"Dolphin Communion," A Memoir
Excerpt from Helen Patrice
We are at Seaworld on the Gold Coast. I can afford an off-season holiday, as long as we stay, all three of us, at a backpackers’ hostel. It is August, and even though it’s semi-warm, it’s still winter. The sun has finally come out, after a day’s patchy rain.
We are seated around the dolphin pool, waiting for the afternoon show. There is a large sign urging parents not to let their children near the water.
Susan is seated next to me, fidgeting as any five year old will. David is away to the edge of the pool. He crouches over a filtration grate and watches the water flow in and out, gurgling. Every now and then, water splashes up and bathes his fingers, which are dangled over the grate.
No one but me has thought the word ‘autism’. He is hearing impaired, like his sister, and that can be the excuse, for now, for his odd behaviour, his passionate enthusiasms for trains, and water. He is not toilet trained, shows no signs of it. Good thing he is skinny, so that he still fits into Huggies’ disposable diapers.
Inch by inch, he edges towards the pool. It is almost Tai Chi, so slow are his movements. After fifteen minutes, he is laying full length on the concrete, getting soaked, and his right hand is in the water, just on the surface. No one seems to have seen, yet he is just to the left of the main crowd. We are in the front row. I am tensed, ready to dash for him.
The dolphins are cruising back and forth at the other end of the pool. As soon as David’s hand goes under the water, one of the dolphins arrows towards him, and then, gentle as autumn light, starts nudging his little hand with its steel-strong nose.
David is still, letting the dolphin have its way. His body relaxes completely, as I haven’t seen it do since we left home five days before. The dolphin comes back for more and more, and the other dolphin swims over. They push each other out of the way to get at David’s hand. Each has a turn at nosing him.
David has his head on his other arm. The world is shut out for him. I can see that aphasic ‘I’m not here’ that he gets during diaper changes. He is with the dolphins, and they are with him, and together they are in some parallel world. There is no sound, no other people, just them, and the water, and this silent communion.
Further along the pool’s edge, another young child puts their hand in the water. The dolphins turn, scan, and go back to David. No one else is good enough.
One of the keepers emerges, ready to begin the show. She hurries over, and I walk forward, ready to claim my son.
“You have to make him move back,” she says, urgently. “They’re wild animals. There’s no telling what they’ll do.”
I look at the dolphins wanting more and more of David’s hand, playfully finning each other aside to get at his hand, not even the size of a tennis ball. The dolphins touch him as soft as the water’s skin.
The keeper turns.
“He’s a wild animal, too,” I say.
She sighs. “Never mind,” she says. “They’re obviously in love.”
She starts the show right away, and calls the audience to attention. The dolphins peel off, obedient to the whistle and the promise of fish. I gently pick David up and deposit him sitting in a large puddle on the concrete. More water is the only thing that will placate him. He’s still lost to this world.
I let him stay wet until the end of the show, then change him. He’s back with us, but calm, able to sit in the pusher and be taken for afternoon tea. He looks at me out of the corner of his eyes, for the first time in a week, and touches me voluntarily, putting his mouth on my hand. He bites me gently. I suck his hand in response, and blurt it. He smiles, looks away, continues tackling a cinnamon doughnut and two slices of apple.
Susan wants to know when she gets to pat the dolphins. She has to be jollied along with a dolphin plush toy, because the dolphins are not for patting. She gives me her doubtful look. She’s just seen her brother at it, and I’ve brought her up to expect equal rights.
There is no explanation I can give her. I tell her the dolphins are sleeping now, and maybe later. Maybe tomorrow.
The next day, we head home on the plane. David spends the trip lying on the floor of the plane, in the aisle. Understanding flight attendants step over him when they’re not jockeying the trolley. He looks up their skirts. I don’t offer any explanation. I have none.
Helen Patrice is an Australian writer living in Melbourne. She is the sole author of two books of poetry: A Woman of Mars (Stanza Press), and Palaeontology for Beginners (Finnlady Press), and one of four poets in collaboration in She, Too. Helen's short work has appeared in numerous literary and genre journals in Australia and the USA, and is currently a columnist for the TravelnRavel website. She is working on a memoir called How The Light Gets In.