According to every person who ever lived, a child should be able to utter words by eighteen months old. And when they turn two, these kids should begin to form basic sentences. Simple little things like asking for a hug or demanding more snacks despite throwing up one minute ago. Usually, it’s considered normal for children to ramble all day to very stressed parents and if they don’t, they’re considered to be weird. Strange. A ‘special kid’ – which is something I’ve been told I am countless times – and the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s not always a ‘bad’ thing.
I never did grow out of being a naive and dumb child. My mum calls me a ‘happy-go-lucky’ person, someone who always stared at the world through rose coloured glasses. Always baring the brightest smile that could melt the icecaps and cause global warming and lived in my own little world.
My love – to the point of obsession – for everything animated started when I was very small. Anything Winnie the Pooh or Sailor Moon related always sent my little heart racing with pure joy. There was something incredibly appealing about watching a girl save the world from evil, and a stuffed bear eating his weight in honey that made me want to grab that lifestyle and hold it close. I would search high and low for that type of world, yet nothing ever came remotely close to it.
Winnie the Pooh once said, “You can’t stay in your corner of The Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” That was funny to me. How is a child supposed to go and find those people when you can’t even greet them? How are you supposed to do that when you can’t hear the stomp of your own walk? Being a puppet and playing pretend never works. You could act normally, but at the end of the day, the strings are going to give in. It’s exhausting.
People are lucky they’re given a voice and hear the moment they pop out of their mother’s womb, but unfortunately, I had to wait. For the first five years of my life, I sat and waited patiently for those things. I waited for what seemed like a thousand years, and I was oddly patient for the chaotic life I had.
When I first went swimming, the swimming instructor threw me into the pool to get me ‘used to the feeling’ – whatever that meant – of being underwater. The moment I was thrown into the pool, I began to fall limply to the bottom and stared at the ceiling above. I entered this silent world where everything was a little too peaceful, like watching a violent storm slowly roll in the sky. Anxiety tugs at your chest as you push your way up to the surface, hoping that world wasn’t reality. I gasped for air and heard the noise – the sound of my breathing, my mother talking to the swimming instructor and my siblings playing – and smiled. As calm as it is down there, the fear of not hearing the world eats away at your anxiety. I never put this world into words, but the amount of memories that wash over you slowly awakens the drowning feeling, the useless drowning feeling.
And if I could afford to, I’d never go back into the watery depths of the pool. Not much happens down there, unfortunately. Just complete emptiness.
My mum first noticed when I was a baby and wouldn’t stop crying for some unknown reason – maybe because I was lonely or scared — and she’d go on with many sleepless nights tending to everyone. My older brother had ASD; my sister was a bit slow. My dad on the other hand would yell and act out if he didn’t have his smokes or beer. Sometimes he would cause mum to be extremely stressed, claiming he saw ‘spirits’ and they were out there to hurt everyone. There have been many more cases like this – being a schizophrenic and abusive dad was never a good mix – but she’d always noticed if something was off-like a piece of rotten fruit that was hiding for months somewhere in the fridge. She always knew.
One of the things that caused my mother’s concern to grow was when I waddled up to the stereo and maxed out the volume without flinching. After taking me to several doctors and having done numerous tests, reality slowly began to sink in. I was a deaf and nonverbal child, something that was unheard of in the later 90s. Usually, she tackled everything head-on, but a deaf child with an Italian mother? Where chaos and madness often got a little too loud for the neighbours? In her household?
It was surreal.
Yet there I was, a deaf and mute two-year-old girl who was stuck at the bottom of that pool. It seemed whenever I tried to swim to the top, the unknown always pull me back. Whether it was my father slamming my mum against the screen door and yelling in her face or walking into the middle of the road and nearly getting hit by a truck, the force was forceful and suffocating. It always managed to sink me to the bottom and just like a cat who ruled their house, I would observe everything and everyone. Never speaking and never asking questions.
It hurt. I wanted to laugh with them, cry with them, watch Sailor Moon or Winnie the Pooh with them. No matter where or how far away they were, I wanted to catch up. The anxiety started up around then, and always tried to claw its way into the open. But the thing is they tried and tried and tried. But the bottom of that pool only glued me tighter to the floor. It hurt.
Eventually mum gave me that reality.
When I was four and a half, mum – with that smug determined face she always pulls when her cooking turns out perfect – decided to get my ears and voice working. I can’t tell you what exactly happened – I had a lot of doctors poking me like some rat, my little brother was born two years before and my father hated my mum more than I’d ever seen him to – but it was the time where I felt anxiety the most. No matter what anyone said or did to calm me, the pool only grew darker and more distant. Instead of the sun smiling down I saw the cold face of the moon and watched the stars twinkle above. With the people staring and placing me under the knife, the stars slowly sang me to sleep as I closed my eyes and floated slowly towards the surface.
The noises from the nurses, aeroplanes, the push of a food cart and the sound of my own moan made my heart jump out of my chest. Everything was unnecessarily loud, and I was intrigued. I listened for something – anything familiar – to search for. The chair beside me squeaked as I turned, with my mum’s happy face on one side and my dad’s fake smile on the other. She grinned and said, ‘Sarah! It’s mummy! Can you say mum?’ Mum. My mother’s voice was not as sweet as honey but more of a low and calming bonfire by the beach on a cool summer night. I wanted to cry or hold her close, but instead, I laughed like I just heard the funniest thing in the world.
I finally had it!
On the drive home, my father stopped by the pharmacy to pick up something. His voice was like a cold yet loud, a savage type of voice that only a violent and feral animal had. My mum would often glance at me through the mirror and smile. She desperately tried to ignore him, often coaxing me to talk. But the only word I picked up was a simple thing, but nothing made sense in my head. But I did know one thing.
Mum didn’t deserve that.
When we rolled into my home, I heard the excited footsteps that ran against the driveway. My sister pulled me out of the car and hugged me, jumping up and down as she spoke. Her voice was like honey, warm and sweet. ‘Sarah! It’s Julie! Can you hear and talk now?’
I felt her excited eyes on me. I only nodded. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes.’
‘Yes, I can.’
Sarah McLachlan is an emerging Brisbane writer in her final year in the Creative Writing major at QUT. Her work aims to add a bit of magic to the reader’s day. You can find her work throughout ScratchThat magazine.
Anastasia Notaras is an emerging artist based in Brisbane. She is currently in her third year of BFA in Drama at QUT. Her work has been published in ScratchThat Magazine and can be found on her Instagram @anastasianotaras. Her creative work is multidisciplinary as she delves into painting, collage, scriptwriting and performance.