Ellie blows into the yellow rubber glove, creating room enough to slide her hands through to the fingertips with little resistance. She has the phone on speaker as she listens to her sister, Mel, complain about scraping dried macaroni and cheese from bowls. Scalding water empties from the faucet and winds around small, colorful plastic plates and half-sized cups. A line of steam floats to Ellie’s face.
“Sometimes, Ellie, I just don’t know what the hell I was thinking staying at home, cleaning up this crap all day.”
Ellie smiles as she uses a steel wool pad to scrape at the remnants of breakfast smeared over a Mickey Mouse-eared plate. “Uh huh.”
This has always been their relationship. Ellie listens with wisdom and compassion to her younger sister’s complaints and worries, sometimes offering advice, sometimes just sitting. There were times during their adolescence when Ellie would pet Mel’s hair while Mel sobbed in her lap about a boy or not making cheerleader or how unfair their parents could be.
“I mean, really. I could be in some corner office having my assistant call in reservations to a real Italian place, one that doesn’t serve this damned mac and cheese.”
Ellie keeps smiling and rubbing at the food. “Uh huh.”
“Are you even listening to me Ellie?”
Ellie looks over at her only child, her daughter, nearly six now, playing with a set of foam blocks, stacking them in even columns of equal color. Her daughter’s procedural stacking is a brief moment of solace in Ellie’s unpredictable world. Dishwashing and block building are routine, and routine for Ellie and her little girl is elemental. “Uh huh.”
“Ellie! I’m hanging up.”
Ellie rinses the Mickey Mouse plate and stacks it in the drainer on the counter. She watches water from the plate drip into a valley in the drain board and race toward the sink. “Uh huh.”
The red light on the speakerphone turns off. Mel will ring Ellie again as soon as afternoon soaps air and Jack, Mel’s third child, surrenders to a nap. Ellie finishes the plates and moves on to the cups, content with particles of food swimming among degreasing bubbles.
Ellie was nearing forty when she discovered she was pregnant with Danica, little Dani, her morning star. She had given up on ever having children after emptying all the savings account on several rounds of failed in-vitro. She and her husband, Tom, settled into a life of spoiling nieces and nephews with an unfinished love. Then, when the surprise of Danica entered their lives, Ellie refocused her attention to her daughter, conversations with Mel now relegated to a sort of teleconference scheduled after snack time or during soap operas.
Ellie pulls the drain plug on the dishwater and folds down her gloves. She lays them neatly over the middle of the sink to dry and walks over to squat down next to Dani as the little girl continues to stack and sort. Ellie moves slowly when she lifts her hand to brush aside the loose blonde curls hanging in Dani’s face. Dani shrugs a shoulder in to avoid the contact, but Ellie begins to sing to calm her so she will receive her mother’s touch.
“Morning has broken, like the first morning. Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.”
Dani stills herself and loosens the tension in her shoulders. She places a yellow block on top of the fifth yellow block in a column of six. She has already created a column of six red blocks and a column of six orange standing beside each other with the red column first. She is obviously organizing a rainbow in the mathematical way Dani sees everything. Ellie knows better than to interrupt such projects; Dani’s reactions can be violent and loud, but after hearing Mel complain for ten minutes, Ellie needs this moment.
“That’s it, Dani. Mommy just wants to see your pretty face.”
Dani begins to hum along with Ellie and begins a slight rock to the slow and happy rhythm.
“You like that, sweet? You want mommy to keep singing while you make your rainbow?”
Dani’s rocking quickens with each of her mother’s spoken words. She curves her shoulders in more, causing the blonde curls to fall back into her face. Ellie pulls her hand back and freezes, only her lips move as she sings the next line.
“Praise for the singing fresh from the word.”
Dani picks up the first green block and sets it six inches from the stack of yellow blocks. She continues to hum the tune Ellie is still singing. This is the only way Ellie and Dani can communicate with language, through music and lyric. Ellie has decided this is evidence of how smart her morning star is. She can interpret the lyrics; she can understand and convey emotion in the most basic humming along as Ellie, mommy, sings. Ellie is so convinced of this that she has learned to play the organ; she has mastered a few hymns she thinks best show her Dani how much she loves her, and she plays them in lieu of butterfly kisses and neck-enclosing hugs.
“Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven. Like the first dewfall, on the first grass.”
Ellie slows the song down now that she watches Dani returning to the rhythm of sort and stack. She swallows back her tears as she remembers the first few years of Dani’s existence. Ellie’s excitement was palpable then. She and Tom were wrapped in elated thoughts of Dani’s arrival. They refused a baby shower. They wanted to buy everything themselves, to let their love pick every item that their morning star would ever wear or use. They covered her room with glow paint stars on the ceiling, stars hanging from a melodious mobile, and a large, glittery star painted on the wall next to her crib with Danica scripted in the heart of it. And when Dani arrived, she came at the break of morning, like the bursting sun. Her lungs screamed a healthy cry, and Ellie and Tom cried and sang out with joy. Their golden haired babe was the most blessed gift they had ever received. And three years later, when the doctor defined what Autism was and how Dani manifested the condition, Ellie and Tom still saw Dani as a blessed gift.
Thunder rumbles in low as Ellie continues to watch Dani stack the blocks into a graphic rainbow. Many children fear the ominous roars of thunder, but Dani has learned that her beloved rainbows sometimes come after storms, so she tempers the loud booms with fevered rocking and more stacking and sorting. If the storm is a long one, thirty minutes or more, Dani will have stacked and restacked the foam rainbow a dozen times or more, each one as precise and clean as the first.
“You hear that, Dani? A rainbow’s coming.”
Dani scoots along the carpet toward where she will begin to stack the violet column, further away from Ellie. Ellie reaches behind her to a built-in shelf and picks up a scrapbook. She opens the book to about its middle and runs her hand over two pictures. One is of Ellie at the same age Dani is now; the other is Dani’s most recent picture. They look identical, save for the expression. Ellie has the same long wild curls as Dani. In their disheveled state, the locks look like sunbursts framing creamy and freckled faces. Both the girls share dark eyelashes that curl up to meet dark eyebrows. Then, Ellie frowns as she focuses on the differing expressions in the two little girls’ eyes. Ellie’s hazel eyes dance wild and exuberant, but Dani’s seem a bit dulled, lost within her broken world. Ellie wishes she could dip the joy in the eyes of her childhood into the isolation of Dani’s. She shakes her head and slaps the book closed.
Lightning flashes, and Ellie begins counting the seconds between flash and rumble. It’s her way of communicating how close the storm is to Dani. Dani understands the numbers, seems to slow her rocking when Ellie counts. Ellie once tried to calm her by holding her during a storm a few years back, but Dani just screamed more, flailing her arms the tighter Ellie tried to hold her. Ellie cried as she let her daughter free. Dani scrambled to a corner, rocking and tapping out the seconds on a windowsill. It was the first time Ellie realized how much precision and calculation ordered Dani’s world.
The storm is in its full throes now, so Ellie walks over to the organ and turns it on. She glances back at Dani, now sorting again for her second go at the rainbow. Ellie adjusts her feet at the pedals and pushes a few buttons to key in a classical organ sound. The volume adjusted to one notch louder than the thunder cracks, Ellie plays and sings the remainder of the song she and Dani began before the storm rolled in.
“Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden.
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning.”
Ellie stops after an intro and few lines. The tears are welling as she tries to stay focused on the blessing. As she recalls the joy of washing a dish, of folding a tiny shirt. It’s too hard now. Ellie isn’t good at math. She’s an artist, musical and emotional.
Tom is the mathematical one, but he is at work now, probably looming over blueprints and CAD designs. She’s not jealous of Tom’s work; his paycheck provides the means for Ellie to stay home with Dani, and when Tom arrives, he doesn’t retreat behind computer games in the office or in a comfy chair watching games in the garage. No, Tom walks in from work, places his briefcase on the dining room table, and squats down next to Dani to help her complete whatever design she is building, every day. He is as exhausted as Ellie; she knows this, but he wants their family to work, to succeed, and the crows feet and frown lines testify to how hard he tries.
Ellie just wants to hold Dani close and rock her and smell her hair, but Dani won’t let her. Ellie’s mouth falls open as she forces herself to keep playing the song, but no melody drops from her lips. Instead, Ellie’s fingers work at the keys. Her face is heated despite the cold air blasting from the vent above her. She turns her head into her shoulder and bites her lip; she wants to sob with noise, but the cries would terrify Dani, so Ellie releases her longing through half notes and quarter rests.
Dani is on her third construction as the lightning stops and the counts between rumbles slow. Ellie takes a few long breaths and begins to eke out quiet words to the tune she is still playing.
“Born of the one light, Eden saw play.”
She now keeps her gaze over her shoulder at Dani, who is stacking the last block of her third construction. Ellie watches and plays, the hymn part of her tactile memory, as Dani stands up and takes a step back and stares at her creation. Dani walks to the windows at the back of the living room and puts her hand on the glass as the afternoon sun bursts through the last of the storm clouds. A tiny smile forms on Dani’s face as a huge rainbow begins to emerge from the renewed sky, the first smile Ellie has ever seen from her morning star. Ellie presses her feet firmly into the pedals and sings out.
“Praise with elation, praise every morning.
God’s recreation of the new day.”
The phone rings not five minutes later, at exactly 1 pm. Ellie knows this call is Mel; her soap is on. Mel sticks to at least one organized rule—Jack down by the time the hourglass appears on her television. Ellie lets the phone ring twice before she rises from the organ’s stool and returns to the kitchen to push the speaker button. She takes a deep breath and says “Hello, Mel” as she heads to the fridge and grabs an apple she will cut into six slices for Dani’s snack.