We are delighted to feature Sue Stern on our website, not only a writer, but also a mother to Vanessa – The Child Who Spoke With Her Eyes – here Sue will be giving us an insight into her life and experience as a mother to Vanessa, living with Cerebral Palsy during her short life.
A modern languages graduate, with an MA in writing, Sue was a teacher and also worked as a volunteer supporting people with learning disabilities and mental health issues in the Manchester area during the 1980’s. Sue is a published writer and has always written – diaries, stories and plays, she often explores themes of alienation in her work, drawn to writing about people who are ‘different.’
Sue’s book (The Child Who Spoke With Her Eyes) is the story of her daughter Vanessa, who as she says was “a beautiful charismatic child who had cerebral palsy and who changed my life, and the lives of many people who knew her”.
Vanessa was born in February 1967 in the old Saint Mary’s hospital on Whitworth Street Manchester, and she died in January 1982, three days before her 15th birthday. Below is a small extract from Sue’s book:-
We knew nothing – nevertheless we began to see changes in her behaviour, but because she was our first child, we didn’t recognise how strange this was: she refused to feed, standing rigidly on my knee, screaming terribly, and we finally returned to hospital a couple of times, where they gave her sedation before each feed. One of these occasions, a doctor invited me to take her to his clinic at the Duchess of York Baby Hospital, Burnage. By now she was blooming, rosy cheeked, feeding well and smiling at everyone, even showing if she disliked people by making a lip. She always loved to be the centre of attention, I couldn’t believe there was anything wrong with her, but in July 1967, the doctor gave us his diagnosis.
How did I respond? Of course I was shocked and stunned, but there was something more –
Deep within myself, almost as though I could see into my soul, I knew that this was inevitable. She was destined to come to me, although I didn’t know why. There was nothing abnormal in our daughter. She was a beautiful baby girl. She was Vanessa, and we would learn how to live with her. Glancing down at her sweet face, I thought, I will do everything, everything in my power to teach you, to help you develop. Inhaling deeply, I told myself I could and would do this.
This was the beginning of my determination to help our daughter experience life as any five months old baby would do. Because she had a tongue thrust, her meals took up to an hour, then my days were spent playing with her, giving her experiences, like feeling the heat from the fire, playing with small objects, putting them in boxes, and also doing physiotherapy exercises twice a day. We had joined a special world of disabled children and their mothers who attended physiotherapy sessions at the Duchess of York hospital, sharing their joys, fears and sometimes even their secrets.