Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party

& Other Stories by Le Kendall

Author’s note: The audio version contains an anachronistic reference to ASD, which was not a diagnosis in 2002. The text version mentions Aspergers Syndrome as that is accurate to the timeframe.


Mani’s first word was “hat”.

His second word was “Dad”. But he didn’t mean me. He was two. I Found out later that most kids say “Mumma” and “Dada” pretty early on – way younger than he was – but I didn’t know that at the time because I had never spent much time around babies or young children and didn’t know what was normal.

I never called myself ‘Daddy’ to Mani. I mean… I wasn’t even sixteen when he was born and ‘Dad’ to me was still some guy who kicked me out of home. Alan Sebastian and I just called each other by our names when we were around Mani or talking to Mani or talking on his behalf when we played.

Alan Sebastian picked Mani up one day and Mani said “Dadada”. And I realised… he’d done that before.

“Al! I think he means your name. I think that’s you. Dadada.” I said.

Alan Sebastian just looked at me.

“Who’s that?” I asked Mani, pointing at Alan Sebastian.

Mani looked at my finger.

I tapped Alan Sebastian on the chest and asked him again.

“Dadada.” Mani said again. “What about me? What’s my name? Do you know me?”

“Bobobob,” said Mani.

“Oh my gosh,” said Alan Sebastian.

“That’s us,” I said, “Dad and Bob.”

“He can’t call me Dad,” said Alan Sebastian, “You’re his Dad. I’m just his uncle. It’s not Dada, Mani. It’s Alan Sebastian. Can you say Alan Sebastian? I know it’s pretty long. Maybe you can call me Al if you want. Until you’re old enough to say it properly. Nobody else is allowed to call me that. Just you and Scott.”

“I don’t mind being Bob,” I said, “It’s funny.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” said Alan Sebastian, “It might get confusing.”

But the next time Alan Sebastian came home to visit Mani had learned to say “Asabastcha” and Bob had become Papa.

When I tell people that story, that Mani calls me Papa because he’d already started to call someone else Dad people always seem to think it should have made me jealous. But I wouldn’t know how to be jealous of Alan Sebastian.

But when Mani looked up at Alan Sebastian and called him ‘Dada’ it did hurt. It hurt because I had a glimpse for a moment of something I thought I could have wanted, if I let myself. But it wasn’t something that I was allowed to want to have.

He left. Alan Sebastian left because I made him so I didn’t feel like I was allowed to miss him as much as I did.

“Don’t worry, he’ll come back to visit as often as he can,” I told Mani, “And when he’s finished his degree he’ll come home to stay.”

At first I relied on Gillian a lot. She’d raised two children so I thought of her as an expert. But I didn’t always like the way she spoke to him. “You’re fine stop crying,” she’d say if he hurt himself. She told me that I shouldn’t react to him crying the way I did because I was somehow rewarding him for it and that would make him keep doing it for attention.

But I wasn’t ever comfortable telling Mani that his feelings were wrong.

Mani didn’t sleep a lot or very well. Gillian suggested letting him cry himself to sleep for a while. That I was making things worse by comforting him and letting him sleep in my bed. She thought he was too… dependent on me, somehow.

But Alan Sebastian told me a little bit more about his childhood and I realised that Gillian wasn’t an expert. Maybe she had done the best she could. But at some point I accepted that her best was… not very good.

“He needs to learn that you won’t always be there to fix all of his problems,” said Gillian.

“I guess so,” I said, “But he doesn’t need to learn that today.”

But at other times when I was playing with Mani or when I spoke to him and explained what I thought he might be feeling. Gillian would watch and she would smile.

“You’re very good at that,” she said, “you are much better at it than I was.”

At first I’d felt this enormous pressure being a parent. Being responsible for helping a baby turn into a person. The stakes are so high. What if I fuck it up?

But I thought about Alan Sebastian and how even with Gillian as a mum he’d turned out to be pretty amazing.

And I thought about my parents. I thought about my Mum. About trying to make my own dinner because she was passed out on the couch. I thought about my Dad and how he just didn’t care. And I thought… I’m not sure I can be the best father in the world, but I can definitely do better than that.

So if that’s the bar. If someone can be that much of a shit parent and have your kid turn out – at least okay – it’s actually not that hard to step over that.

And I thought… well if I don’t abuse him and I don’t neglect him… could I really fuck it up that badly?

One day Mani dropped Gillian’s favourite teacup after she’d already told him off for playing with it and the look she gave him frightened me and I stood in front of Mani.

“I won’t let you hurt him.” I said.

She hung her head in shame and sort of sobbed, “good,” she said, “I’m glad.”

“I think maybe Mani and I should move out,” I told her. I’d been going to with Jazz. Before we’d broken up. I didn’t feel ready to do it alone. But I realised that I had to.

Gillian nodded. “I’ve been thinking about that,” she said. “I… we… came into some money before Mani was born. Michelle has her share – I gave that to her before she left. Alan Sebastian said he didn’t want it and I should give his share to Mani. And I’ve just been sort of sitting on it for a while and I thought. When the lease is up here… I could just live in the room above the shop. The old owner used to live there. It’s habitable but it’s not big enough for more than one person. And there’s… there’s a house I’ve been looking at and I could. I could buy it. And you could live in it with Mani.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I can’t teach you how to be a good parent,” she said, “because I wasn’t one. But I know what I needed when I was raising my kids. I know how much of a difference it would have made to not be so worried about losing my home. About affording to eat. I can… I can give you that.”

So we moved, Mani and I, into the house that Gillian bought. And I did pay her rent when I could but at first that wasn’t all the time.

And when it got so hard I thought I’d break I’d ask Gillian, “how did you do this? How did you cope?”

“I didn’t,” she’d tell me. “I didn’t at all.”

When Mani went to preschool the teachers had some concerns. They thought I should get him assessed. For ADHD. For Aspergers Syndrome. But I remembered how I had felt every time I had to leave school to go to the doctor. Like there was something wrong with me. And I don’t want Mani to ever have to feel like that. At one point I did mean to make the appointment but I lost the referral and then I forgot. Mum used to say that if something was really important to me that I’d remember to do it. I must not have really wanted it, if I forgot.

And Mani grew. And it seemed like he was fine after all. He grew and I did too. And when I looked after Mani, I kissed him when he cried and cuddled him as he slept and told him that I would always, always be there for him. I told him he was amazing and I was proud of him for trying even when he failed. I told him that I loved him absolutely and forever and for all time: no matter what.

And when I did those things I looked into my own heart and I saw my younger self, crying and alone. Neglected and abandoned. Never good enough and never right. And I put my arms around him, around myself. And I said “you deserved much better than that.”

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