Like a Bird on Breadcrumbs
Her handprints used to bother me.
From the moment Harper first took a step of her own, she’s made handprints on the windows and mirrors. My daughter leaves them on the dishwasher and walls. I’ve often discovered and destroyed four years’ worth of thumbprints kept in caramel. I don’t always admire how Harper’s fingers are creased in patterns just like her mother’s, or how I can feel those impressions when she holds my hand on the walk from the parking lot and into cognitive therapy. The sessions have given her everything except the power of speech. Autism has arrested her ability to answer my call from across the house. When Harper’s being quiet, mischievous, I have to follow her handprints like a bird on breadcrumbs, a bottle of glass cleaner and paper towels and diligence in stow. I’ve always been able to find my way to Harper. I’ve never given it a second thought. I once assumed that she could always find her way to me.
On a cold morning in October 2012, before Harper’s autism diagnosis, before she could even walk, my dad drove to the conservation area outside of town and shot himself in his car. Since then, I’ve had these disturbing daydreams about delivering Harper’s eulogy. When I play through this sad scenario, I imagine friends and family gathered in a dark parlor. Harper is the only one dressed in pink. She’s lying in a short, white casket, her hands placed delicately upon her hollow chest. I struggle to keep it together as I stand before them. Halfway through the speech, I draw comparisons between this and the metaphorical death of my normal child the moment she was diagnosed with a severe developmental delay. Many are surprised at my being so blunt. I scoff and say autism is hardly a death sentence. I wish I’d known then that the quirks in Harper’s brain would somehow make her better than other kids. At this point, we all cry in unison. I catch my breath and remind everyone Harper was like a bird that could see above the trees. She was always looking to the sky. She appreciated a beauty we’d all grown to forget was even there. Everyone nods in agreement. Harper’s view of the world just made more sense. But now she’s gone, and we curse how it took her death to remind us of what’s important.
My daydream feels like a living fairytale, cautionary and poignant. The Brothers Grimm must also have wondered at the big, unforgiving world while they plotted thrusting Hansel and Gretel into the arms of a hungry witch. Imagining the worst fate for our own children is a kind of coping mechanism, something we all do, a way to emotionally prepare ourselves if, and only if, something horrible ever happens. On a conscious level, I never really considered the possibility of delivering that eulogy. Even though I’ve imagined the scenario countless times, projected it over and over on an agonizing mental loop, I’ve never stopped to think about how Harper might one day be lost in a dark woods of her own.
I cooked chicken and rice the day she ventured from our house. Harper left the kitchen table while I was at the stove not even ten feet away. I didn’t think anything of it. I don’t even know when she fled, handprints and rice grains marking an obvious path to the front door. It was impossible for me to know just how long a second really is until I had to count how many had passed since I’d climbed upstairs, called her name a dozen times, and swore to myself the front door was secured. The police officer who found Harper said she was okay, although I could see it for myself in her beaming smile. I had circled the house twice, run barefoot into the street, my heart and brain painfully pulsing. For a brief moment like eternity, I could feel that white casket against my fingertips. The officer told me Harper made it to the gas station on the corner. A woman stopped her from getting into traffic, though Harper put up a fight, kicking and scratching, searching desperately for something she just couldn’t communicate. I joked that she had a healthy fear of strangers, but apparently not moving cars. The officer responded that this kind of thing merits a call to services that protect children, but there’s obviously something wrong, so he’d let me off. I don’t know if he meant there’s something wrong with Harper or my parenting, maybe both. He told me not to let it happen again. The thought of losing her is still too much to bear. Harper looked up at me, her reassuring smile stained with red punch. I knew in that moment simply loving her would never, ever be enough.
Fairytales are supposed to have happy endings. My daydreams do not. I know it’s a waste of time to question the what-ifs, but if Hansel and Gretel’s father was anything like me, doubt drove him from sleep. Perhaps he felt undeserving of his second chance. He must have known there’s no such thing as neatness and order when it comes to children, yet no one can ever be prepared to find their daughter consumed by the unknown. God, do I love those little handprints. I let them gum up the glass; measure the years. Harper doesn’t need to speak her love to me. She just bats those starry eyes. I stare back, hug her as tight as possible, and plead in my embrace she keeps a map to her wide open.
Keep dropping breadcrumbs, Harper. I’ll always be close behind.
Aaron White is a fiction writer from Southeastern Illinois who is so introverted that writing this bio makes him feel very uncomfortable. His days are spent raising a toddler, navigating academia, trying to sell a novel, and wallowing in obscurity.