25: Lisa

25: Lisa

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great


Be ever gentle with the children God has given you. Watch over them constantly; reprove them earnestly, but not in anger.

~Elihu Burritt

The steam rising from the sudsy dishwater clouds the window, blurring my view of the backyard. But I know she is out there. I can tell by the rhythmic squeak of the swing set. I can tell by the abandon in her high-pitched, singsong voice. I know she is there, all right.

I take a deep breath and turn my attention back to the dirty dishes. There will not be time enough to finish before she comes running through the yard, dogs in tow, consumed with high drama and frantic energy, needing and demanding all the energy I have left.

Nothing productive happens when Lisa is around; she fills a room to bursting with her presence. Every breath, every word, every shrugged shoulder captures her attention. “Why?” “How come?” “What does that mean?”

“What did I do?” she demands constantly.

Lisa talks loudly and incessantly. She is constantly in motion. She walks into walls. She trips over her own feet. Once, midstream in endless dinnertime chatter, her entire chair tipped over. My husband and I exchanged glances. Lisa kept right on talking.

When Lisa first came to live with us, I thought I was a terrible grandmother. She was always getting hurt. She fell from gymnasium bleachers and broke her new front tooth. She backed into the iguana’s heating lamp and scorched her backside. She peeked through the crack of an open door just as I shut it and got her lip and nose pinched. She got her finger stuck in a pop bottle. She reached for a ball in the swimming pool and nearly drowned herself. A somersault from her bed required four stitches to her scalp. Pretty soon, I figured out that I was not doing anything wrong with Lisa; Lisa is simply out of synch with her own body.

I’m nearly finished with the dishes when I hear Lisa let out an ear-splitting whoop. She comes running for the back door with the dogs, her beautiful long, woolly braids a tangled mess. “I’m bored,” she exclaims loudly, her soft, full lips forming a perfect little pout. I take a long, calming breath that I wish I could somehow transfer to her. I pat her sweaty head and gently disentangle myself from her clutches. “How about watching a movie until dinner’s ready?” I try hopefully.

Somehow, videos calm Lisa. Therefore, she owns dozens. She can recite them all, word for word, and act them all out perfectly — but not today. “Oh, pu-leeze!” She flaunts dramatically and rolls her eyes, behavior better suited to a sixteen-year-old than a six-year-old. She has practiced the look from her latest video. And then she is off again, already forgetting how “bored” she is.

I am the only one who loves Lisa; everyone else just yells at her. Even though she exhausts me, even though she can reduce me to a screaming, out-of-control maniac, even though my favorite pastime is fantasizing about a life without her, still, I am the only one who loves her. I am the only one who knows how unhappy she really is.

Lisa was expelled from two nursery schools, flunked preschool and could not pass the entrance exam at three different kindergartens. I enrolled her directly into first grade at a public school that could not turn her away. That year was a disaster. I fought her teacher daily. Susie wrote things like “violent and irrational behavior” instead of “highstrung” or “underdeveloped impulse control,” which was, at least, equally true. Susie felt that Lisa should repeat first grade. I refused. I knew that Lisa would be the same difficult, hard-to-love, hard-to-teach child a year later. Besides, I will be sixty-five when Lisa graduates high school. I cannot hang on for “extra” years.

Lisa wishes she had a mommy like all the other kids, a mommy young enough to still be afraid of teachers instead of a granny, who sees her teacher as a girl young enough to be her own daughter. Lisa wishes for a mommy who will call her teacher “Miss King” instead of Susie. Lisa wishes for a lot of things, but mostly, she wishes for her mommy.

Pots are boiling all over the stove, dogs are chasing Lisa around the kitchen table, and my husband is trying to engage me in conversation when the telephone rings. Her cousins are coming over to play. I see a flicker of panic in Lisa’s eyes.

Lisa is extremely social; she needs to be around people, and she usually seeks them out the way a diabetic seeks out sugar. But she knows her medication has worn off. She knows she is out of control. I try to calm her, reassure her. “You’ll have fun playing with them,” I tell her. She knows different. I know she is right.

The medicine was a concession to Teacher; in return she agreed not to recommend Lisa’s dismissal from the school. Lisa knows the medication changes how she feels; it’s scary that she has made the connection between drugs and behavior. I am not so sure that is a good thing for the child of a drug addict to know.

Lisa’s mommy is my daughter. She is a street person, a drug addict and a crack-head; a casualty of the failed war on drugs. Lisa idolizes her “Santa Claus, Tooth-Fairy Mommy.” Lisa has created an imaginary Bestest Mommy Ever, and she loves her fiercely. It is heartbreaking to see, totally impossible to stop. I don’t even know if I should try.

The cousins are here, the dogs are out of control and so is Lisa. She cannot cope with the excitement. One tattle of “Lisa hit me!” is followed by “Lisa pushed me!” followed by a crash that no one can identify but everyone is sure is Lisa’s fault. Lisa is wound tight, ready to explode. I brace for it, too exhausted to plan an intervention. Then the lamp falls, crashes into a potted plant, which falls to the floor and breaks into a million pieces. The shards of glass pierce Lisa’s fingers. Not badly enough to require stitches this time, I decide, but there is enough blood to make her hysterical. My husband handles first aid this time; I concentrate on cleaning up the mess and keeping calm. I will not lose control this time. I will not start yelling this time.

People accuse me of spoiling Lisa. They say I let her get away with too much. But I know when she is speaking disrespectfully, she is really reciting dialogue from a movie, because she doesn’t know how to express herself. I know her frequent accidents are her way of getting loving attention, so different from the attention she usually gets. I know that the children at school are cruel to her and will not play with her. They tease her because she cannot read and has to sit at the blue table all by herself. They tease her because she does not have a mommy. I can’t counterbalance all the hurt she has to endure, but I try. I really am the only one who loves her.

The cousins have gone home, the dogs have been fed, and Lisa has had a good cry and a warm bath. The tension is released from her little body, and she is exhausted. So am I. We cuddle on the couch, too tired to walk into her bedroom. “I’m sorry, Granny,” she whispers in a tiny voice. She begins to cry all over again, her skinny shoulders shaking. I hug her tightly and let my tears mix with hers.

Tomorrow, I will call her teacher “Miss King.”

~Christina Miranda-Walker
Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul

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