Our kind of normal

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I’m heartbroken. Not over a romantic relationship. I’m married and after twenty years our arguments are generally of the more mundane kind. Not the big old heartbreak, crying and wailing into the pillow kind. They ignite slowly. The way arguments in marriages do. Why has hubby stopped loading the dishwasher? Why is wife not instantly in the mood after kids are in bed? One of us knows we should stop but we don’t. We carry on jumping on the branch, willing it to break.

Then the branch snaps. Usually at 8.30pm on a Monday, the one-day of the week when no solace can be found in the half bottle of Pinot leftover on the kitchen bench. The wine got drank the night before and hubby says he’s going to bed. He’ll sleep and I’ll have a restless night and then the next morning one of us will say we’re sorry. We’ll hug, kiss and all will be okay again. No. My heartbreak hasn’t come from my marriage. My heartbreak has come from my eldest boy.

He doesn’t know he’s caused it. For him, it’s life as usual. A constant merry go round of school, handball, Pokémon, guitar, scooter, beach, school and more handball. But for my husband and I, the dreams we had for him, the moment we looked into his beautiful, I’ve been here before so don’t mess with me brown eyes, seem to have crumbled. We found out last November he’s on the Autism spectrum. High functioning – a mild to moderate case. The week after we found out, I lay on our bed and couldn’t move. I was weighted down by all I thought he would be, and all the things I now knew he wouldn’t.

We’re very lucky, I know. He isn’t sick. He goes to school. He sleeps. Things could be a lot worse. Since his diagnosis we’ve had all kinds of opinions. ‘It’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything.’ ‘There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him.’ ‘Isn’t every kid a bit autistic these days?’ ‘I’m sure he’ll grown out of it.’ All these have been said by people not meaning to hurt and with our best intentions. But it still does.

He can participate in band and karate. He can make his own scrambled eggs and finishes 200 page novels in one night, but there are many things he struggles with and may continue to struggle with his whole life. His natural tendency to get angry and lash out in anger, his need to control every situation, to play by his rules, to not know when somebody is upset or needs help, or likes him or dislikes him. How he sometimes runs around making funny, strange noises and how this lack of control panics the hell out of us. His inability to relax or to hold a pen properly or write in a straight line. His lack of imagination, his lack of empathy and his fixation with saying the same thing again and again.

I used to worry about him not eating enough greens. Now, I don’t care if he never eats another bloody piece of broccoli again. My new worry is that he may never be able to have a relationship. That he may never fall in love. That he’ll always expect everything to go his way. My mind is full with scenarios of will he be able to look after himself? Hold down a job? Pay bills? Travel? Laugh with friends? Will he have any friends?

As somebody with too much empathy and way too much imagination, it hurts that I fail to see any of this in my own son. The past six months have been about learning to communicate with him in the way that works best for him. Not us. And our biggest lesson is we should have been doing this all along.

We’ve both struggled with the fact we have a kid who’s different. But what’s different? Albert Einstein said,

‘A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?’

He may be the 1:100 whose brain is wired differently. But say it was the other way round? Say his way was the norm, and my big picture, over-loving, hate losing, heart on my sleeve brainio was alien to everybody around me. Just because he’s different to us, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with him. In 2001, Dr. Laurent Mottron wrote in the journal Nature,

‘Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear.’

He went on to say that people on the spectrum have better memories, and often outperform others in non-verbal intelligence tests. Our experience of him certainly reflects this. He never gives up. He’s determined and 100% black and white. A trait of many successful people in business. A new character with autism has joined Sesame Street and there’s even an autistic Power Ranger called ‘Billy the Blue Ranger.’

Reading this has slightly allayed our fears but we’re also aware he’ll need us to be there for him his whole life. And this is okay. This is no different to any other parent and child. To my husband and I, he’s just who he was meant to be. He is our normal.

Sometimes when the worry feels like it’s going to overwhelm me, I turn the volume right up in the car and play ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy. Try it. A remedy I truly recommend. Also, it’s been a few months since I commented on the state of dishwasher. Could be the perfect time.

 

 

 

 

We’re All Made of Each Other

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A few factors made up my decision to sign up to DNA testing with Ancestry.com – the test was on sale, it was past 10pm and I’d finished off my second glass of red (the perfect trifecta of conditions for whipping out the credit card late at night)

There was also my long held fantasy to consider – the one where at some point on this writing journey (due to my Grandma having the maiden name of Joyce) I discover I’m a distant relative of James. Yes, my daydreaming does involve book blurbs that read ‘the new bestseller from the 20 times removed cousin of James Joyce.’ Come on…I need something to give me hope when the blank page stares back at me.

So, I decided to give it a go. A small plastic tube arrived in the post. I deposited my saliva into it, gave it a shake to mix it with the magic blue liquid contained within, and posted it back. Six weeks later and voila – an email titled: ‘Your Results Are In’ popped into my inbox.

I hovered my finger over it for 30 seconds or so. With one click, the history of my family, generation-after-generation would be revealed. Laid out, rolling backwards through time – all those connected to me, who’ve come before me, and have made me who I am. All who have made my children who they are…and maybe…James could be in there somewhere.

Until this moment, if anybody asked me, I would have said I was completely 100% British, with English ancestors dating back on the family tree time immemorial. My memories of this English upbringing come in flashes of winter sun, and feet crunching on frozen hard mud and icy puddles. Summers spent walking in fields, counting the rings on fallen trees with my sister, collecting acorns, and my mum pointing out the ridge and furrow fields created by Medieval farmers.

One of my favourite childhood games was spending hours digging with a spoon at the bottom of the garden, trying to find Roman remains in the vegetable patch, and my first realisation of lives lived before mine. Learning how to swim in chlorine and verruca-plaster infused swimming pools, “no kissing” signs and a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch from the vending machine on the way out. Of Christmas mornings, snowmen, and sledging in Bradgate Park, strawberry picking and the local airshow in summer.

The work my Grandparents did reflects the backbone of the British working class. Both of my Grandmother’s worked in factories – one in a knitting machine factory during the war and the other putting together circuit boards. My Grandfather was an Engineer – a lathe operative, and my other Grandpa was in the RAF. He maintained fake airbases – pushed pretend Spitfires across airfields so the Germans would bomb them instead of the real thing.  He went on to work as a coal miner – and lost the tips of a few fingers in the process. Their history and their stories, to me have always been completely British.

Nobody in our family has ever talked about the possibility we could be from anywhere else – that our family would ever come from anywhere else. But, as science and technology becomes more accessible this doesn’t have to be the case any longer. We can find out anything – so this is exactly what I did.

One tap and I discovered this – I’m 49% Scandinavian. I scrolled down further to find out I’m also 20% Irish (yes, James!) with traces of Italian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, European Jew, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish, and Western European and then… scraping in at the end…British. Yep…I’m only 10% British.

So half of my former English self is from Sweden, Denmark or Norway.

So my DNA is perhaps why I’ve always loved the taste of dill and pickled herring…or it could be the reason I’ve a weakness for dark haired men with an accent. My Englishness is suddenly a lot more exciting. I’m imagining Viking ancestors crossing the sea to raid monasteries and towns in Northern England, and maybe, with the Italian connection, a part of me is Roman after all?

I’ve had a week or so to contemplate what I’ve learnt. And this is it. We’re all made of each other. We separate ourselves with borders and immigration, but, in the end, we’re all connected. The Olympics is one way we celebrate our togetherness but unfortunately, with Brexit, and the awful plight of refugees with no country to call home, this is how we push ourselves further apart.

Wherever we come from…whatever religion we believe in…and whatever language we speak…it’s a mixing pot and we’re all a part of it.

We are all without borders.

We are all made of each other.

James Joyce wrote in Ulysses,

‘A nation is the same people living in the same place.’

It’s a good job I discovered we’re not related after all, as I’m going to have to disagree with him on this one. I’m more inclined to go with the words of H.G. Wells.

‘Our true nationality is mankind.’

Tick…Tock

 

 

July 2007. This time, nine years ago, I was pregnant for the first time after our first round of IVF. After three years of trying every natural therapy we could get our hands on, we’d done it. There, that wasn’t so hard I thought, and I literally skipped back to the office after the lunchtime phone-call to say ‘it had worked.’ By the time I was on the bus home, I was already in the midst of working out my due date, planning my baby shower and thinking about what colour to paint our spare room, which would now become the nursery.

August 2007. Hubby and I took an hour off work and met up at Sydney IVF on Kent Street for our 8-week scan. I’d been feeling great, not tired, no morning sickness – just ravenously hungry, constantly. Surely a good sign everything would be ok. We swanned in, smiled at the receptionist, flicked through magazines and waited to see our baby for the first time. I jumped slightly when the sonographer applied the gel, the sensation similar to an ice block being swirled in a figure of eight around my bellybutton. But we were all relaxed and looked at the screen in anticipation of the blurry image soon to appear. Within the first 30 seconds, I knew something was wrong. She didn’t say anything and I gripped hubby’s hand tight.

‘Please hold on a moment. I need to get my supervisor,’ she said.

All I remember when she returned is being helped up off the bed, my legs no longer could support my body, and my stomach, brain and heart seemed on the verge of a major explosion. My tears dripped onto the linoleum floor and hubby helped me stand. They ushered us towards a room, reserved for moments such as this, away from all the other expectant couples in reception. I sat still, sobbing into a growing bunch of tissues and I cursed, my earlier, smug self. This was hard. This was going to be very hard.

July 2016. I watch my two boys – now six and nearly eight, playing their new, nightly game in the bath. Oh yes – the game is ‘who can kick each other in the nuts, the hardest.’ Such fun. I think back to those years when my whole being yearned for a baby. At times like this; when I have to pull them apart, so no real long-term damage is done, when a play wrestle on the floor turns into a full-on fight, and when they do a hundred laps of the kitchen before 7am in an attempt to burn off all their endless energy – I think about those days when I sobbed in the toilet at work. When, all around, all I saw were pregnant women, or new mums pushing prams and how I was convinced it would never be me. But that’s the funny thing about time. We never think the time we’re in now, is going to end. We never think about the next chapter. I assume my boys will be six and eight, and we’ll be a family, living in our house to the end of my days. In the same way, nine years ago, I assumed I was never going to have a baby.

Mindfulness – the art of being in the now, has latched onto this in recent years. I’m not really one for fads, and they’re certainly onto something, but it’s not easy is it? We all have moments when we’ve prayed for time to speed up. Exams, bad dates and bad hangovers, long haul flights and pointless bureaucratic queues (don’t get me started on our local council office) but then, there are those once in a lifetime moments – when you want to repeat the whole thing again, when you want time to crawl on by… very…very slowly and maybe miss you altogether. The moments you daydream about, for weeks, months, and years after they occur. Landing in a new city for the first time, a belly laugh with a new friend, your wedding day, the last time you saw someone you loved, the first time you kissed someone you love, the birth of your children, their first words or when you won something (even if it was the egg and spoon race when you were 5 years old). Time stopped and implanted the memory in your head. It’s something that’ll hopefully stay there for you to pull out, look at and enjoy, in full on movie quality until you’re very old.

Time seems pressed on fast-forward. My dad turns 70 next January – surely his 50th was only a few years ago? A friend’s mother-in-law doesn’t want to leave her home and go into care. Well, would you? I’m noticing mothers and babies again, from school pick-up to groups clustered in the park. They hold and protect these tiny people, and my chest aches in the memory of cuddling my own boys. My trips to the hairdressers have increased, blond hair disguises many a white random hair but the random hairs are becoming more frequent. My oldest boy, yesterday, sat on the sofa and read a book, by himself, for half-hour. A miracle, but also a sign, he’s growing up. I’m trying to wallow more, in this thing called ‘time.’ The memory of everything: the IVF, my parent’s divorce, moving to London, moving to Australia, the death of my first boyfriend, becoming best friends with my sister, meeting my husband, climbing Machu Picchu. Whatever it was. Whatever it is. This is it. This is all we’ve got. So, today, it’s 12.16pm. I can see two girls outside this window, arm-in-arm, laughing and walking, the sky is bright blue with no clouds, the air conditioning in the library is humming, a man just sniffed, and a lady next to me is wearing really cool, huge, bright red earphones.

And, as always, Dr. Seuss is spot on.

‘How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon.

December is here before its June.

My goodness. How the time has flewn.

How did it get so late so soon?

I Wanna Be Like You

When I was thirteen years old, I was involved in a threesome. There was me, with my hair-sprayed to death, short, blond, spiky hair dressed in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt – and there was Sarah and Jane (creative licence deployed with regard to names). Sarah was the ringleader of the group. She styled her hair in the same vein as Madonna on her True Blue album cover, and had the uncanny ability to make her school uniform rock. It could have been the way she wore her off-kilter tie or how she pushed down her socks, so they hung nonchalantly at her ankles. Sarah wore makeup. Well, when I say she wore makeup, I really mean, the makeup wore her. But despite this, to me, she was my idol.

I’d gaze in wonderlust as she applied layer-upon-layer of Rimmel Alabaster foundation, and ringed her eyes with smudgy black eyeliner. Sarah was the pivot in which Jane and I constantly moved. Circling at all times, eager to be her favourite and eager to make her laugh. Even being in Sarah’s air felt kind of special. Like if you breathed it in, you’d suddenly be more attractive and more confident.

This odd fragment of a friendship survived for three years. During this time, my emotions regularly alternated between skyrocketing euphoria, and then, plunged to the staggering depths of despair. It must have been exhausting, and this combined with the onset of puberty – it sure wasn’t pretty. Sarah would only give us her attention, one at a time. If I was the lucky one, Jane was the unlucky one. Sarah was my addiction, before I even knew what addiction was. I never spoke to Jane about how she felt about all of this. Jane tried hard to back comb, and spray her long, brown hair in an effort to match the Eiffel Tower, Sarah, miraculously erected on her own head every morning. But she could never do it. By the time the 9am bell rang, Jane’s hair had flopped, and hung over her eyes. In my own desperation to be like Sarah, I would mimic her expressions, but stopped the day she caught me out.

‘Are you trying to sound like me?’ she asked.

We were stood at the end of her driveway and Jane and I had just watched her slowly saunter across six lanes of traffic and back. The winner was the girl who gained the most beeps from passing cars. You can guess. The game was Sarah’s idea.

‘No…cause not,’ I managed to splutter out whilst gaining a new interest in the scuff marks at the end of my too tight, pointed black slip-on shoes (I had severe paranoia at the time about the size of my feet, and squashed them into shoes at least two sizes too small).

‘Your turn then,’ she said with the obligatory hand on hip. ‘You’ll never get more than me.’

She was right. I didn’t.

The truth was, Jane and I had more in common and got on better when Sarah wasn’t around. If Sarah was off school for the day, we hung out and chatted and there was, I’m sure, secret relief that for one day we could be ourselves. We had nobody to impress.

The end of this threesome wasn’t dramatic at all. My recollection is that Sarah left school at sixteen, maybe to work in her Dad’s business. Jane and I went onto the Sixth Form, made new friends and I woke up from my slumber and realised that I deserved to be treated better.

I was thinking about this time the other day, in relation to how we make friends now. It’s still as complex and at times can still be as heartbreaking. We’re adults – but sometimes we don’t grow up as much as we like and we find ourselves negotiating this tricky terrain in the same awful way we did as teenagers. The tangle and politics of people’s lives, commitments to family, stress at work, promises to siblings and parents and how our time is pulled every which way. It’s astounding how we even have time to maintain friendships, let alone make new ones.

In the past few years, I’ve succeeded and lost at this friendship game. There are my stalwart friends. They’re the ones, whether they live in the next suburb, or on the other side of the world who will remain in my life until the very end. I love them. They’re like family. Then, there was the person I was a friend with for a longtime, who simply ceased all communication and it gutted me. In comparison, as my two boys have started school, I’ve made, as Bill & Ted would say some, ‘Most excellent,’ new friends. They get me. We’re kind to each other and we make each other laugh. We can be ourselves.

Isn’t this the most important thing of all?

 

 

Why I’ll miss a man I didn’t know.

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I have listened to Purple Rain by Prince about 10 times a day for 40 days.

Now, my eldest son has had enough.

‘Mummmm…turn it off,’ he whined yesterday with his hands over his ears.

That’s 400 times…I suppose he has a point.

‘I like it.  I love purple,’ said my youngest.  Bonus points to him.

But, despite the moaning from the backseat as we drive around Sydney, I can’t stop listening. There’s something about the lyrics and the pure emotion of this song that won’t let me go.

I’ve been on a Prince drought for a long time.  The last time I saw him perform was at Wembley Arena in 1996 and CDs that I bought a… (I can’t tell you exactly when…let’s just say more than 10…less than 20) years ago have been on the shelf with all our other CDs, covered in dust.  I tried to play Diamonds and Pearls on the day I heard about his death, in a desperate attempt to listen to him, to listen to anything by him.

I searched for our CD player and then remembered it went out with the council clean-up in circa 2005.  So, into the Mac this CD thing went.  The Mac whirred, the rainbow wheel turned and turned and then…plah, it spat it out.

My eldest picked it up, turned it in his greasy fingers and asked,

‘What is this mum?’  I groaned.

So what next? Oh yes, Spotify.  Prince must be on Spotify. 20 seconds later I discovered Prince isn’t on Spotify.  After Googling the reason: he disagreed about royalties apparently.  Fair enough. So back to ITunes.  I was manic now.  Salvation.  Hallelujah. Prince’s Greatest Hits. $14.99. I’m in.

When Doves Cry began.  I sat still and listened and realised I was in a place where I was grieving for a man I didn’t know.

Purple Rain.  I’ve no idea what this song is about but it connects to me. It makes me want to laugh, sob and shout out all at the same time and I don’t know why. But that doesn’t matter.

His stylist, Michaela Angela Davis said, ‘Every song was either a prayer or foreplay.’ And every song was. Listen to the lyrics of When Doves Cry. If they don’t turn you on…well… courtyards, trembling, the ocean, sweat and animals…it’s all there.

His music grows with you. Surely that’s the aim of every artist.  Prince did that and I’ll miss him.

 

For my friend Karen P-T x