Last year Olive began having a touch-and-go experience of Sunday School. Though it takes place at Keshet, it's much more crowded than her daily school experience. Some Sundays were good, some were hard, and even having her beloved Aliza as her one-to-one was not enough to keep Olive's anxiety at bay. Then one day when LB picked Olive up after Sunday School, Olive heard something she did not like: she heard Aliza tell LB that she was not going to be at camp that summer.
You know how when your child is a toddler and you've become accustomed to speaking in a more adult tone and with a bit more verbiage when you're telling someone something you don't want the toddler to understand? And then your toddler surprises you by chiming in with, Ah don WANNA to get a shot today! With an autistic child, this happens all the time except they can't tell you they understood, and they are generally six months behind or ahead of where you think they are, comprehension-wise. And the rate of comprehension isn't remotely linear, making it even harder to know what you should or should not say aloud.
Apparently, Olive understood that Aliza was not coming back to Ramah, but she didn't understand that this was not personal. After that, Olive stopped enjoying Sunday School at all. Since "not enjoying" roughly translates to crying and vomiting and we did not want Olive's association with Sunday School to bleed into her daily experience at school, we stopped sending Olive to Sunday School.
Since we knew Olive would not be seeing Aliza at Ramah, it felt as if some sort of acknowledgement of closure was in order. And since I have heaped upon Aliza more knitting than one single girl should have to hand-wash, we decided to have "Olive" write Aliza a thank you letter. Then we asked Julia's mother, who does special occasional calligraphy, to translate it into Hebrew and create a piece of art. Not photographing it before we mailed it off to Aliza is something I deeply regret.
A long time went by, and we did not hear from Aliza. Huh. We thought we might hear from her at Hanukkah, but nary a word. Well, maybe she felt no more needed to be said, we told ourselves. Since what we sent her was a thank you, perhaps "thank you for your thank you" felt awkward.
Yesterday, my UPS man brought a box for Olive. It contained something encased in bubblewrap, and a letter from Aliza's father, apologizing for the delay, since apparently it had been his job to mail the package:
...Please forgive this delay. Aliza has always talked highly about the time she had with Olive and I/we feel we know her. This is only a small expression of what Aliza feels toward Olive and by connection to you, her family. Thank you for bringing Olive into our lives. May you have a healthy New Year. May Olive continue to grow and challenge everyone around her.
His letter was so moving it was another day before I could open and read Aliza's gift, which I could see was a framed letter to Olive. I read it this morning:
...I want you to know something very important; you taught me that everyone can be a teacher, even a person who cannot speak with words. I learned how important it is to have a buddy to smile with, a friend to swim with, but most of all a person to learn new things with. Olive you taught me to laugh at the world when it starts getting stressful and even how to sign. Thank you for being my special friend...
As happy as Aliza's letter makes me, I'm finding it impossible not to feel sad about it, too. I keep thinking of Roger Ebert's review of Rain Man back in 1988, on Siskel and Ebert. Ebert had said that Rain Man was really Tom Cruise's movie: his character is the one who grows and changes. Dustin Hoffman's character is, ultimately, unsatisfying. And I had agreed with Ebert.
I have no doubt Olive changes and teaches everyone who meets her, just as she learns from them. Yet I wish the ratio of who's doing the learning was more even, the results more consistent, and most of all, more visible. I tell myself that Olive is happiest in the presence of those willing to learn the most from her, and that is what matters.
Tonight, after I gave her my usual bed-time speech of Mommy loves you, I love you, Mommy loves Olive, I told her, "Mommy is writing a book about what an unusual and adored little person you are, Olive." And I hoped it was one of those times when she understood more than I could see.