside the head last year. Unfold, girlfriend, any way you know how and exactly how you would like to unfold.
So it’s interesting to hear Colette praise us and to think about how I have always seen the girl at her best. Part of me loves how she controlled her environment by shutting down. Yes, this sounds weird, but how great to be able to modulate the world when it is not working for you. We all spend our lifetimes figuring out how to exist on this planet, in our own scenes. Annie knew how to be all by herself in a crowded room at a very young age. We all should be so lucky sometimes.