And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
So there’s Baby’s First Step. And Baby’s First Word. And Baby’s First Tooth. Oh, and don’t forget Baby’s First Television Appearance.
This coming weekend, Olivia and I are the Saturday morning keynotes at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, with our poetry chapbook, Olivia In Five, Seven, Five; Autism In Haiku. The book came from an April, which is National Poetry Month and Autism Awareness Month, where I challenged myself to write a poem a day about Olivia and autism. Olivia provided the subject of the book, and she also wrote the final poem, talking about her experience with autism.
Baby’s First Cause. She speaks, beautifully, for the autistic community.
So far, the book has been a real public speaking learning experience for Olivia. In July, at the AllWriters’ Annual Retreat, Olivia read from the book in front of 26 writers, gathered for a 4-day writing immersion experience. She faced a friendly crowd of people who already knew her. In September, Olivia’s college, Mount Mary University, hosted a launch for the book. Olivia read from the book and answered questions from an audience of primarily strangers…though one person stood out. Olivia’s kindergarten teacher showed up. And teared up during the presentation.
Olivia did fine there too, though she choked on one question: “What did you think when you found out your mother was writing a book about you?”
Later, Olivia told me, “I didn’t know what to say. It’s just what you do.”
Which is true. All of my kids are used to me writing about them. That’s why I’ve always had the best-behaved kids.
And then…we were asked to be on television. WTMJ, Milwaukee’s Channel 4, has a great morning talk show called Morning Blend. They wanted us to talk about the book, and to represent the book festival, now in its thirteenth year. Olivia went with me in 2018, when I was on the show for Today’s Moment Of Happiness Despite The News. She sat on the sidelines and watched. But now…she was going to sit on the big yellow couch with the hosts of the show. And she was going to talk.
The girl who, we were told, was never going to talk.
In the weeks leading up to it, I fielded questions lobbed to me, often from Facebook Messenger, while Olivia sat in her dorm room at school and I sat at home.
“What should I wear?”
“Will they see all of me?”
“What if I don’t know what to say?”
“What are you going to wear?”
“Will there be coffee?”
“I’m nervous, Mom. Nervous.”
And then the morning arrived, this past Tuesday. Baby’s First Television Appearance.
We had to leave by 7:45 a.m. Olivia came out of her room wide-eyed, dressed in a great little overall dress and flouncy-sleeved shirt. “Okay?” she said.
“I’m nervous, Mom. Nervous.”
At the station, we were led back to the waiting area. Olivia sat next to me. She wrung her hands and repeatedly crossed her legs. We watched the show and I told her all that she’d be experiencing. The couch. Being wired for sound. The cameras that are computer-operated and move spookily on their own. How you’re supposed to look at the hosts and not the cameras. Speak slowly (an Olivia challenge – she rattles like a chipmunk) and watch her voice, which tends to reflect that chipmunk by getting squeaky when she gets excited.
All things that I know, because I’m her mom. I’ve known her for her forever.
“I’m nervous, Mom. Nervous.”
When we arrived back in the studio, Olivia took everything in as they ran microphone wires up our clothes and out onto collars. And then, there we were, on the big yellow couch. One of the men on the floor counted down the last five seconds. And we were on!
The host introduced us and the topic of our book. She said, in the introduction, that we were told when Olivia was three years old that she would never speak, and she would look at us like bumps on a log. She listed Olivia’s accomplishments, Dean’s List, inducted into an exclusive national honor society, its members all in the top 5% of their college classes, the finished first draft of a novel. And then she turned to us and asked Olivia, “So, Olivia, what’s the most difficult thing about being autistic?”
And Olivia, nervous Olivia, Olivia who wasn’t supposed to speak, opened her mouth and SPOKE.
She talked of having a silent disability. She talked about being a woman, a word that took me momentarily aback (she’s my baby girl!) with autism, and that mostly, white boys are diagnosed, and so her gender is often ignored, as are people of color with autism. And then she said, and I about melted into the couch with pride and amazement, “People need to look at the autistic, not for what we can’t do, but for what we CAN.”
One of my poems in the book refers to a shirt Olivia wore for a long time. On the front, it said, “I can and I will.” On the back, “Watch me.”
I was watching. I always have. I always will.
Sitting quietly on the big yellow couch, I wondered why I was there. Olivia is the star.
As we left the studio, “I’m nervous, Mom. Nervous,” became, “That was fun!”
Good. Because we’re doing it again. On Saturday morning at 9:00, Olivia and I will be keynotes at the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. She and I will read from the book, and then we’ll be interviewed on stage by Jim Higgins, the books editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Audience members will have a chance to ask questions too.
Come ask questions. Give me the chance to see my daughter SPEAK again.
Baby’s First Keynote.
This mama is so proud.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.
If you’d like to see the video of our appearance, click here:
And check out the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books at www.sewibookfest.com!