I’m always amazed by the way Dylan intuitively grasps new technologies. Even with his learning disability he is a Digi kid, understanding (unlike his mother) that devices need to be swiped not clicked.
One of Dylan’s favourite things to do is scroll through the photos on my iPhone at breakneck speed (recent to oldest and back again) pausing only for a favourite image (York Cathedral) or to query a photo taken in his absence. These include the photos my daughter sends via WhatsApp which magically appear in my photo stream: ‘Sister! Sister!’ Dylan tells me when he encounters them.
I often imagine I hear sadness in Dylan’s voice as well as bewilderment. I tell him that ‘sister is at school’ which is the nearest I can get to an explanation for my daughter’s absence. It seems to satisfy Dylan in that he repeats it back to me: ‘Sister school’ is one of the few two-keyword utterances he produces regularly.
My ex-husband remarried recently and my daughter and her half-sister were bridesmaids. Swiping through my iPhone photos the weekend after the wedding, Dylan froze, his finger hovering mid-air over a photo of the three of them (sent by my daughter via WhatsApp): ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ he shouted. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t have photos of my ex-husband around the house and Dylan hasn’t had more than fleeting contact with him since we divorced 15 years ago. I thought my heart would break.
I should have realised. Although my ex-husband is not Dylan’s biological father he co-parented Dylan from six months old to ten years. My ex-husband (my daughter’s biological father) is the man Dylan knows as ‘Daddy’. And I know from my own experience, and from what my daughter tells me of hers, that separation can have an enormous impact on a child.
I really should have realised. After all, I have just finished writing a book about the impact of divorce on a mother’s relationship with her daughter. I have reflected on and written about the ways in which the end of my marriage affected my daughter. Why didn’t I consider that Dylan would also be affected by this? Because Dylan wasn’t able to talk to me about it I was able to ignore the weight of it? What else is Dylan carrying, I wonder? How much more lies underground?
I think I knew really. I just didn’t want to admit it. I’ve written before about the way Dylan finds emotional release through music. How he loves Sting’s Fields of Gold (which his Daddy used to dance him around the room to). How he can’t bear to listen to U2s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (the soundtrack to my divorce). And now I remember the way Dylan would look at me with questions in his eyes when his Daddy called to collect just his sister at weekends and holidays.
I remember my solicitor telling me, during divorce proceedings, that in her experience non-biological parents rarely claim access to a child following a divorce. While I didn’t think I had any grounds for claiming access to my step-daughter, I thought it might be different for my husband and Dylan. After all, my stepdaughter had a mother whereas my husband was the only daddy Dylan knew. They were, to all intents and purposes, ‘father and son’.
I was surprised my ex-husband didn’t want contact with Dylan after the divorce especially as he’d previously asked if he could adopt Dylan. Already aware the marriage was unravelling, I had said no to his request at the time. Perhaps in this I considered my own best interests rather than Dylan’s? Maybe it would have been better for Dylan if I’d have said yes…
Long Lost Families
I might not have realised how hard being a parent is but Dylan’s biological father had been clear about this. He was not prepared to co-parent another child he told me (he had two from a previous marriage and had not found parenthood easy). If I continued with the pregnancy, I’d be on my own.
When a relationship ends we are careful to tell children it isn’t their fault and that the split is nothing to do with them. How would I explain things to Dylan when he was old enough to understand I asked myself, after he was born? Watching Long Lost Families I wondered how a searching child would feel if they found a father like Dylan’s, who didn’t want to be found.
Anxious about the future, I asked Dylan’s biological father to write something I could give to Dylan when he reached 18. When he refused, my patience ran out and I hacked into a display case of photographs at the college where we worked, replacing a professional shot of my ex- with something a little more personal. It was wrong (today we call this ‘revenge porn’) but it made me feel better. The photo I stole from the display case is lost. It doesn’t matter now. As it turned out, it wasn’t needed: Dylan doesn’t have the capacity to understand his biological father’s absence.
The photo of my daughter and her half-sister at their dad’s wedding arrived on the day Dylan and I headed south for our annual summer holiday. This year I had booked a cottage on the coast, selected for its proximity to the things which Dylan loves: beaches, steam trains, country walks, rivers, castles and cathedrals. I didn’t subconsciously choose it (did I?) because it lay within spitting distance of the college where his biological father and I had worked.
If I had been taken by the idea of taking Dylan down memory lane I didn’t think about it while we were there. Even Dylan’s ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ cry didn’t bring that other daddy to mind in the week we stayed nearby. It wasn’t until the morning of our departure, when google maps directed us to an alternative route and I found myself driving past the college, that I thought about him. I cast a sidelong glance at the campus as I drove by. Then, from compulsion, did a u-turn and pulled into the college carpark. Dylan looked at me quizzically. His script read: ‘next stop lunch’. “Let’s have a walk before we get on the motorway, Dylan.” I said.
So Dylan and I spent a half hour strolling around the college grounds in the blossomy hum of summer. There were a few new buildings but the place felt eerily familiar. “That is where mummy used to work” I told Dylan, pointing at a red brick house. “And here”, I added, “is where your daddy’s office was”. I photographed Dylan standing by the building, looking like his father.
It isn’t easy to talk about complex issues with someone with a learning disability, especially when they are ‘non-verbal’, and I have no idea how much Dylan understands of what I shared with him that day. But Dylan’s reaction to the photos on my iPhone had revealed how important family is to him, and how acutely he feels the loss of it, and I wanted to acknowledge Dylan’s emotional life by bringing his history out, into the open.