I smell of coconut oil. Not just my hands, my fingers, but all of me: my clothes, my hair, everything. Little has incredibly dry skin. It feels lizard like at times, as if she were some remnant of some Jurassic age: a dinosaur, fresh from the seas and all that salt still stealing, still drawing out, all the moisture from her skin. She flakes sometimes.
It's probably nothing, probably just some tick of genetics she will grow out of as she settles into her new world. But Dr Internet tells us that it might be something, might mean too that we're wrong to think that the orphanage treated her well. Certainly she has a thirst the like of which I've never before seen in a child. She loves her water, her cups that calm her. She needs water, demands and reaches for it. She is thirsty in a way that I cannot understand. No wonder her skin is dry.
To combat the effects of her apparent lack of groundwater, the desert her skin sometimes feels, to try and top up and give her that which her body tells us she is missing, we apply, post bath, a salve of coconut oil. The oils are supposed to penetrate deeply. They are supposed to soften, to moisten. They are supposed to smooth her skin and soothe her soul.
For this unguent serves another purpose too. It is beginning to undo the effects of her living in her lizardish brain. Psychologists and Neurologists talk about there being three parts to the human mind: The R Complex, the Limbic system and the Neocortex, each more developed, sophisticated and nuanced than the last. The R stands for reptilian and Little, because of the traumas she has already lived through - two different abandonments; two different separations: her physical difficulties and troubles with speech - spends more of her time there, operating at its behest than another child might, one of a similar age that has not lived through what Little already has.
Generally, Coconut Time is a time of calm. All clean, all fresh, it is the precursor to her very short story and bed. The story has to be short, and it helps that it is the same one every time; repetition breeds familiarity and with the familiar there is less to be afraid, to be scared of. It is all she can manage for now. Part of her living so much in her lizardish mind, the basest of all our neurological systems, the system that takes care of fight and flight and feeding: the impulses she needs to stay alive. (And boy, can she eat; she eats like she drinks, like it is all she will ever have.) All this means that she cannot concentrate on anything for long. Books were almost impossible when she first came home - no one will have read to her before, we think. They wouldn't have had time or the inclination, or perhaps, even the knowledge that stories are important to a child's development, that stories help establish a child's sense of narrative. And that narrative is our life.
We're making progress. Four months in and mostly she will last a whole book. Especially when Big is playing ball, and leaving Little alone. But first we have to get here there, and that begins with Coconut Time. We stroke and we soothe, we shush and coo. We are trying to settle her down, to get her ready for the end of her day, to prepare her for the nights' separation: to reassure that we will be back in the morning. Our touch in the oils' application is important. It is something that we can do to try and kick start her emotional mind, to draw her away from her Reptilian Complex to the emotional responses of the Limbic System: of memories of the things that made her laugh or calmed her. So, we stroke and we shush and we breathe: deeply and slowly, the better to combat her stress and help tame the Lizard within. It builds trust and strengthens the bond she has with us.
It was not so calm today. Big and Little were tired, and dinner had been a disaster. Little threw all her food on the floor, and Big erupted with laughter. I was tired, my wife was working, tempers were frayed, and raised voices lurking. Everything was speeded up, just to get things done. It was less than text book and she fought me. She struggled and scratched and screamed. Big, for her part, stayed out of it, even though I knew she was getting frustrated that everything was taking so long. She wanted her story, her milk: she was angry at Little for taking all my time.
It got everywhere, and I am covered in it. The smell of coconut pervades everything as I write this, it is what I shall inhale as I go to sleep tonight, tired at the end of a difficult day. But when I am applying it tomorrow, it will be the small that reminds me that we are surviving this, that, however hard yesterday was, nobody died and no one was hurt. It is the smell of achievements made, of another step in the right direction.
* * *
Earlier posts about Big and Little can be found on Medium
And much older, print work can be found here: http://www.ofjournalism.webs.com