Je décide, tu décides, elle décide …

August 6, 2009

The number of times I have doubted my decision! And yet a few occasions stand out when I could have packed it all in and didn’t.

 The first one almost doesn’t count because it was in reverse. Having considered raising Piaf bilingually, having cleared it with her mother, and having reassured myself that, though my French was not perfect, it was good enough to have a crack, I bottled it when she was born. The scales fell from my eyes. I was about to set myself up as a fraud! What would my family say? What would my English friends say – would they think I was pretentious? Come to that, what would my French friends say – would I be marked out as a malefactor, grooming a cuckoo to be released on an unsuspecting France some years hence? For the first week, I spoke little to Piaf, but when I did it was in English – I can remember holding her, tiny, in my arms, and trying to convince her I was Ben E. King as I crooned “When My Little Girl Is Smiling”.

 At the end of the week, nothing had changed. Except me. I remembered the sound reasons I had had for wanting to do this and decided I didn’t care what anyone else thought. This was about me and Piaf and if anyone didn’t like it, that was their concern. We’d live.

 When Piaf was four months, we took her to Waterbabies, trawling half-way across London for it and spending the weekend with the outlaws. Waterbabies has fixed command words which your baby is supposed to associate with what is happening at the time. I promptly translated these into French. Her mother voiced her concerns. Day-to-day was fine, but surely this was different? I did not explicitly argue, but I knew instinctively that this was a test of the set-up. Back down here, and everything else “serious” would automatically be in English. French would have no validity for Piaf. It would become a hobby. Instead of arguing, then, I remarked that, if they had Waterbabies in France too (it’s a big franchise) then surely the commands would be in French? If what was important was that the words were fixed, I would make sure to use the same words every time. Maman probably still wasn’t 100% convinced, but she let it go, and another hurdle was behind us.

 At 11 months, Piaf was teething – again. She was a little hot and grumpy, but basically fine. She had her bath as normal, giggled as we played with her, and went to bed.

 An hour or so later she woke. I went to give her the rest of her milk and noticed with horror that her normally alert eyes were unfocussed. I picked her up. She was limp and seemed to be twitching. Her temperature was beyond anything we had come across.

 The next half-hour or so is a bit of a blur, to be honest. I remember shouting to her mum; calling the ambulance; thinking it was a toss-up as to whether this was meningitis or epilepsy; thinking that, of course, it had been too good to be true, that our little girl was going to be taken away because I didn’t deserve her; kicking myself for being resolutely agnostic because, even as I prayed for her to be spared (in the street, looking out for the ambulance), I knew I did not believe that anything was listening.

It turned out to be a febrile convulsion. Neither of us had ever heard of it. It is not normally life-threatening, but does a bloody good impression of being so when you don’t know what it is. When I knew that, when we got to the hospital, the blur clears. Our girl was not going to die. Thought could begin again.

 But what I do remember about that half-hour, running around impotently with her in my arms, feeling her bowels open, the ride in the ambulance, is that I never once stopped talking to her in French. Maybe that’s odd – surely the shock should have made me revert to my native tongue? But, in as far as I thought anything, I decided there and then that the last thing I was going to do to my daughter at a time like this, when none of us knew what was going on, was to confuse and distress her by changing the language I used to make her feel loved. For me and Piaf, les jeux étaient déjà faits.


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