Rhema and Hope’s grandparents are here visiting from Michigan.
All week long Rhema’s grandmother has asked Rhema questions as if she fully expects that she will get an answer. “What did you do at school today, Rhema?” Later she will ask, “Did you play on the playground today?”, “Which do you like best, the slide or the swing?” She does not ask in a grilling, testing sort of way, but in a conversational manner as if they’ve been talking together all their lives. These are not rhetorical questions; even though no reply is given, the expectation of an answer remains.
Her expressionless face, her averted eyes, her sometimes detached body language belie the fact that she is listening or even understanding.
I always talk to Rhema as if she understands what I am saying. I tell her where we are going, what we are going to do. I inform her about the order of things: “First bath, then pop (sicle).” When I send her off to school, I tell her to be a good girl. I tell her to keep her clothes on. I tell her that Mommy loves her more than anything. I tell her that I am so proud of her.
But I realized this week that I’ve stopped asking questions. I suppose that after all these years of never getting a response, I just stopped… expecting, hoping. And I did not even realize it. I still ask questions in the form of choices, such as food choices. Holding up her PECS icons, I will ask, “Do you want chicken or hotdog?” But there are no longer questions about her, how she feels, what she likes, what happened in her day.
“Rhema, where’s Mommy?”
That question used to kill me. At the end of a speech therapy visit or an OT session, I will come into the room and her therapist will say, “Rhema, where’s Mommy?” I stand there feeling uncomfortable, as her therapist crouches down to Rhema’s level and tries to get eye contact, urging her to look in my direction. Sometimes I kind of smile and wave my hand in a goofy way. Me. Over here. I’m the mother. I know Rhema knows who I am. I know she knows I love her, and I know she loves me. So it doesn’t bother me that much anymore that Rhema fails the find-your-mother test every time. In fact, lately I think she may not acknowledge the question on purpose because she’s insulted by it. Of course I know who my mother is.
“Rhema, will you show me your new shoes?” Rhema was sitting in her chair eating dinner. At first she looked off into the distance. “Rhema, do you like your new shoes?” her grandmother asked. Then she looked over her tray and down at her dangling feet. She flexed her feet up and down displaying her pretty shoes. She clearly understood the question, and she clearly gave an answer.
“How was school today?” is a big question even for a typical child. Today if Rhema gave a vocal answer to that question someone would surely have to pick me up off the floor. But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask it. At best, she knows that I care about how her day went at school.
I remember when I was pregnant with Rhema, Brandon and I went out to dinner with a couple we had met at a training in Germany. The couple had two sons, a 7 year old and an infant. I was instantly drawn to the seven year old. He was such a beautiful boy. I began talking to him right away, asking him lots of questions. When he didn’t respond, his mother interjected:
“He has autism.”
I knew very little about autism at the time, so all I said was, “Oh.”
We all went out to dinner, and no one spoke to the boy for the rest of the night. I supposed that the explanation that he had autism meant that I was not supposed to speak with him. It was as if he wasn’t there, even though he was with us the whole time, quietly eating his dinner. That memory stays with me. I pray that Rhema is never that alone.
To those of you, family and friends and neighbors of Rhema, thanks for being brave enough to let your words hang unrequited in the air. I always appreciate you when you say hi anyway. When you ask questions anyway. When you high-five anyway.
Because you’re still expecting an answer,
It encourages me to keep asking questions.