It’s been a while since my last post. The fairly predictable rhythm of life with Dylan has been interrupted by the arrival home of my daughter. Last month she became unwell in France, where she had been living since September, and following emergency surgery had to return to the UK. Receiving a phone call to say your child is in hospital, especially when they are hundreds of miles away, must be one of a parent’s worst nightmares. It has been a stressful time but happily my daughter is recovering.
I think Dylan is pleased too although it is more complicated for him. Although he has someone else to play ‘one potato, two potato’ with, Dylan has had to give up his video den so sister can have her room back. There has been a lot of baking since my daughter returned which Dylan approves of, but he has had to share his ‘moo-ey’ and not be first priority all the time. There have been fewer steam train trips and less wild walking at weekends and Dylan has missed these. He seems to like his sister joining us for cinema trips though. And I think he enjoys listening to our conversation – though at times the language gets too much. One day in the car, unable to hear the CD for my daughter and I chatting, Dylan reached across and nipped her.
There’s an excellent interview with the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie in the current issue of Poetry Review. I admire Jamie’s ability as an essayist as well as a poet and was particularly interested in her reflections on writing prose. Jamie does not think of her essays as ‘shrunken prose pieces’ but rather ‘extended poems’. Her essays, she says, come from the ‘poetry side’. The essay form, Jamie asserts, needs to be reclaimed from the academics to whom it was given over. For Jamie this involves downplaying the role of a ‘narrative arc':
…I had a sign above my desk for years that just said “Nae narrative”. Because that was the thing to avoid. The trick is to just let it rest on its images like a poem does. Every time I felt the urge to go, “And then this happened, oh, and then that happened”, I just pulled the stuff out. Got rid of that. And let the piece move image to image. Amazing how much you can just skip over between paragraphs. Like a stone being skimmed over a loch. And you can do a sort of handbrake turn in the middle of it.” (pp38-39)
The ‘poetry side’ of me recognises Jamie’s description of the process of writing. Not only is this how my poems get made, it is my preferred way of approaching prose. For it is when I approach a subject tangentially – through association, imagery and handbrake turns – that I feel the white heat of transformation. By this I mean the way I emerge from the experience of writing changed, knowing something about a subject or myself that I didn’t know previously, a process I think of as shaking the world into new shape in order to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary tangible.
I read the Jamie interview at a time when I was feeling a bit detached from my own poems and struggling to maintain my identity as a poet in the face of other demands on my time. At least I was managing to make regular blog posts, I told myself, although these had become prosaic blow-by-blow accounts of caring for Dylan. “And then this happened, oh, and then that happened” as Jamie would say. Perhaps I should just pull the stuff out, I reflected?
The thing is, in my caring role I am often in search of a narrative. Autism land is a bit of a mystery a good part of the time; in fact it can seem a series of handbrake turns (on icy roads). Sometimes I need a storyline to bear the aggressive behaviour out of the blue sky blue or understand the bear hug Dylan gives me one morning while we wait for his bus. I try to make sense of the unexpected twists and turns in the day, hunt down reason and explanation constantly. I suppose it’s a way of convincing myself I’m in control of events which, in truth, I can feel powerless to influence.
You look like Rafiki hit you over the head with his stick I said to my daughter the other morning. What is that supposed to mean Mum? she asked. I wish you wouldn’t talk in metaphors all the time. I’ve watched so many screenings of The Lion King with Dylan the narrative may be as real to me as the psychiatrist tells me it is likely to be for him. It’s a way of making sense of the world I suppose, a reality which leaves Dylan convinced that puppet boys walk and mermaids sing.
But it’s the house of bears I’ve been tiptoeing through recently, trying out chairs and eating porridge. I feel like Goldilocks I told a friend, close to tears about a burnt mouth and broken chair. For this is how I have come to view the process of looking for somewhere for Dylan to live: one setting too salty, another too sweet, one too small, another too large. Parents of autistic children spend a lifetime visiting residential schools, respite providers, independent living settings and care homes. I have been doing this since Dylan was three and I imagine it will continue for as long as I live – though I go on hoping I will find a forever place for Dylan before I wear out.
I am fussy I know (as I expect are all parents). I visited every specialist school within travelling distance of home when Dylan was school age and on the run-up to him leaving school a couple of years ago I viewed dozens of adult settings. I was one frantic Goldilocks. I didn’t know it at the time but I was lost in the woods, trying to find the bear house.
Then, last summer, something happened. Oh no. Handbrake quick!
The first house was so sweet and tidy it made me gasp. Plump cushions in perfect order on the sofa. The chairs so soft! Alphabetical DVD collection. Pine table in the kitchen with heart-shaped ornaments and arts and crafts decor to die for. Oh this is lovely, I exclaimed, this is just so nice. I was making notes in my head: I could hang some dried flowers like that I suppose. Ooh. Nice teapot. Wonder where they found that. Love those tiles!
Well we like to think that just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t have nice things, the member of staff replied. The colour scheme in the bedrooms was terrific. Silver and purple! Not sure about the big floral print on the soft furnishings. A bit girly. Someone with a design eye had clearly had fun though. And no expense spared.
At my side, Dylan was pulling and tugging. He’d spotted the DVDs. Uh oh! I’m so sorry but you see he’s probably looking for something – oh you have Pinocchio – that will be it. I’m so sorry he’s upset the display. Here, I’ll get him to help put them back. Oh. Are you sure? Alright then. Probably best anyway. But thanks for showing us around. Yes, I’ll call.
It was possible, I realised on the drive home, to be too tidy (my daughter would laugh to hear me say that). I had been charmed through my own eyes but looking through Dylan’s was a different matter. Dylan likes his environment to be ordered but this house had been designed for the care staff not for the residents. The lesson was a useful one: if I was Goldilocks in the house of bears then I would have to test the chairs for Dylan not me. And the ones at this setting had been too soft.
The second house, a converted barn, could not have been more different; it was as if I’d looked for the opposite of the first (or perhaps, I considered, I just didn’t know what I was looking for). There were no chairs here; you brought your own. That’s one way of making sure they are the right size and softness I thought to myself, surveying the vacant empty bedroom. I could put Dylan’s bookshelves against that wall there. Plenty of space here for my bouncing boy.
I was glad to see that the communal spaces were relaxed and unfussy. Music was playing. A resident was dancing with her care worker. There were books around the room and an oilskin cloth on a dining table. Dylan and I sat down on the sofa to take in the view. Outside, in this quiet valley at the end of a long farm track, there were fields and a ruined abbey, a river and horses. Dylan would love the walks I thought to myself…
So, last summer, two members of staff from the barn house came to visit Dylan at home. They were very nice but they didn’t stay long and I knew they hadn’t asked the questions they needed to. It was too painless. Caring for Dylan – keeping him safe and happy – needed support they hadn’t asked me about. I’d volunteered some of it but not all. They couldn’t possibly put together a realistic plan for Dylan based on the information they had, I thought to myself. I looked at the young care workers sitting awkwardly, balancing their note books on their laps; perhaps my sofa was too hard? Later the manager phoned me, pushing for a decision. Otherwise I will have to re-market the room, he said. It stopped me in my tracks: Dylan might be in a marketplace but it was a home I was looking for.
When I arrived at the third house I all but collapsed into the chairs. At last, I thought to myself: here was somewhere I could imagine Dylan being comfortable and which I might relax into too. The house was not too tidy, not too shabby. There was a garden with a sensory area and trampoline. The rooms were spacious and airy. The ceilings were reinforced and light fittings adjusted for bouncing; Dylan could jump when he needed to! Most importantly, the staff were professional and relaxed, inspiring quiet confidence. This, I thought to myself, was a safe place and a home. Breathe now, breathe…
I knew this would happen, I told myself, as I sat parked up in a lay-by close to tears. I had no idea where I was. I didn’t recognise the neighbourhood at all. I had been driving for over two hours and was already more than an hour late. I was hungry and exhausted. I tried, again, to make sense of the directions I had printed before I set off. Perhaps if I tried to find my way back to the motorway I could pick up the route?
Unlike my son I have virtually zero visual-spatial awareness. I am hopeless at directions. I struggle to read maps and i cannot memorise routes and landscapes as Dylan does. Every time I drive down a road it is as if it is for the first time. ‘Get a Sat Nav Liz!’ friends say to me repeatedly. But I’m hopeless with technology too and gadgets make me nervous. Over the years I have missed ferries, taken a 100 mile detour and abandoned planned destinations because of my poor sense of direction. So it didn’t surprise me to be sitting at the side of a road in an unfamiliar town, but it did frustrate me.
Today’s appointment was important: I was supposed to be at a planning meeting at the ‘third house’. Although I had visited the setting twice before, I had taken the precaution of printing directions for myself and setting off with an hour to spare today. Why had this not been enough? How had I still managed to be lost? I decided to abandon and head home.
It was purely by chance that I stumbled across the house as I attempted to find my way out of the town. I stopped and rang the bell, wanting to at least explain myself. I hadn’t been able to telephone them as I didn’t have the number with me and hadn’t been able to figure out how to find it on my mobile phone (I did say I was hopeless at gadgets).
The people I had been due to meet were still at the house so we were able to go ahead that day after all. And so it was agreed that the house was appropriate and that as part of Dylan’s transition I would support him for tea visits in the new year. We can meet you as you come off the motorway and escort you to the house, the manager suggested as I prepared to leave. We don’t want you getting stressed with Dylan in the car. But I declined; I will have to learn the route if Dylan is to live here, I said.
So let me linger with this narrative a little longer – long enough, let’s say, to return and taste the porridge. And this turned out to be smoother than expected; I found the house with only one wrong turn next time. The visit went fine and Dylan and I were relaxed enough to stop for a drink en route home: we can come here sometimes, I told him, when I visit you in the new house.
But then something happened. That might sound suspiciously like ploddy narrative but on this occasion it really was a squeal of tyres: sccrreeeecch!
‘But why?’ people asked. This is not how the narrative was supposed to arc. The case for a residential placement for Dylan had been accepted. Funding was in place. Transition plans had been made. I wouldn’t advise doing that my GP said when I told her I was thinking of pulling out: you might not be offered anything else. Dylan’s social worker concurred: You could lose the funding completely, she said. But it was too late; I could already smell the rubber burning.
Why? What happened? The chairs were comfy and the porridge good. The beds were probably fine too – though Dylan didn’t get as far as testing them. So what was it that sent me into spin? It was, I told myself when I tried to rationalise it later, about community. The third house was only in the next town over but may as well have been at the end of the earth; we didn’t know the town and it wasn’t our world. Sure I could have learned the way and Dylan would have found new routes, but I came to believe I ought not to remove Dylan from the community he knows and loves. His life is in this city on the edge of fields and sky and Dylan belongs to it with his heart and nerves.
Surely, I said to Dylan’s social worker, we can find somewhere for Dylan here? I would be willing to compromise on some things on my wish list, I told her, if Dylan could stay in his own community. I want to be able to visit him on my way home from work and take him out to the pub on an evening and drop in for ten minutes or so when I feel like it, I said. I don’t want to have to drive for two hours to a place I don’t understand.
While this was true I was aware there was something else going on that might be truer still. When I hadn’t been able to find the house that day I told a friend, afterwards, that I needed to be careful not to let it affect my rational thinking. I have a tendency, I explained, to make magical meaning of such incidents. Perhaps I was meant to get lost? What if someone was trying to prevent me from making a wrong decision? Maybe Dylan wasn’t meant to go there?
Daft isn’t it? But if I hadn’t let at least a little bit of that magical thinking into my heart I might not have questioned the narrative arc and made “a sort of handbrake turn in the middle of it”. And as it turns out I’m glad I did because, soon after, I heard about some new provision close to where we live. When I visited recently I let myself believe there might be a magical purpose to everything: If I hadn’t pulled out of the other place I would have missed this, I sighed. I am optimistic it might not be long before Dylan is checking out the beds.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO DYLAN: 21 YEARS OLD TODAY!
I considered another setting for Dylan during this process which I don’t mention in this piece (but which I have written a little about here). Taking Jamie’s advice I avoided the real narrative arc in order to ‘move image to image’ through the Goldilocks metaphor. I like to think that this helped me to make sense of the experience differently than if I had faithfully reported events. [The omitted setting was one I considered at a time when Dylan’s ‘challenging behaviour’ required support levels which we were later able to reduce].
‘The Interview: Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Colette Bryce’ (2014) in Riordan, M. [Ed] (2014) Poetry Review, Vol. 104:4 Winter 2014, pp 26-43
The image of me (with car) was taken after a particularly tricky drive on the Isle of Skye. The photo of Kathleen Jamie is from http://www.Guardian.com. The images of Goldilocks and the Three Bears are taken from (in order from the top) Amazon, Wikipedia and allposters.com