I can’t pinpoint the moment I realised our daughter was different, but I know exactly when I accepted her difference as fact. This moment right here, right now. There were signs along the way – some subtle, others not-so-much – which offered hints, slowly preparing my husband and I for this beautiful reality. Despite these glimpses, we were still woefully unprepared for the truth.
Since neither of us has a womb, we chose to adopt rather than use a surrogate. Why create a life when there are so many languishing in orphanages, for want of a loving home? With love and patience, we knew we could overcome any challenge offered by an unknown heritage and gene pool. And since the hypocrisy of the church had infected our government, we were forced to adopt overseas. That’s how we ended up in Thailand.
As my husband and I wandered through the cribs of the orphanage, I heard Sebastian’s heart break as clearly as I felt my own. I gripped Seb’s hand tightly, borrowing his strength so I could endure the onslaught of misery and despair. So many tears, so many pleading faces, so many sad stories. All these children, ranging from newborns to toddlers, knew they faced lives of hardship and we were a potential escape. I wanted to choose all of them. Then we saw her; the calm amongst the storm.
She was beautiful. She was tiny. She radiated cleanliness and tranquility, despite her filthy sheets and nappy, despite the loud misery which surrounded her. She had beautiful Thai features with luminous skin, a knowing expression, and smiling eyes. Her eyes, however, were a piercing blue. We asked about her background, unable to take our eyes off her.
“We think she’s six weeks old,” we were told. “She was discovered by a fisherman last week, floating in a bed of seaweed just offshore.” The orphanage administrator pointed out to sea as Seb and I exchanged surprised looks. No gut-wrenching backstory with this child. Her story was almost a fairy tale. “We’ve been calling her Ariel but you can change her name if you adopt her, obviously.”
And adopt her, we did. She kept the name Ariel; it just felt right. My family loved her immediately, as did everyone who met her. Everyone except my dear mother-in-law.
“What an ugly baby,” the racist old crone screeched. “Does it have Down’s Syndrome? You know, everyone always said I was beautiful, even as a baby.”
“Do you know how lucky you are?” My mother frequently asked this question. “Ariel never cries. You cried relentlessly when you were a baby.”
Seb and I knew exactly how lucky we were. Not only did Ariel never cry, she also took the bottle without any difficulty and slept through the night, every night. “Easy babies become difficult teenagers,” Seb said frequently, preparing us for a wilful child later on in life.
As the weeks became months and the months turned into years, we just accepted the ease of Ariel’s childhood. At first, we suspected she may be challenged on a developmental level. She showed no interest in learning to crawl or walk, never made any noises trying to emulate our speech. She just lay there, her intense blue eyes absorbing everything.
“What would you like for breakfast?” I asked Ariel one morning as I slid her into the high chair.
“Apple puree, please Daddy James.”
The response, so clear and flawless, stunned me. I looked around, certain my mother was playing a joke on me somewhere.
“Would you like it warmed up?” I asked, watching Ariel intently.
“Yes please.” Her lips matched the sounds. She was speaking, fluently. She noticed my surprise. “Is everything OK?”
I just nodded and prepared our breakfast. Seb was stunned into momentary silence when he returned home from work that evening.
“What a joy!” he eventually exclaimed. “I guess she just didn’t want to say anything until she had it right.”
Unfortunately Ariel’s leap into language wasn’t welcomed by everyone. Seb’s mother, who was never going to win grandmother of the year, stopped visiting completely because of her punishing schedule of ‘painting lessons and tennis’.
My mother expressed her unease and scaled back her visits, as well. “It’s not normal,” she said, on more than one occasion.
We became a close knit family, a self-contained unit which never needed anybody else. Our daughter was special and didn’t deserve to be shunned. So we made sure we never needed a babysitter, never scared another person with Ariel’s mastery of the language at such a young age. She didn’t have the emotional skills to understand the negative, fearful reactions.
Then one evening, as Seb arrived home from work and closed the door, Ariel leapt to her feet and ran over to give him a hug. “Hello Daddy Seb” she said, giggling her delightful laugh. He swung her around, delighted with the greeting. Seb and I exchanged surprised looks over Ariel’s shoulder.
“No baby steps for her, obviously.” Seb had just kissed Ariel goodnight and joined me for a glass of wine on the back porch. “No crawling, no unsteady steps.”
“Hopefully, by the time she starts school, she won’t be so advanced for her age.” We clinked glasses and snuggled against the chill of the autumn air.
Eventually, when Ariel was at an age appropriate for her to be talking and running as she did, we started introducing her to other people. She spent a few hours at daycare most days, and then kindergarten. She went to birthday parties and had play dates. The uncommon bursts of her early development no longer mattered; she was an ordinary girl, now. Then I had the bright idea of teaching her how to swim.
She’d aways loved bath time. She’d splash and giggle. She loved showers and sitting in the blow-up kiddy pool. So off we went to the indoor council pool.
At first, Ariel made no effort. She didn’t try to kick, didn’t splash her arms. She just lay in my arms, lolling about like a stuffed toy. I had assumed that eventually, she would just kick off and swim like an olympic medal winner. However, after three visits to the pool, I realised she wasn’t going to have another leap in development. So I bought some water wings for our next swimming lesson.
And that brings us to now, the moment I finally accepted our daughter’s difference. She is Different, with a capital D. We’ve just entered the water for our fourth swimming lesson.
“Let’s get these water wings on,” I said, reaching for the little plastic inflatable tubes.
“I don’t need those, Daddy James,” Ariel giggled. She wriggled from my grip and showed me her hands. I gasped; I couldn’t help myself. Her fingers had webbing between them, growing thicker and stronger before my eyes. Then I noticed her legs. They fused together and formed a tail, her feet becoming fins. Blue scales spread over her tail, reflecting light on the roof of the pool complex.
Ariel flicked her tail and swam on her own. She giggled as she swam circles around me, relishing her freedom of movement in the water. She was completely unaware of the gasps and screams her transformation had provoked in the people around. She only had eyes for me. She only wanted her Daddy’s approval.
“Way to go, Ariel!” I applauded, so proud of my little girl. “Wait until Daddy Seb sees this!”