Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How to break a heart

Since Anna was in preschool she has been in class with a girl I’ll call Lilia. Lilia is not like other kids. Her mind and body don’t work the way we’d like them to. When I was growing up, we would have called her retarded, but that term has become tinged with the pejorative. Now we say developmentally disabled or cognitively challenged, but all of these terms just sound like such a mouthful to me and don’t seem to relate in any way to a child trying to feel her way through the world at age five or seven.

The kids aren’t quite sure what to make of Lilia. When she speaks, it’s difficult to understand her. And she’s a bit heavier than most kids her age. Some of them mock her. Most just ignore her. Except for Anna. Anna and Lilia became friends when they were four. I have watched this phenomenon with a mixture of pride and trepidation. Pride that my daughter could look beyond Lilia’s differences and trepidation at what might happen when the day came when she no longer would.

When I called Lilia’s mom last year to invite Lilia over for a play date, she seemed nervous. She had any number of excuses why it might not be a good idea. One by one, we discussed them until she relented. I don’t know if she was nervous about someone else having to deal with what could be a difficult-to-handle child or if, like me, she was looking into the future of their friendship and eyeing the handwriting on the wall.

In kindergarten the teachers loved Anna. They made her Lilia’s special helper. It was Anna’s job to remind her every hour to use the bathroom, because Lilia’s body didn’t give her those signals (this is how Anna explained it to me). They pulled me aside and told me how mature Anna was, though again, I was a little nervous about her wearing this label at such a young age.

Lilia returned Anna’s affection ten-fold. No. One-hundred-fold. When she saw Anna she shrieked with excitement and ran to her and engulfed her in a great bear hug. Anna bore it all good-naturedly, though you could tell she could do with a little less enthusiasm. And I, by extension, as mother-of-Anna, earned a special place in Lilia’s universe as well, eliciting slightly less fervent shrieks and hugs.

When Anna was at Karate Camp this past summer, she asked if she could invite Lilia on Bring-a-Friend Day. I explained to Anna that she might not be able to participate in the camp activities because her heart was not strong like the other kids, but after talking with Lilia’s mom and the camp leader, it was agreed she could come. They came up with some special activities that Lilia could participate in that wouldn’t overtax her heart.

When Anna went into 1st grade this year she and Lilia were in different classrooms. But they were reunited this week at Y-Care. Parents have gone back to work and school has not yet started, so Y-Care fills the gap. When I dropped Anna off on Tuesday Lilia ran to her and shrieked with excitement. Anna pulled back and hid behind me. I told Lilia she needed a little space and time to settle in. But last night when I asked Anna about it she told me she didn’t want to be around Lilia anymore. So this is it, I thought.

This morning, as we pulled up to Y-Care, Anna asked me if I would keep Lilia away from her. When I was in college I had a friend who I used to love to visit. One day she came home with a Labrador puppy, which grew into a large, wild, untrained dog of a puppy and every time I came over it would jump all over me and climb up on the couch and in my face and lick me and leave muddy paw prints on my jeans and scratch my arms with her unclipped nails and I finally just stopped going over to my friend’s house. I think this is something of what Anna was feeling.

When we came in Lilia shrieked and ran over to us and Anna hid behind me. Lilia looked confused.  Once again, I asked her to give Anna a little space while she was getting settled in. Another girl came over and said hello to Anna. Anna introduced her to me. Hello Jasmina, I said. She wore a pink jumper, resembled Obama’s youngest, and had a quick and mischievous air about her. No, she corrected me, it’s Yasmina, and she spelled it for me. Anna and Yasmina skirted off to the corner of the gym together, leaving me and Lilia behind.

I turned and squatted down to talk to Lilia. She was wearing several strands of mardi gras beads, on which I complimented her.  I asked her what she'd gotten for Christmas and she listed several items, none of which I understood. We taked about me taking Daniel to preschool next, since she was pointing at him and uttering something, and I told her she had on a killer t-shirt (she did). Finally, I stood up and told her I had to go. I started to leave but she reached out and grabbed me with both arms. She just held onto me, so I put my arms around her and held her back. Oh, sweet Lilia. The two instructors were sitting nearby and I noticed them watching us, a little quizzically, though smiling. Do you know her, one asked. Lilia? Yes, I know her. I stood back and gave her arms a squeeze. Goodbye Lilia. Take care love.

She watched me walk away and there was such devotion in her face.  I was unprepared for this. She should have been hurt, but she was only grateful.

As I walked toward to the door I saw Anna playing with her new friend, Yasmina the trim and sharp of mind. I waved to them and Anna looked up at me and I saw it in her face, too. Gratitude. Not a conspiratorial look. Just gratitude, pure and simple.

I had to turn and go. I took Daniel's hand and pulled him close. I could feel Lilia still watching me as I walked down the long hallway and through the door and out into the bitter, bitter cold.

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  1. children grow up and things change, as does life.
    it is what it is, despite what we would like it to be.
    hearts mend and life goes on.
    thanks for the story,
    love and fishey fishes,

  2. True Adora. Perhaps it broke my heart more than hers. Children are resilient.

  3. I've got a lump in my throat after reading that - well told.

  4. From our standpoint, unfortunately, Lilia will have a lifetime of "watching"...hopefully she will find her way!

    Anna was just being the child that she is..doing what feels right at the time...although I'm sure she doesn't think of it that way!

    It is difficult for many children growing does go on but often the smallest gesture or lack of stays with a child forever!


  5. Beautiful post, on a heartbreaking topic.

    That comment feels like it isn't enough and I know that, but I don't have any other words.

  6. My heart breaks for Lilia and all the children she represents. You have so poignantly captured the heartbreak and the hopelessness we feel.

    (I know you wrote this nearly 2 years ago - just enjoying some back post reading!).

  7. Thanks Deborah - you know what's interesting? Two years later they are back to being friends again. Who knew? :)


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