of her," he told me.
I was out and about yesterday when I came to a sudden halt. Just around the corner of the street I was turning into were vans and men and holes and cables and those complex pieces of equipment that keep the phone lines working. The entire street seemed to be blocked off.
My first thought was irritation at having to go another way around. My second was, "how fortunate".
One of the men had looked up and said, "Hold on a moment..."
He was about to move something for me to go through when another one shouted, "Hello!"
I looked across to him and then he signed "hello" as well. He jumped the safety gate around his hole and ran over.
"You're Cat! You have to be Cat!"
It was years ago now. I had a request from someone "up north", hundreds of kilometres north. There was a little indigenous girl who had been born with multiple internal problems. One result was that she was unable to speak. The person who approached to me said that the child was "smart, funny, intelligent and in need of help". Would I talk to her parents? They were prepared to make the journey to meet me.
I met them one September day. They travelled down and stayed the night with a family from their church network. I travelled out as far as the suburban train would take me to the north and they met me there.
When I got off the train they were standing in a little huddle at the far end of the platform looking distinctly nervous. I was feeling nervous too. What if I couldn't help? They had come a very long way to see me.
Then L... , on a nod from her father, ran towards me. I hope I never forget the look in her eyes.
"Hello," I told her and then I signed, "hello" as well and told her, "You can say "hello" too. You can do it like this."
I showed her again. She looked at me. I showed her again. Slowly and cautiously she tried the hand movements and then she smiled and flung her arms around me.
She was four. I had been told she liked to colour in so I had taken a new colouring book for her and for her older brother and a new set of pencils for each of them. They played in a nearby playground while I talked to their parents and then her father asked shyly if I would have lunch with them. Of course. The children sat and coloured in while her parents told me more and I made suggestions. L... was not the usual four year old when it came to colouring in. Her work was entirely inside the lines. Every part was coloured in carefully. I asked her to draw me her family. That was done in more detail than is usual for a four year old. Yes, she did sometimes try to draw something to in order to "say" something.
Sign language was not really an option for her. It meant that everyone around her would need to learn it too.
Over the next few years I corresponded with them and with the teacher at her small school. She progressed from photographs and pictures to symbols and words. She showed she could read despite often missing school through illness. When she reached the point where she could write what she wanted to say, sign to her family and use an alphabet board I lost contact. I often wondered how long she had lived because her life expectancy was short. Her brother told me she lived longer than anyone expected, well into her teens.
"She never stopped talking her way," he told me, "And she loved to read. We used to get books all the way from here at school and they sent extra just for her."
It was a remarkable story because many of the children in the area they lived in don't do well at school. They don't always attend. She did. Her brother did. They knew the importance of being able to read. It was what allowed L... to communicate.
He had come down from his work in the north to learn how to do something and I knew he had to get back to work - although the supervisor had told him to take his time and talk to me. But, before I left, he pulled out a chain around his neck. I thought it would be his work ID but it wasn't. It was a laminated card. "Remember this?" he asked me, "I've kept it - as a reminder of her."
And there was a photograph of the first communication "board" we had made for her on one side and, on the other, L's photo and her eyes full of hope.