“How much pocket money do I have?”
It’s a question Attie asks me often. Saving money is an incredibly hard thing for him to do, as I’m sure it is for any kid, so I was used to this constant line of questioning.
But this time it stopped me in my tracks.
It was late last year and I’d just spent the only money I had taking the boys to visit their grandfather in Europe, a crazy idea borne of the realization that at nearly 80 he was now officially ‘old’ and since he rarely travelled to see us they had very little idea who he was. I’m not sure what kind of magical sleep-deprived confidence came over me to make me think I could handle taking two autistic kids on a twenty hour flight overseas to a country where I don’t speak the language. Safe to say, it was an amazing, difficult and life-altering trip for all three of us and I don’t regret a single second of it.
On the evening of our last day, we sat in a little kebab shop in Germany as I tried to soak up the last moments I’d spend with my dad for who knows how long. Over ridiculously strong coffee he told me about a charity he and his wife support in Bulgaria, an orphanage where the funds are so tight that on many weeks all they have is a sack of potatoes to feed all of the children and single mothers who seek refuge there. Winters are especially harsh he said, a concept I could only now come close to understanding after having spent the week in the coldest temperatures I’d ever experienced.
There was only one problem with my plan... Attie was in the grips of an intense love affair with his jacket. It was puffy and blue and as he put it “like a big winter hug”. This is a kid who has an incredibly hard time letting go of stuff - he wears his pants until they’re three sizes too small, has every piece of artwork he’s ever done stuffed into a bedroom closet and don’t get me started about the packaging that his toys come in. The trip had been full of drama and transitions and change, which only made him cling even more tightly to his jacket as the one constant amongst the chaos. But it was big and bulky and just not necessary in our Australian ‘winter’, and it could literally be a life saver for another child. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that we would be leaving it behind.
We got to the train station and the time had come. I handed the bags of clothes to my father and knelt down in front of Attie. I explained it all to him, about the orphanage and the children and the winter that was coming. He nodded, said nothing and took off the jacket. As he handed it to me the tears began to fall. An hour into the trip they were still falling, as he stared out the window and said nothing. I squeezed his hand and he turned to look at me.
“How much pocket money do I have?”
It was a question he’d asked me three hundred times on this trip. At every store, souvenir stand, sidewalk vendor. I told him the amount, my heart breaking that now he wanted to use it to buy a replacement jacket.
He shook his head.
“It’s not enough.”
“Oh baby, I know you want your jacket back but you just don’t need--”
“No Mummy. We need to give more to them.”
He wasn’t crying for the jacket. He was crying for the children.
I was speechless. Luckily Attie did the talking for me, in fact he chatted about nothing else for the entire flight home. He made me promise to donate every cent he had to the orphanage, ‘encouraging’ his brother to do the same (nagging him constantly until Max finally gave in). When we got home I found him collecting up the rest of his clothes and toys, which prompted a long discussion about the economics of international postage and ended with a compromise to donate it to a local charity.
Last week to our surprise we received a handwritten letter from the ladies who run the orphanage. It’s in Bulgarian, but my dad explained that it’s an account of everything that they spent Attie’s money on. Blankets and food for the children. Medicine for the babies. I read it to the boys as they decorated our christmas tree, and this time I wasn't surprised when I again heard those words.
“Mummy, how much pocket money do I have?”