‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to-ho you!’
‘Now you can go to school with me in the morning!’
‘Natalia, have a slice of birthday cake. Here, take this plate and-‘
The partying was disrupted all of a sudden when Natalia violently pushed back her chair and ran out of the room. Footsteps could be heard stomping through the hallway, up the staircase and into her bedroom, followed by the slamming of a door.
Julian was getting up already to follow his daughter upstairs, but I beat him to it and left the dining room, with a short:
‘You boys stay here. I’ll go talk to her.’
Both my husband and my son hadn’t noticed it, but as the mother, these things caught my attention right away. Natalia had been quiet all week, even more so than normal. She barely responded to family conversation and stayed alone in her room, not even playing with her toys as usual.
I softly opened the door to her bedroom. The childish colours and butterflies greeted me with much ado. There she was, right next to her bed, all by herself. I could hear her muttering with a soft voice to Pecha, her favourite toy.
‘… going to be there. We should hide in the attic, Pecha, so they can’t find us tomorrow.’
That one word made her jump up in surprise, after which she turned to me. Her big,
grey eyes looked sad. And scared. They were the exact same colour as mine.
‘What’s wrong, sweetie? We’re all waiting for you downstairs to eat birthday
cake with us,’ I said with a soft voice.
‘I don’t want to eat cake.’
I knew that there was something bothering her, but trying to force my girl to tell what was wrong would just make her pull away. So I waited, silently.
The trick worked.
‘I’m scared to go to school, mummy,’ she finally muttered, with a voice so soft it was barely understandable. Her head was tilted to the ground, eyes fixating on the butterflies that were all over the floor.
‘There are only people I don’t know over there,’ Natalia said shyly. ‘I’m scared of people I never met… what if they hate me?’
The innocence of a little kid.
‘Come here,’ I said, making a gesture with my hand. ‘Let me tell you a secret.’
‘What secret?’ Natalia asked. She came closer and allowed me to whisper in her ear.
‘They will all like you, sweetie. Do you want to know why?’
‘Because you are the sweetest, cutest girl in the whole school,’ I said with a smile. ‘I know that better than anyone. They’re going to love you. And if they don’t… they’ll have to go through Tommy first.’
A small smile appeared on my daughters face. I put my hands on her back and pulled her into a hug.
‘I love you, mummy.’
‘I love you too, dear.’
‘Now what do you say we start eating your birthday cake?’
Natalia has always been a sweet little child, full of energy and always bright and happy – but only if it were the four of us. When strangers were around, she would retreat into her shell and even hide behind my legs, scared of anyone who was not mummy or daddy. The only exception was Thomas. He had been her idol from ever since she could crawl.
As Natalia got older, the fear of strangers stayed. It worried Julian and me, but we knew friendship wasn’t something we could force upon her, so we didn’t push. Instead of going out and making new friends, she started to fill her room with all kinds of toys and plush animals. Her favourite was Pecha, a brown-spotted giraffe that had a permanent seat next to her bed.
Her fear of going to school was just another part of her personality. Julian and I hoped that, with the small classes the school here had, Natalia would be able to make friends more easily. Not many, just one or two friendly children was enough. She would need friends in the years that were to come…
But that is no longer my story to tell. My time has come and gone, and my story has ended years ago. It is now time for Natalia’s story to unfold in all its glory.
Good luck, my child.