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New South Wales, 1990

A Father’s Story

by Doug Anderson

Life’s hardest lessons teach us something about ourselves if we manage to stand reasonably firm against the grief and emotional paralysis that invariably accompany them. Not steadfast and stoic but reasonably firm.

Stands to reason really. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It seems we aren’t able to remember actual physical pain the way we remember other experiences in vivid images.

The bio-survival brain is shrewd and selective, managing to extricate raw pain from the memory bank and dissolve it in the interests of self preservation. Emotional hurt seems to have a resonance which only dissolves with the passage of time. “Time is the great healer”, people say. Pain may be the vital sign of life but it must recede as we recover and resume a normal state. I’m not a neurologist but it seems neurotransmitters which relay pain aren’t connected to memory in actual terms like…say…the flavour of a lemon.

You know about it and that’s enough. You don’t need to have a physical reaction reminder…unless perhaps you’re into B&D. “Character building!” people say shrugging off painful episodes.

I don’t know whether grief counselling – a relatively recent innovation to help recover people from a state of collapse or trauma – is character building or not but undoubtedly it has its uses.

Hanne at 18 months

If you don’t let it out, it rots inside. Nevertheless unburdening onto another person can be more than an act of expiation or simply a means of gaining comfort through sharing. Self awareness is one thing, dependency is something else.

You think of all those soldiers who came back from the war and suffered years of anguish…often creating destructive waves of emotional turbulence in their own families… while trying to suppress searing memories of episodes they were witness to.

Soldiers who saw the most loathsome atrocities and, upon returning home, faced guilt or internal repercussions every bit as hard to endure. They couldn’t share what they couldn’t express.

Hanne at 6 years

Revulsion by elements of the community who opposed their involvement in Vietnam added to their emotional tourniquet.
Once a year perhaps they could re-live the bad days…and the good… ventilating some of the nightmares as their suffering was acknowledged with gratitude on Anzac Day.

We are so free that we tend to take freedom for granted. We don’t remind ourselves our expectations are based on freedom of choice – part of which is an endless bombardment of superlatives and hysterical advertising which reinforces our need to choose the right product. We may be shell shocked by the incessant barrage but we insist on our rights as consumers to the best quality of life at the cheapest price.

Such that we often fail to see the forest for the trees. Or to notice how enjoyable the vagabond breeze can be, bearing the scent of the sea. We don’t – as they say – stop to smell the roses but rather wait for the scent to come to us…perfect and on cue.

Not surprising then, that when the best laid plans – the sweetest dreams the shiniest hopes go astray we tend to be struck numb. I was. A direct hit. Straight to the soul.

My daughter got a dud ticket in the genetic lottery and was born with a chromosome deletion which manifests itself as a syndrome known as Cri Du Chat…the cry of the cat. It’s a condition which visits about one in 50,000 babies and results from deletions or translocations of genetic data in the short arm of chromosome 5.

Hanne at 8 years

It wasn’t evident initially but when a few worrying trends emerged at 6 weeks a shattering diagnosis emerged. The prognosis in the available literature painted the bleakest of pictures. Severe intellectual disabilities…. chronic physical defects…a lifetime of problems….nightmare freak show stuff.

We were devastated. The kid we had planned and speculated over for such a long time was suddenly not the one we had. Neither of us has ever been into fatalism, the futile politics of blame, but it hit hard.

The mysterious acceptance of “gods will” – the faith that sustains some people – wasn’t relevant to us. It was too big to swallow, yet too insistent to deny. A collapsing, festering sense of grief which, for me, turned into rage. I was reminded of an image in Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring where the father, responding to the defilement of his daughter by a couple of bodgies, blindly took revenge on God by ripping a young sapling from the ground. I felt just as helpless – a sickening realisation that none of our assets or capabilities…the best endeavours of our imaginations…the combined willpower of our desires or anything else at our disposal could change the reality.

I am reasonably practical when it comes to making and mending things. The bigger the problem the greater the challenge and, when prolonged concentration and strategies are successfully brought to bear, a suitably rewarding dividend. But this was something I couldn’t fix. Helplessness seethed for months.

The practicalities were manageable and Helen took charge of the necessities while I foundered in an ulcerating confusion…wandering the streets late at night hoping for something but knowing you don’t find many miracles in the gutter. Just more of the numb, impotent knot of nothing. The questions going around and around unanswered. You cut off its head and it grows another.

There was a time I entertained the hope that the kid would die and save herself (and us), a life of distress. ..I was virtually out of control, consumed by futility. That’s how selfish and blind-alleyed my thinking became…even while our friends and families rallied strongly and offered as much buoyancy as you could hope for.

Looking back on the moment of truth and its repercussions – which I do from time to time – (every day), it seems a long while ago and a long way away. Which it is. Time flies like an arrow…fruit flies like a banana. You can’t live like that because its not living but rather a kind of death.

That season of darkness was almost ten years ago. Now, everything is a plus. She walks, she talks, she laughs and tells jokes and is so buoyant with life that if the people who wrote in those medical encyclopaedias could see her, they’d reach for the petrol and matches to ensure no-one else was wounded unnecessarily by the abject negativity of their prognosis.

Yesterday she brought home a commendation from school which cited her as a cheerful, well-behaved pupil and everybody’s friend. My heart sang. She has a life – a real, valid, sustaining life.

This is no miracle cure of Cri du Chat but there is a process that enables parents to accept, to adapt and draw sustenance from a damaged child. It might be called healing…I don’t know.

Is she just managing to give a good impression of being a “normal” kid? Copying, emulating, responding to peer group pressure for an acceptable approximation? No, it reaches well beyond that. Hanne was never any less than normal, in her own terms anyway…in that she was and is, always herself – unique… original – taking from the world and putting back.

Those who don’t know or can’t understand are the ones unable to see just how normal she is. A bit slow? Sure…so what? It all goes in and it will all come out when you least expect it.

Reduced in ability? I suppose so. Defining these things can only be done with a mixture of realism and acceptance rather than straight comparison or envy. But its never been a matter of comparison even though we are obliged to measure everything she does against “norms” and graphs and statistical averages.

I prefer her the way she is…different. Not that I’d hesitate for a second if some Faustian deal magically arose offering her a better shot at life in the 21st century.

All those people in jeans commercials, bourbon and basketball shoe ads, pushing themselves to the limit to be “individual” while slavishly conforming to the product role model. They aren’t different…they’re predictable. Be different – buy the right products.
Every “spontaneous” act of buying flowers for the spunky girl flouncing down the street in some choreographed daydream by some advertising agency poppy whose every half original thought is for sale. Conditioned responses to predetermined scenarios.

Hanne is a good kid, who tries her best most of the time and whose take on life is enthusiastic. She goes to a regular school where she is treated decently by all her peers and almost never cops abuse. Why should she? The kids around her are good kids who are used to sharing space and who have grown up with the same constants. They’re great for her (and mostly to) her….. and it’s reciprocal.

The frustrations that inevitably result from her ineptitude or from taking soft options are, I expect, not much different from those facing other parents. Our friends with youngsters certainly don’t live in some picture postcard perfection denied to us. Happy Family commercials are okay if you aspire to a spray-on-wipe-off life.

Life is more a matter of taking the rough with the smooth than buying the correct products and we just happen to have had a rather large dose of rough. I can think of far worse situations…such as the agony of dealing with a sick child who might not get better. Or of coming to terms with the death of a youngster who is perfect in every way but whose life is lost in an accident of some sort.

It happens every day…expectations and the best of plans snatched away in an instant. Its impossible to imagine anyone really living the sort of lives presented as desirable by the demented advertising execs who do their level worst to excite us about the virtues of creamier margarine and softer toilet “tissyew”. You make your own luck and you don’t throw in your hand because you don’t fancy the cards that you’ve been dealt. There’s not much mileage in blaming fate or finding reasons to avoid the consequences of Nature. Even less in consoling yourself for misfortune.

There’s the expectations of others – your child primarily – that demand you get on with living your life as it comes to you…a day at a time. After all, it’s easier to appreciate and understand life in small chunks rather than lifetimes.

A good day can be sorted through and appreciated just as easily as a bad one can be written off and consigned to the past so the next arrives fresh and ready for whatever you can put into it and get out of it.

The past is this moment escaping into a rubbish tip of wasted time or a bonfire of good intentions gone bad through neglect. Now is much more important than yesterday…even if yesterday was good.

Doug Anderson is a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and the father of Hanne aged 9.
Copyright © 1999 Doug Anderson

Hanne’s Travel Journal (1999)

Hanne and I travelled around the world in August, September, meeting families in the US, England and Ireland. It was mainly holiday, but as I had just finished making the video, it was a great opportunity to show it to as many people as I could. We presented the video CRY OF THE CAT at the Chicago 5P- conference and it was extremely well received. All copies I had taken with me sold within minutes.

Hanne introduced the video, reading from a short prepared speech. She did it confidently and without any fuss, although her little voice probably did not make the back of the room.

There were 105 families attending the conference, so it was a great opportunity to see lots of kids and how they are doing. I would recommend it to any family who can afford it.

We then travelled to Ireland and met Mary Lou and David Garvan and their daughter Jessica. Onto London to have an overnight stay with Elaine and Adam Precious and their son Sam and family and then onto the next part of the holiday, meeting Doug in Paris and driving down to Spain.

Hanne was away from school for 8 weeks, so her teacher asked her to keep a journal of our travels and this is a part of it. It has become a wonderful record of our holiday seen through her eyes. Hanne is in Yr 3 and her handwriting has improved a lot this year. She has been given a “Dream Writer” (word processor) to help her get stories down. She loves it.

Helen McGrath (Hanne’s mother)

“Disneyland is far.
The best ride was the Toad Hall ride.
We saw Daisy Duck”
“The village is on a hill.
They use horses to carry the wet
cement to build new houses.”

Hanne’s Progress Update (March 2000)

Hanne has just turned 10 and is in Year 4 at school. She is in a Yr 4/5 composite class with the brighter kids. The teacher is very organised and down to earth and expects more from Hanne than she is used to. Consequently she has to work harder. She is able to work on tasks by herself now, as the others give a good role model. This idea was talked about by Paul’s mum, Irene, in the video. Positive role-modeling. We will see how long it lasts.

Her two best friends are in the class and there would be lots of helpers to give Hanne assistance when required. Her work is generally at a Yr 2 level, and Maths at year 1. She has an aid in the classroom 8 ½ hours a week, spread over 3 days. She is very happy at school and we hope she will continue there until Yr 6.

I will be looking at the alternative class IM at another school for Yr 5 & 6. It is supposed to be better for her academically. Socially though she’s happy where she is.

Helen McGrath

Hanne’s Progress Update (July 2000)

Hanne is in Yr 4 at Primary school. An aide works with her 3 days a week for about 2 and a half hours a day.

She is 10.4 years now and recently had a reading assessment. I have asked for this to be done, so we can see that she is making progress with her work. We did the test 1 year ago (9.4rys) and she scored 6.6yrs. Yesterday she scored 7 yrs for reading and 7.2 years for comprehension. A pleasing effort.
We read with Hanne about 3 times a week. She is now reading chapter books, still with large print and pictures. It indicates to me that we really need to read every day.

She is doing basketball skills on Monday and swimming on Tuesday. She does these for fun, but they are great for her gross motor.

We are still struggling with Maths. I think those concepts will always be difficult for her. She’s not bad with geometry, but again that’s a visual thing.