June 13, 2011

Mermaid soul

S by Citizen Rob
S, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
We are at the pool, and Schuyler is swimming.

If today were a Saturday or a Sunday, the place would be crowded, mostly with brash teenagers loudly claiming their territory. But it's late, just before sundown so the heat is ever-so-slightly less oppressive, and it's a Monday. We almost have the pool to ourselves.

Schuyler swims. Julie and I don't, not today, although one or the other of us usually will. Julie has just gotten home from work, a job she likes but which is sometimes more stressful than it should be. When she's home, Julie has the weight of the world on her shoulders, sometimes money and sometimes her health or mine but mostly the constant consideration and work and concern for her broken little girl. She shouldn't require decompression after work, but fairness isn't a right and that's just that. Today was a good day; Julie doesn't swim but instead soaks up the last bit of sun. I sit beside the pool as well, reading a book. This happens much less often than I care to admit, to my shame.

Schuyler swims, mostly alone. Something has changed since last summer, seemingly at once. Schuyler has always seemed fearless, but the truth is that until this summer, she was never entirely comfortable in the water. In the past, she loved to swim, but always with a hand close to the edge. The moments when she went underwater were always followed by a few sputtering seconds of recovery, hands flapping and panic in her eyes. Last summer saw some improvement, but still. There were Issues.

This summer has been different, and without transition. The first moment she jumped into the pool, she was entirely comfortable, and fearless. Now she leaps from the high walls around the edge with abandon, in a position resembling nothing so much as a jumping spider, pouncing on its prey in tv slow motion. She spends as much time underwater as her lungs can handle. When she swims, she keeps her legs together and does what Julie calls a dolphin kick but which looks to me exactly like the mermaids she loves.

After years of trying, Schuyler has found her mermaid soul.

There is another person in the pool, a shy little boy maybe a year or two younger than Schuyler. His grandmother watches him and tries to convince him to talk to Schuyler. Schuyler is all for this plan as well and invades his space with enthusiasm, but the boy is hesitant. We've seen it before, often when Schuyler is paired with autistic children in school or at conferences. For kids who are timid or who have social anxieties, Schuyler is kryptonite. She is a shy kid's devil.

The grandmother asks questions, but of course the pool is a place of vulnerability for Schuyler, without her speech device to answer for her. Schuyler wants to give her name, but she can't, and really, it doesn't seem to matter to the boy. He doesn't want to be left alone, exactly; as Schuyler swims and plays, he approaches her slowly, fascinated but confused by her, which puts him in league with basically the whole world, myself included.

Julie and I could get up and walk around the pool to be near the grandmother. We could make ourselves available to answer her questions, the ones she has been shouting to Schuyler in the fleeting moments that her head is above water. But we don't. We don't even discuss it; it's not a team snub. When we discuss it later, we discover that we were on the same page. Maybe we came across as impolite. Perhaps we actually were rude. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've intentionally chosen to be chilly to someone, and not even in response to some perceived slight. The grandmother didn't do anything wrong, and yet we both chose to let her sit in her own confusion rather then enlighten her as to Schuyler's... schuylerness.

It's not something I can complain about, because I've clearly made something of a career out of it in recent years, but we don't always feel like we need to explain Schuyler. I've been more aware of it recently as I've been reading Jean Vanier and Ian Brown. We've spent so much time and energy trying to integrate Schuyler, and it's always been something that she has wanted. To fit in, to make her way in the typical world, these have been Schuyler's dreams, more hers if possible than ours, even. The fact that we've been unable to do that in some significant ways feels like one of the areas in which I have failed her the most. There's a lot I've gotten wrong with Schuyler, but perhaps my attempts to help her "pass" are the greatest. I'm no longer confident that it was ever the right thing to do, although she has certainly worked hard to make it happen, the thing she's wanted more than anything else in the world. She's always been Pinocchio, but there's never been much of a Blue Fairy to help her.

But lately, I've thought a great deal about Schuyler's right to exist on her own terms, without the pressure of a world in which she almost fits, but never completely does. I'm not talking about giving up on integration, certainly not in school, but at times like this, sitting by the pool and watching her swim like a sea creature, totally in her element, I understand that Schuyler doesn't need to fit. She doesn't need to talk, and we don't need to explain why she does what she does and can't do what she can't do. She only needs to swim, and we only need to watch, quietly and with something very much like peace.

Schuyler finally figures out how to reach the boy. She climbs out of the pool and up onto the wall, and she leaps fearlessly into the water, splashing down in her angry crab position. She swims to the surface and then points to him, a gauntlet playfully laid down. He smiles, maybe for the first time since she noisily entered his world, and then he climbs out of the pool and takes his place on the wall. He cannonballs into the water, and when he breaks the surface, he hears Schuyler clapping for him.

And that's it. Whatever connection they've been looking for has been made. The wordless girl and the shy boy take turns leaping from the wall. When they take the air, their anxieties remain behind them. They don't know each other's names or what grades they are in or any of the other questions that the grandmother tried to ask. They're not here to talk. They're here to swim.

When we leave, they wave to each other. "See you tomorrow," she says, although I have no idea if he understands her. I suspect he might.


Shasta said...

A wonderful post, thank you. I can totally understand your feelings of not feeling the need to point out Schuyler's schuylerness at that moment — it wasn't at all necessary, just as it wasn't necessary for you to ask that typical little boy a bunch of questions.
This was a good lesson for me as I look to my son's future. I worry a lot about what people will say as he and his twin move through life, but I know that sometimes the best thing will be not to say anything at all.

Elizabeth said...

The mermaid soul -- what a beautiful story. Here's to a lasting friendship --

I, too, have a mermaid, although she doesn't swim, she is drawn to the ocean as if she belonged there. And by the ocean, she has hardly any seizures --

Erica said...

Hi, I cant remember who linked your blog, but the moment I read it I became a follower. This latest post has me in tears. My daughter has Rett syndrome and cannot speak. There have been so many moments like this for us. Thank you for putting in to words why an explanation isnt always necessary. This, like all your posts, was beautiful!
thank you
Erica Robertson

C said...

Lovely, Rob. I've found myself leaning this direction more and more, lately. Your words are beautiful and so is your mermaid.

Kim said...

How fun for her. I bet she's great with little kids.

I was thinking too - if Schuyler wanted an interpreter, she's at the age where I'd imagine she'd ask you to help her. She seems like a pretty smart kid. :)

Julia O'C said...

Beautiful post.

Sometimes I don't bother to explain my son because *I* feel like blending in and being normal that day. Thanks for making me feel a whole lot less guilty about that. Now I'll think of it as just Emmett be Emmett on his own terms.

Donna said...

I stumbled onto your blog -just wanted to say what a wonderful post.

Kizz said...

When my friend, R, turned 7 she wanted to march in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade so we did. And we've marched every year since. This Saturday it'll be in celebration of her 10th birthday and we're going to be ghost mermaids. I wish you three could join us.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time to consider . . . oh please don't get mad, I know you had good reasons not to do this . . . but maybe reconsider signing?


KAL said...

Such a lovely post.

Robert Hudson said...

All the impediments to signing are still there, that hasn't changed. And she does sign as much as she can. Not being deaf and not being in a deaf community, she basically signs for us alone.

Niksmom said...

Lovely. Truly lovely.

Claire said...

But Rhondamine,

Schuyler (pretending she could physically do it) could sign up a storm and if your communication partner (the little shy boy and his grandmother) don't know sign, it would be as useful as her knowing Chinese in this situation. The little pantomime and non-verbal communication that they did was enough for a connection.

When I was a teacher my students used AAC boards or devices and usually had a sign or two (bathroom, no, yes, more) but beyond that what is the point if the lady you are asking where is the bathroom doesn't know sign?

This story was wonderful. I fully agree that you two were fine sitting where you were. If for some reason she wants to communicate more with the boy and grandma down the road you could probably print a communication board or two and seal them up in a page protector for the pool. But I don't think that is necessary until she wants it.

Penny said...

I am in a place similar to yours. My daughter is different - she has her own isms - yet I am learning to stay back, stay quiet, because I was creating a kind of learned helplessness for my girl with my "helpfulness". The less I do, even clarifications with adults on the sidelines of the pool, the more she shows she can do for herself. I am a work in progress.

mattcindy99 said...

I also follow your posts...and just cannot believe how you put into words exactly how I feel! :)

Although i didn't realize I wanted it- I feel like reading your blogs has "validated" my own feelings. I think knowing there's someone else (many in fact) who often share my exact emotions.

Somehow this is comforting and inspiring- gives me that feeling of power to forge ahead for my wordless daughter!!
thank you!
Happy summer!

mattcindy99 said...

I have also followed your blogs- they really are terrific. I am just amazed at how you put into words exactly how I feel! :)

I did not know I needed the "validation" of knowing there were others (many in fact) who share so many of my deep, complicated emotions.... but now that I know this- I read your blogs and instantly feel charged- validated.....

I thank you for sharing your stories, experiences and feelings- it's definitely given me added inspiration to forge ahead for my wordless, complicated daughter!
Happy sumnmer!

Loves Pickles said...

Good for you guys. The need to talk, explain, discuss, reason, intellectualize...this is something I've grown so weary of in our society. Every person should have the right to be left alone, to have their personal and family time, and it's something people seem to peg you as a freak for wanting. You should not feel like you have to explain things all the time, you should just be able to be.

Plus, who needs speech to communicate, anyway? It's overrated. I used to take the morning bus to work, and sometimes there would be a neighbor woman and her baby boy. I was fascinated by them because she barely spoke, (though I know she had both the ability to speak and to hear) or when she did, she whispered. It was a cultural difference, I'm sure, but it was so interesting how she was able to, with no words at all, soothe her baby and get him to settle down. When he would get fussy or cry, she would simply "tuck him in", and I know that might sound weird, but I know no other way to describe it. Using her hands she would just firmly tuck him or reposition him in the stroller, and she would look straight into his eyes as if to say, "Shush now, little one" kindly. It worked with such immediacy that it struck me as a brilliant parenting tool that more American parents should employ.

We're a culture of too much empty speech, and sometimes we overstep our bounds, mistakenly thinking that everything is our business. I wish more people would just let things be. If they'd use body language and intuition and empathy more often, they may be able to learn more than speech would ever give them.

Kathi said...

Rob, I am so grateful that you write! Honest to God I cry and I laugh. I especially enjoyed the printer incident. I relate so much to your journey as the mother of a child who does not speak. I also have gotten to that place of not explaining unless absolutely necessary. I cannot control it all anyway, and am usually pleasantly surprised at what happens when I don't intervene. Anyway, just dropping by to say I really appreciate your insight and humor in the middle of "it all."