Up, down and around the hills the school bus rolls. The children aboard talk excitedly, swapping the day’s stories. But one girl sits quiet with her nose pressed to the glass. Maybe today will be the day, she thinks.
The bus squeaks to a stop and Audra bounds down the steps. Her heart sinks when she sees who is waiting for her.
“Aw sweetheart, don’t look so disappointed,” says her Dad making a pouty lip. “She’ll be home soon enough. Now tell me all about your day.”
Audra and her father hold hands as they walk. The wind swirls the fallen leaves at her feet. She kicks at them remembering how they were green and on the trees the last time she saw her mother.
After dinner before her Dad can claim his title of ‘best-cooking-father-in-the-world’, Audra announces “I’m going out to play.”
She pulls on her shoes, pats the secret note in her pocket and slips out the back door. Her father watches through the kitchen window and smiles knowing exactly where she’s headed.
Audra slows her run as she reaches her special tree in the woods. She pulls the note from her pocket and sits beside its trunk. Leaning back in the grass, Audra closes her eyes and thinks of her mom.
Hey Mom, Audra says in her mind. I brought you another note. I’m going to leave it here with the others. Maybe someday soon you’ll be home to read them.
Making a wish that tomorrow will be the day, Audra smiles at the heart of branches above her. She recalls how she and her mother found their special tree.
On the hunt for a perfect picnic spot, they noticed a tree whose crown let through a warm beam of sunlight. It was an inviting spot to sit in the shaded forest. As they unpacked their lunch, Audra looked up at the sun shining through a heart-shaped hole in the tree’s branches. Since that day, Audra’s mother said their tree had the biggest heart in the forest.
“Knock, knock.” Audra’s father says as he nudges open her bedroom door. “What you working on?”
Audra folds the paper in her hands and slides it under her pillow. Her father sits beside her on the bed. “Can I see? It’s a note for Mom, right?”
Reluctantly Audra retrieves the paper for her father. [Artist note: The front cover of the note reads “I’m sorry I made you sick.”] He reads it quietly.
“Sweetheart, your mom is in the hospital because her brain is sick. Not because of anything you did.”
In the weeks and months before going to the hospital, Audra remembers her mom yelling and crying a lot. The last morning Audra saw her mother they had a fight before she boarded the bus.
“Maybe if we didn’t fight, she’d be here now.” Audra’s voice wavers as she speaks.
Her father slides over to hug her while he explains. “Your mom needs to be in the hospital. They are helping her get better. The doctors have figured out what is wrong. Now we know it is her mental illness that causes her to behave in ways we don’t understand.” Audra’s father hands her the note back. “You can give this to her soon sweetheart. But right now it’s bedtime.”
The following afternoon Audra steps off the bus greeted by her father holding a note. He hands it to her with a wink. The note reads: Meet me at our tree.
Audra’s heart swells with excitement and she takes off running. The route from the bus to the woods is long, but even as her legs grow tired Audra doesn’t slow. That is until she catches glimpses of their tree. Audra’s mouth drops open in astonishment.
The tree with the biggest heart in the forest is transformed.
Fluttering and dancing in the wind are dozens of letters and drawings, love notes and cards. Each one hangs from a different branch by colourful yarn. All together the sound of flapping paper makes a joyful applause. Audra’s mother stands smiling under the heart of branches.
“Mom, you’re home!” Audra throws herself into her mother’s open arms and the two fall into a pile of autumn leaves.
“Oh love, I’ve missed you terribly. Let me hug you tighter.” Audra snuggles closer into her mother’s squeeze. The familiar smell of her hair makes Audra feel safe.
Turning to look at the tree above them she asks, “Mom, what is this? Did you make all these for me?”
Audra’s mother smiles. “I want you to know how touched I was by the notes you sent me in the hospital. I was missing you even though I couldn’t write back.”
“I didn’t think you liked my notes. That’s why I stopped sending them.”
“Oh Audra, I loved them. But my brain was so sick even simple things were hard to do.”
“You feel better now, right?” Audra asks hopefully.
“Yes my love. Things will be different now. I am a lot healthier than I was before.”
Audra can see that this is true. Her mother has gained weight and seems relaxed and happy.
Audra crawls over to the base of the tree and removes her hidden notes. “I kept writing to you every day. Can we hang these with the others?”
“After I read them of course,” says her mother pausing at the first card. [Artist’s note: The front of the card reads “Let’s Have a Picnic!”]
“You know love, I agree. A picnic is just what we should do.” Audra’s mother taps her nose as she thinks. “Any ideas where we should have it?”
Audra laughs and looks up at the heart of branches above her.
A Note to Parents
Talking to children about mental illness is hard. We worry they won’t understand or we won’t have the right words to explain it. And we are held back by the stigma and judgment society harbours for people who live with mental illness.
But regardless of whether or not we tell our children about our illness, they are unquestionably affected by it. In fact, many children who live with parents who have a mental illness feel a level of personal responsibility for their parent’s behaviour. They wonder if their own behaviour can mitigate the reactions of their mom or dad.
As a parent who lives with Bipolar Disorder, my children have been impacted by my fluctuating moods. And so I wrote this story to start a conversation.
A Heart of Branches is a story of love and hope. I read it to my boys to open a dialogue about something that gets rarely talked about with children and we hope you will use it to do the same.