The Day of Deep Breaths image

The Day of Deep Breaths

A few weeks back I posted my opening chapter from the new book Rachel and I have written, called The Life You Never Expected. Since we wrote the book together, and much of the feedback has (rightly) focused on how helpful her chapters are in particular, I thought I'd bring balance to the force by posting her opening chapter, "The Day of Deep Breaths." If you're interested, you can get hold of the book here. (Also, for those interested in Think Theology trivia, this whole incident happened at Matt Hosier's house while they were on holiday. It's amazing we're still friends.)

Some days require a lot of deep breaths. That’s true for every parent, but my guess is that it’s intensified when you have children with special needs. For me, Thursday 4th August 2013 was one of those days. Remembering it, even months later, brings on a weird combination of shudders, tears and giggles.

We’re on holiday, but it’s an early start anyway. Zeke wakes at four thirty, and Andrew starts the day with him. (Holidays, with our children, are usually more exhausting than normal life, partly because the kids have their sleep routines messed up by being in a new place – in this case, a house belonging to friends who are away on holiday – and partly because the normal support, from school, nursery, parents and friends, isn’t there.) After an hour or so, Anna is up, the first DVD of the day is nearly finished, and breakfast is about to get started: Cheerios with milk for Anna, dried Weetabix (yes, I know) for Zeke. So far, so good.

Then Andrew wakes me up to tell me he’s just vomited.

This happens sometimes, obviously. Men get sick. I suspect men who have been tired for two years get sick more often than most, and those surrounded by the kind of antics I’m about to describe get sick more often still. But this is now round three of the second sick bug of the summer holidays – as in, Anna then Zeke, then a two week break when nobody is sick, then Anna then Zeke and now Andrew – and I’m beginning to find it annoying. I stare at him in dismay, hoping he’s joking. He isn’t.

I take a deep breath, get up and go downstairs.

My appearance somehow makes it a matter of intense urgency that the Oliver and Company DVD case be found, and handed to Zeke.  We’ve now got used to the randomness of Zeke’s obsessions, but it can still be wearing – the Oliver and Company DVD case, not the DVD itself, and certainly (God forbid) not the video; the branded cover inside, but removable; the location of the case in Zeke’s carefully laid out line of twenty other cases; the explosive reaction to any interference with said line, especially from his sister; the unique and often incomprehensible words that summon the case to be brought (“Hoffer and Pumpnee! Hoffer and Pumpnee!”); the bouncing up and down and hand-flapping that follow its arrival; and the rest. Knowing that a No will cause an outburst but a Yes will cause repetitive behaviours for several hours, and it’s still only six fifteen, I deny the request. Zeke repeats it. I deny it. (Bargaining at this stage is pointless.) Zeke repeats it. I deny it. Repeat eleven times. The inevitable outburst comes.

I take another deep breath.

After a few minutes of successfully engaging Zeke in a “normal” activity – sorting his cases, pulling the dog’s ears, or equivalent – it occurs to me that Anna has been in the sitting room for a while, but that things have gone suspiciously quiet. I walk down the hall to investigate. On entering the sitting room, I find Anna with her face submerged in the open-lidded fish tank, happily blowing bubbles into the water while floating fish flakes bob about on the surface, and bewildered guppies swim around her cheeks in confusion. I knew that Anna loved the sensory experience of face-dipping, having done it all summer with paddling pools and occasionally even sand pits, but it never occurred to me she would do it in something so unpleasantly aromatic and manifestly dirty as a fish tank. No wonder everybody in this family gets sick so often, I muse to myself. Another deep breath. For a moment, I wonder if it’s worth grabbing a camera, but decide instead to retrieve my three-year-old from the tropical waters, and then set about drying the walls.

I return to the kitchen. Zeke, who had been happily rummaging through his cases, has somehow managed to slide a carving knife off the worktop, and is running around the kitchen with it, whooping with delight. Another deep breath. At this point I have some difficult choices to make. Anna is dripping wet, and Zeke is at serious risk of either slicing his forearm or beheading the dog. Yet I know from experience that either shouting at him, or running towards him to retrieve the knife, will make him think we’re playing a game and run away laughing, and that will instantly make matters much worse. So I amble nonchalantly towards him, with my body language saying, this isn’t a life or death thing, it’s no big deal, while my mind is racing with the thought, this might be a life or death thing, and it’s a very big deal. Remarkably, it works. I retrieve the knife, put all the other knives out of reach, and head upstairs to get Anna into some dry clothes.

A few minutes later, more suspiciously quiet behaviour, this time from Zeke, leads me back downstairs to the hallway, where I find the front door is now wide open. I run out into the road in a panic, looking up and down the street for him, and then notice that he is sitting behind the car in the driveway, playing with stones. Another deep breath. I take him back inside, and double-lock the front door. The next few minutes pass without incident, and I manage to finish making packed lunches, pile the kids into the car, and head off to a nearby adventure farm, where we arrive just as it opens, in order to avoid Anna’s greatest enemy: other people.

All things considered, the farm trip is a success. The children cope, the meltdowns are limited, and although I’m on my own with them, nobody dies. But there are still a few incidents. The jumping cushion is surrounded by the shavings of recycled car tyres, which are perfect for Zeke to sit there and chew, while he decides whether he feels like jumping or not. Anna, who is mid-regression at this point, marches onto it with confidence and starts bouncing, but then another child makes physical contact with her, and she withdraws into shutdown mode, refusing to make eye contact, speak or play for the rest of the morning. We go on a beautiful tractor ride; Zeke loves it and shrieks throughout, not because of the animals but because of the enormous rotating tyres, but Anna buries her face in my shoulder and notices nothing. I carry her for the next two hours, and reflect on the fact that, for all the face-dipping, vomiting, front-door opening and carving-knife waving my day has involved, much the hardest part of it is to fight the tears when I think of how my little girl has gone backwards in the space of a year, from a chatty little girl who plays and sings, to a frightened baby who has lost nearly all her vocabulary and most of her social skills. Another deep, painful breath. I change her nappy, trying to give her a little privacy behind some play equipment, and while I’m there Zeke obstructs the slide for the many other children who have now arrived, causing frustrated parents to look around for a responsible adult. It’s tempting to pretend it isn’t me.

Before heading home we enjoy a picnic lunch, and the kids are peaceful and settled. While they’re eating, I phone the hospital for the third time, to chase up a pair of reinforced Piedro boots for Zeke which no hospital department seems to be taking responsibility for losing, and check my messages to see if the latest blood test results for Anna are back, which they aren’t. Another deep breath. On the way home, we attempt to buy milk, but since I can’t find a shop or petrol station where I can see the kids in the car while shopping, and since I can’t take them into a shop on my own without – well, by now you can probably imagine – I decide that tea with soya milk isn’t so bad after all, and go home without. I make sure to double-lock the front door when we get home, check that the fish have survived from their close Anna encounter earlier in the day, and then all-but-cover the tank with clingfilm to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I put on a DVD for the children, and take one more deep breath.

One day, I say to myself, I’m going to laugh about this. I may even write a book about it.

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