"Today is my sad day," stated Lauren, in a matter of fact tone.
I work with many children who have superior language skills. Often, those language skills outpace motor expression and emotional coping ability. Sometimes doctors or psychologists call it a non-verbal learning problem or sometimes they will label it Asperger's Syndrome if the child has other behavioral quirks. Either way, I am accustomed to hearing kids say things to me that would take the average listener off guard.
Lauren was a quick-witted and confident child with uneven red bangs from her own attempts at hair-styling. Besides those bangs she had long tangled curls cascading down her back because she could not stand having her hair brushed. Lauren had a habit of curling and twisting her hair in her hands, contributing to the tangles. The mom intended to cut her hair to her shoulders but Lauren bargained herself a delay because she wanted long hair and also because she had the ability to perform verbal calisthenics and get things that she wanted.
I was seeing her because she had attention problems and some motor delays. I know better than to respond too quickly, so I let her comment sink in a moment. "What do you mean that 'Today is your sad day?"
She reached into her backpack and pulled out a picture, directing it under my nose in a way that made me have to move my head back in order to focus.
"Today is the day that my dad died."
This was another one of those moments that you can never really be prepared for, because what do you say to a child that waves that information right under your nose?
It was an older picture with a deep fold down one side. It was a picture of a baby, supported in her father’s arms, who seemed to be reflexively lifting her head to look at the other people surrounding her. The baby had red hair; I imagine that it was probably as red as her father’s was when he was her age. Now his hair was light brown. As the baby looked at the strangers her dad teased the small curls in her hair with his fingers.
"This is a picture of me and my Dad." I knew that Lauren's dad died when she was a baby - her mom mentioned it to me during our first interview. I started considering the pieces of the information that Lauren was giving me, and the implications of her statements started to fit together.
I stared at the picture and I thought how beautiful it was. That dad loved his daughter. Maybe his own parents held him the same way. How else could he so effortlessly and perfectly hold his own daughter? It was a perfect picture.
"My mom told me that I used to be really fussy and all I had to do to calm down was let my dad hold me."
I thought that was kind of funny, because little Lauren perceived her own intrinsic sense of control extending back to her infancy, as if she was letting her father hold her. Her personality was so ingrained and she was only eight years old. That made me smile.
"My mom told me that I would let my dad hold me on his chest and that would always make me close my eyes. He would close his eyes, and I would close my eyes, and I would just listen to his heart beating and beating. Sometimes I think I can still hear it, like when I am going to sleep and if I put my head on my pillow in a certain way. Mom said that I am hearing my own heart, but I think I am hearing something else."
I stared at the picture that Lauren held in front of me as she talked and talked. I imagined that it was his intention to remember this story himself twenty years after the picture was taken, and that she would not. Instead she was developing a narrative of the event and she was doing the remembering.
Death does that, I guess. It takes the natural order of things and turns it all upside down. Lauren now carried the memories that her father intended to have.
The story is now created and reinforced with the help of her mom. It was originally supposed to be a love story that her dad had toward her. What remains is a sense of love, but it is not the original love itself - because she only knows the story. For Lauren that will have to be enough.
I thought about her uneven bangs, and her desire for long hair, and her ingrained habit of tangling it all together. Then my perception shifted and I saw Lauren as a young woman, with long red hair that she would twirl wistfully with her own fingers. I imagined her sitting and twirling her hair and dreaming about what it would be like to be loved.
She will understand that her father loved her, but she will know how that
love was shown through a shared and reconstructed story that will be as real as remembering the event herself. Even on the sad days.