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The Fog Things by Helen Patrice
The thin brown nap of the faux velvet couch prickled beneath my bare legs. It was late summer, and I was making attempt 4596(approx.) to read a book to my son, David. David who was five and couldn’t both look at a book, and hear the words spoken at the same time. David, who had hearing aids. David, who entered autism at two and a half, and was still in its clutches. David, who had no words any more. They’d disappeared when autism walked into his mind.
His sister got books read to her. So, whether he was keen or not, David got books read to him. He sat in Thomas The Tank Engine short cotton pajamas, skinny legs sticking out of the pants. He swung one back and forth idly, and flexed the foot on the other. His feet hadn’t hardened up and thinned out like other kids his age. He still sported fat baby feet, and had the uncanny ability to roll his feet like a belly dancer’s undulating midriff. I called it ‘wavering’, and it was both the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen, and slightly nauseating.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked him, and tapped him on the foot. “Ow?”
He stared at me blankly with dark brown eyes, and raised both his fine eyebrows. His hairline did a funny quirk in the middle.
“No? Okay. Well. Let’s get on with our book.”
I read him ‘Mog and Bunny’ by Judith Kerr, one in a ten-book series about a fat cat called Mog, and his adventures. In this one, he had a little plush pink rabbit as his cuddle toy. Susie, David’s older sister, loved the book. She too was hearing impaired, and fondly called the book ‘Moh and Buggy’.
She was on the threadbare grey carpet, next to the huge wooden doll’s house her grandfather had built her. I don’t know why but all the dollies slept on the roof. Both kids had it that way. She was busy tucking them into their roof bedding, and ordering them to go to ‘leeb’. I wasn’t sure, between her orders, and my voice, that they’d be getting much ‘leeb’.
My ex husband was having a cup of tea at the kitchen table.
I pointed to the first page, where Mog sat with his Bunny.
“Mog,” I said.
“Mo-“ David replied, casual, as though he said words every day.
I schooled myself not to make a fuss. David’s echolalia was emerging. But it was sporadic and still something to get excited about. I had hope that echoing words would lead him to his eventually saying them by himself, and that would lead to sentences, and his autism would be a thing of the past. It was all I had to hang on to.
He made occasional approximations of words, but like most deaf people, consonants, particularly the soft s sh f t th h were missing. More often he copied intonation, but in his own language. He chatted to himself although it seemed more like he talked to someone I couldn’t see. His echolalia had him repeating words, but they had no meaning for him.
I pointed at Bunny. “Bunny.”
Susie looked up from her dolls.
“Mog and Bunny,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right. Bunny.” I pointed to myself. “Mummy.”
My heart sped up. “Susie.” I pointed to her.
“Daddy.” I pointed at my ex husband.
I patted the couch. “Couch.”
The tension in the room was high. We all sat in thrall to David’s words. Actual words, after two years of nothing.
“Light,” I said, pointing to the bald light bulb above us.
“David, book?” Susie said, pointing to Mog and Bunny.
My ex husband crouched down next to David. “Daddy?” He pointed to himself.
David beamed at all this attention. I shook. Susie was bright pink. My ex husband’s eyes were hopeful.
For six months, the image I’d fixed on to describe David’s mind was a pea souper fog in nineteenth century London. The sort of thing I watched in old Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies.
This night, the fog thinned, and I saw street lamps. There was still fog, but not as thick.
David repeated a few more words, then lost interest, and slid off the couch. There were trains to be played with, and his sister to interrupt.
Susie, my ex husband and I stared at each other.
“Daby alk,” Susie said. “Ib ee going do alk now?”
“I don’t know, sweetie,” I said. “I guess we’ll find out later.”
The next day, David was silent again. Whatever had prompted the fog to lift that night, and for us to see our old David again, it was gone. He went back to pointing with his eyes, sighing, and figuring I could read his mind.
The incident is still strong in my memory. When someone asks: “Has he always been non-verbal?” I slide around the question, wondering what to say. If it’s a casual question, and I don’t feel like going into the whole ‘he lost his language age two and half, and no, we don’t know why, maybe the Bad Fairies were angered’, I just say ‘yes, always’. It’s a lie. David was developing normal language, having gained hearing aids at five months of age. Then, over a six-week period, he stopped talking, and we lost our little boy to the cloud world of autism.
And while I’m lying about his language, I think about the night the fog lifted, and wonder if it will ever come again. Just three years ago, after twenty years of him not saying ‘Mum’ he suddenly called me upstairs to show me a rainbow. And I had to not fuss, because if I paid the miracle any attention, David would not say it again, because it was a good game with me, to deny me what I most wanted.
We get by with a combination of Auslan(Australian Sign Language) signs, Key Word Sign(modified Auslan), stick figure drawing, gestures, words(on my part), and a lot of pointing. I make choices simple for him: this or that.
But I can’t make him choose speech. The fog has lifted in many ways, but not in that one vital area. There’s a label to add to his growing pile of labels: language processing disorder. It’s a useful label for funding, and shorthand for some people who want to know what the deal is.
For me, it’s fog. And I’ll never been one hundred per cent happy ever again, taking a long walk on a foggy winter’s morning. Not when I know that in the mist somewhere are lamplights.
Helen Patrice is an Australian writer living in Melbourne. She is the sole author of two books of poetry: A Woman of Mars (Stanza Press), and Palaeontology for Beginners (Finnlady Press), and one of four poets in collaboration in She, Too. Helen's short work has appeared in numerous literary and genre journals in Australia and the USA, and is currently a columnist for the TravelnRavel website. She is working on a memoir called How The Light Gets In.