Read Somebody Else's Kids Online

Authors: Torey Hayden

Somebody Else's Kids (5 page)

According to the records, Lori was assigned the extra resource time for “more intensive academic help.” However, Dan Marshall, Edna and I – and probably Lori herself – knew the change had come about because we had come too close to disaster. Perhaps in a different situation Lori could have managed full time in a regular classroom, but here she couldn’t. In Edna’s conservatively structured program, Lori did not have adequate skills to function. To relieve the pressure on both sides, she spent the mornings in her regular class where she would still receive reading and math instruction along with lighter subjects, but in the afternoons when Edna concentrated on the difficult, workbook-oriented reading skills, Lori would be with me.

So there we were, the three of us.

Boo remained such a dream child. As so many autistic-like children I had known, he possessed uncanny physical beauty; he seemed too beautiful to belong to this everyday world. Perhaps he did not. Sometimes I thought that he and others like him were the changelings spoken of in old stories. It was never inconceivable to me that he might truly be a fairy child spirited from the cold, bright beauty of his world, trapped in mine and never quite able to reconcile the two. And I always noticed that when we finally reached through to an autistic or schizophrenic child, if we ever did, that they lost some of that beauty as they took on ordinary interactions, as if we had in some way sullied them. But as for Boo, thus far I had failed to touch him, and his beauty lay upon him with the shining stillness of a dream.

Our days did not vary much. Each afternoon Boo’s mother would bring him. She would open the door and shove Boo through, wave good-bye to him, holler hello to me and leave. Not once could I entice her through that door to talk.

Once inside Boo would stand rigid and mute until he was helped off with his outer clothes. If I did aid him, he would come to life again. If I did not, he would continue standing, staring straight ahead, not moving. One day I left him there in his sweater to see what would happen since I knew from his disrobing episodes that he was capable of getting out of his clothes when inspired. That day he stood motionless until 2:15, nearly two hours, finally, I gave in and took off his sweater for him.

The only definite interest Boo had was for the animals. Benny particularly fascinated him. Once he thawed from his arrival, he would head for the animal corner. The only time Boo gave any concrete sign of attending to his environment or attempting any communication was when he stood in front of Benny’s driftwood and flicked his fingers before the snake’s face and hrooped softly. Otherwise, Boo’s time was spent rocking, flapping, spinning or smelling things. Each day he would move along the walls of the classroom inhaling the scent of the paint and plaster. Then he would lie down and sniff the rug and the floor. Any object he encountered would first be smelled, sometimes tasted, then tested for its ability to spin. To Boo there seemed to be no other way of evaluating his environment.

Working with him was difficult. Smelling me was as entertaining to him as smelling the walls. While I held him he would whiff along my arms and shirt, lick at the cloth, suck at my skin. Yet the only way I could focus his attention even for a moment was to capture him physically and hold him, arms pinned to his sides, while I attempted to manipulate learning materials. Even then Boo would rock, pushing his body back and forth against mine. The simplest solution I found was to rock with him. And every night after school I washed the sticky saliva off my arms and neck and wherever else he had reached.

Boo’s locomotion around the room was generally in an odd, rigid gait. Up on his toes he moved like the mimes I had seen in Central Park. However, on rare occasions, usually in response to some secret conversation with Benny or the finches. Boo would come startlingly to life. He would begin with ape laughter, his eyes would light up and he would look directly at me, the only time that ever occurred. Then off around the room he would run, the stiffness gone, an eerie grace replacing it. Stripping down until he was completely nude, he would run and giggle like a toddler escaped from his bath. Then as suddenly as it started, that moment of freedom would pass.

Aside from the occasional hroops and whirrs, Boo initiated no communication. He echoed incessantly. Sometimes he would echo directly what I had just said. More frequently he echoed commercials, radio and TV shows, weather and news broadcasts and even his parents’ arguments – all things heard long in the past. He was capable of repeating tremendous quantities of material word for word in the exact intonation of the original speaker. A supernatural aura often settled down among us as we worked to the drone of long-forgotten news events or other people’s private conversations.

The first days and even weeks after Lori arrived full time in the afternoons, I was perplexed as to how to handle these two very different children together effectively. I could sometimes give Lori something to do and go work with Boo. However, there was no reverse of that. To accomplish anything at all with Boo, one had to be constantly reorienting his hands, mouth, body and mind. Still there was a certain magic with us. Lori interested Boo. He would steal furtive glances at her while all the rest of him was robot stiff. Occasionally he would turn his head when she mentioned his name in conversation. He would give very, very soft hroops every once in a while when he was sitting near Lori and not near Benny at all. As I watched them that first week that Lori had joined us full time in the afternoon, I was pleased. This would never be an easy way to spend an afternoon, but likewise, it would never be dull. I was glad we had become a class.

One result of Lori’s entrance into my room half-days was meeting her father. We first came face to face in the meeting with Edna and Dan over Lori’s placement. I liked Mr. Sjokheim immediately. He was a big man, perhaps not as tall as wide, although it was a congenial plumpness mostly around the belt area, as if he had enjoyed all his Sunday dinners. He had a deep, soft voice and a ringing laugh that carried far out into the hallway. Even in that early meeting as I listened to him, it became apparent where Lori had acquired much of her caring attitude.

After the first week passed with Lori in my room, I invited Mr. Sjokheim in after school to get acquainted. By profession he was an experimental engineer. He worked in the laboratory of an airplane company and dealt with aspects of environmental impact of airplanes. He derived great pleasure from talking about various programs he had implemented locally to cut down on both air and noise pollution by the company.

Tragedy, however, had marked Sjokheim’s personal life. He and his wife had had an only child, a daughter, several years before. When the girl was four years old, she fell through a plate-glass window. The glass had penetrated her throat and she had nearly bled to death. Quick action by paramedics saved her life, however, she suffered severe brain damage from loss of oxygen and became comatose. Yet the child did not die. For three years after the accident she remained hospitalized and on life-support equipment before finally succumbing. She never regained consciousness in all that time.

With their finances drained and their lives left empty, the Sjokheims had moved to our community a few years later to try to start over. Soon after, Lori and her twin sister Libby were placed in the Sjokheim home as foster children. They were four years old. Very early, Mr. Sjokheim said, he and his wife realized that they wanted to adopt the twins. Yes, they knew of the brutal amount of abuse the girls had suffered and of the possibilities of complications from it, both physically and emotionally. That did not matter. After all, he said to me with a smile, they needed us and we needed them. What more did it take?

Apparently not much more. The twins were cleared for adoption soon after their fifth birthday and the Sjokheims started proceedings. Then suddenly Mrs. Sjokheim became seriously ill. The diagnosis was simple. Too simple and too swift for its impact. Cancer. She died before Lori and Libby turned six.

There had been no question in Sjokheim’s mind that he would keep the girls. If they had needed one another before, they surely did now. However, the proceedings became complicated. He was over the usual adoptive-parent age limit. Allowances had been made before because his wife was younger and because the twins themselves were old for adoption, and because there were two children. Now the agency balked. The twins were in a single-parent home and that parent was the father while they were female. Much legal rigmarole followed. In the end because of the twins’ generally unfavorable prospects for other adoptions and because the Sjokheims had nearly completed the procedure at the time of Mrs. Sjokheim’s death, the state allowed Mr. Sjokheim to go ahead.

The last year and a half had not been easy. At forty-five he was unused to being the only parent of two young children. The twins were coping with the second loss of a mother in two years. He had had to move to be nearer their regular baby-sitter; he had had to make some career decisions he had never anticipated. He was no longer head engineer in his lab. It had simply taken too much time. Now he was living in a smaller house and making a smaller salary, and his main job was raising Lori and Libby. Some days, he said with a weary smile, he seriously questioned the wisdom of his choice to be a single father. For the most part, however, there could have been no other life for him.

The problems with Lori showed up early. Even before the twins had started school, Mrs. Sjokheim had tried to teach them to write their names. Libby learned immediately. Lori never did. The first year of school had been chaotic. Between her inability to recognize or write any written symbols and her mother’s increasing illness, Lori did not cope well. She was hyperactive and inattentive. At home she developed enuresis and nightmares. Because both Libby and Lori were marked by that traumatic year and because they had September birthdays, making them younger than most other children in their class, the school personnel and Mr. Sjokheim had decided to retain both girls in kindergarten for an additional year. Libby profited from the retention. The more introverted, less expressive of the twins, she grew. The next year she became an excellent student, more confident and outgoing. Lori had no such luck. The second year in kindergarten was no less disastrous than the first. About midyear everyone began to realize that there must be more wrong with Lori than simple immaturity or poor adjustment to family crisis. Some things she could do with great ease, such as count aloud or even add verbally, a skill Libby had not acquired. Other things such as writing her name or identifying letters seemed impossible. The final blow came when she suffered a grand mal seizure in class one day.

Mr. Sjokheim took his daughter to the doctor. From there they were referred to university facilities on the far side of the state. Lori was admitted to the university hospital and given a complete neurological workup. When X-rays revealed the fracture line and later the brain lesions, a search was instigated through the adoption agency for old medical records. The abuse incident and the surgery to remove bone fragments and repair the skull came to light.

The doctors were hesitant to give pat answers. The epilepsy, which had probably been going on in the form of petit mal seizure for years, was undoubtedly a result of the abuse damage. The small unnoticed seizures alone could have accounted for much of Lori’s school failure. But as to her other problems, in the areas of symbolic language, there was no way of knowing. Too little about the operations of the brain was understood, and there were too many other possibilities. She was the younger twin, had been born prematurely; perhaps there might have been a birth injury or a congenital defect. Who could tell? Yet that evil crack running so squarely over the lesions on an otherwise normal-appearing brain gave mute testimony to what even the leading neurologist on Lori’s team admitted believing the answer to be.

Following the hospitalization and testing, Lori was placed on anti-convulsant medication and sent home. The seizures were controlled but back in kindergarten the struggle with learning continued. Lori left in June to go on to first grade, able to jabber off the alphabet and count up to 1000 but not even recognizing the letters of her name.

Still there remained a little encouragement from the doctors that she might improve. She was so young when the injury occurred that her brain might be capable of learning new pathways to circumvent the damaged area. If it was going to occur, it would most likely happen before she entered adolescence.

Mr. Sjokheim expressed relief that Lori had been moved half-days from the first grade. She needed more specialized support and he had seen the pressure building when she could not meet Edna’s demands.

He spoke to me about Lori’s actions and reactions over the past weeks. Then he paused, pinched the bridge of his nose and wearily shook his head. “I worry so much about her,” he said. “Not about the reading really. I figure if that’s meant to happen, it will. But …” He stared at the tabletop. “But sometimes I wake up at night … and before I can get back to sleep, well, she creeps into my head. I think about her. I think about all the little things she does to convince herself that this much failure does not matter to her. And I think how it does matter.” He looked up at me. His eyes were a soft, nondescript hazel color. “It’s worst at night for me. When I’m alone and I get to thinking about her. There’s no way to distract myself then. And you know … you know, it sounds stupid to say, but sometimes it makes me cry. I actually get tears in my eyes.”

I watched him as he spoke and thought about what it must be like to be Lori. That was difficult. I had always been a good student who had never had to try. I could not imagine what it must be like to be seven and to have known failure half my life, to get up every morning and come spend six hours in a place where try as I might, I could never really succeed. And by law Lori had at least seven more years ahead of her of this torture, as many years left as she had lived. Men murdered and received shorter prison terms than that. All Lori had done was to be born into the wrong family.

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