Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
[p.111]The years in which our son Porter should have been acquiring language were pretty rough for all of us. I think Mark’s mother still attributes Porter’s speech disorder to the turmoil of those years. As much as I want to resist this theory, I can’t imagine the circumstances of those years were any help.
He started and then stopped talking within, maybe, a month. Started right on schedule, eighteen months old, just like the older two. He said, moving his lips with a motor boat sound, “Bpp-Bpp,” for “root beer,” and “Ha-Pa” for “Grandpa,” my dad. Two favorites, associated, reasonably, together.
Then he stopped, completely, for the next year and a half. It wasn’t that Porter didn’t vocalize, and it wasn’t that he sounded particularly weird. He just didn’t make words. He made sounds. Waved his arms, danced his fingers, caricatured his expressions like a wide-eyed mime. I concentrated on not worrying as long as it seemed it wasn’t affecting him emotionally. I ran through a list of nieces and nephews who talked a little late, or idiosyncratically, on Mark’s side of the family. They had just seemed to need a little extra time. I refused to consider my cousin Janet.
Mark and I both grew up in a conservative religion. We’ve embraced and fought it in different ways. Although he’s trying to hang in and I’m doing my best to bail, we aren’t too far apart when it comes to bottom-line values. We’ve made a conscious effort to put aside, as best we can, the rigid gender biases of Mormonism, for example. Mark is an artist. He works at home. I teach English at a large local state college. Once our son Christian said, “Mom, it’s so weird. Josh’s dad goes to work.” Still, I was the one who was raised to expect to be the primary childkeeper. Although I spend as many hours with the children as [p.112]Mark does, I’m the one who tends to accrue the guilt. He grew up outside the intimate circle of child care. It’s more difficult for him to maintain an instinctive focus on parenting. Sometimes we lose sight of each other, sometimes we just get too damn close. It’s hard to keep a clear vision in the heart of things.
Porter’s eyes, blue-green prisms, flash with humor and animation. He and my father trade mischievous smirks at family events. Something inside of him doesn’t quite contain as he walks, rolls, hops, lunges, throws a rock, drives a toy truck. He just spills over, laps out over the edges. He jerks my arm when he holds my hand, writhes like a puppy when he’s on my lap. Porter has four cowlicks: two at his forehead, two at the back. Usually his hair sticks straight up at the convergence. His middle name is “Scout.” Sometimes we call him “Scoutabout” or “Scooter.”
He had invented so many hand signs for us by the time he was three and a half, that we invented one for his name, too. We held two fingers, like feathers, rising from the backs of our heads, like Indian scouts. Like we know anything about Indian scouts. By then we had sought help on the speaking problem and had been told that Porter had a “moderate” hearing impairment, moving toward “severe” at the lower frequencies.
“It’s like he’s hearing us from under the water,” the audiologist explained. “He can hear sounds, but the actual articulations are blurred.”
I asked how it was that Porter understood us so clearly, and so invariably.
“He’s obviously a very bright little boy,” he answered. “He’s just learned to compensate. He hears a consistent language from us. It just sounds different to him than it does to us. He’s probably speaking the same sounds he hears. And he watches for visual signals when the listening fails him.”
We considered this. We watched him closely during the following weeks. Porter did make a lot of vocal sounds, always vowel-ish but with the dips and rises of English, and pretty much a familiar iambic rhythm. I experimented with his comprehension in different situations. I would speak to him directly, watching his eyes. Or I would say things sideways, like, “Anybody want a popsicle?” to no one in particular. I would stand behind him and ask questions at different decibels. “Porter, shall we go out and get the mail?”
[p.113]“Scoot, would you bring me that little yellow car?”
“Porter, do you want to go play in the sandpile?”
He always responded appropriately.
I called to him from different rooms, varying distances. He always turned to me, or appeared from where he’d been. I tried sentences of varying length and complexity. He could follow long sequences of information. I was afraid that if it wasn’t hearing, it would be something scarier. Some kind of aphasia, less explainable.
Porter would ask for candy with his hands close together, pinching his fingers and twisting in opposite directions as if he were opening a Tootsie Roll, his eyes lighting with anticipation. He would scoop his right hand, palm downward, dropping it diagonally and leveling to a stop to say he wanted to go play on his friend Hayden’s slide. He walked two fingers and pointed in his intended direction to tell us where he wanted to go. He walked his fingers vertically to tell us he was tired: he was climbing the ladder to his bunk bed.
But directly representative signs and pantomimes, of course, have severe expressive limitations. They can only address the immediate, the concrete. The gap between Porter’s comprehension and his expression was widening rapidly. It was beginning to affect his personality. We enrolled him in speech therapy while we were still trying to pin down the specific hearing problems. Our first session was discouraging. Porter tested capable of vocalizing only seven standard English phonemes, all vowels, mostly short. If it required any exertion or contact of lips, teeth, or tongue, Porter couldn’t copy the sound.
The speech therapist was distressed. “Well, we might as well test his comprehension,” she sighed. “Don’t expect too much, though.”
She was talking to me, Porter’s mother.
She pulled out her wire-bound comprehension testing book. She said words, he pointed. She asked him questions, he signaled the responses. She kept turning pages.
“Actually, he seems to understand quite a bit,” she conceded. She seemed to resent this.
We took Porter to Salt Lake City for batteries of hearing tests, culminating in a definitive consensus that, although there were slight and seasonal fluctuations in his hearing ability, actual hearing loss was minimal and did not account for his profound inability to speak.
[p.114]We went back on possible causes.
My Aunt Elaine, Janet’s mother, told me, “They thought it was hearing in Janet, too, at first.” I stifled a shudder. Janet is five years younger than I am, looked perfectly normal as a small child, still does except for her odd gait and the incomprehensible expression on her face.
“What is it with Janet?” I asked, trying for a natural tone of voice. I have heard theories my whole life, one succeeding another, never enough to clear it up for me.
“We still don’t know, exactly,” Elaine said. Janet, as usual, had seated herself on the couch so close to me our hip bones ground against each other. Her face, dripping with oatmeal, hovered six inches from mine. Her hands went from my hair to her lap to my knees back to wringing themselves as I leaned around to speak to Elaine.
“Janet, come here. Come sit by me,” Elaine coaxed. Janet stood up abruptly and plopped herself beside her mother.
“Whatever it is,” Elaine said, “It happened at the very first cell divisions of the pregnancy. Whole parts of her brain just didn’t form. It’s pretty obvious in the scans. You don’t have to be an expert to recognize it.”
By the time Janet was three, it was clear to everyone that something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t just that she didn’t talk. As she grew, she had the strength of ten kids her age, truly, as if her inability to comprehend physical limitations literally freed her from them. She could climb anything, fast and vertical. She could reach in the crib and pull a baby out by the leg, flinging it over her head and across the room. All of us cousins were frightened of her. When she finally began to speak, she picked up phrases whole, like a demented tape recorder, and echoed them over and over. “It’s my birthday. My birthday. It’s my birthday, birthday, it’s my birthday.” “I got my hair cut. Look, I got my haircut. I got my hair cut.” Her eyes gleamed, shrewd and feral. She would grab me by the sleeve. “I got my hair cut.” Her voice bounced like a Hare Krishna dance.
When Janet was thirteen or fourteen, one therapist made an intriguing suggestion. She told Elaine that she believed Janet’s intelligence was near normal, that Janet seemed to understand an awful lot of what was going on around her. She pegged Janet as a severe aphasic, [p.115]whose only real problem was a profound inability to produce language; Janet took it in, but couldn’t give it back. Her demented behavior might actually be due to the severe frustration of an intelligent mind incapable of communicating to the outside world.
That’s the theory that stuck with me over the years. It terrified me. Janet and I are associated closely in the minds of many of my extended family. Elaine was my father’s younger sister. Dad was the first in his large immediate family to have children. My sister Marti and I were the first two grandchildren, two little girls not much more than a year apart. We had three years of glory, spoiled rotten I’m sure, before cousins began to multiply.
Elaine’s first two were little girls as well. Janet was the second, like me. Elaine always associated Jenny and Janet with Marti and me. The similarities and tragic differences came up repeatedly, especially as we grew older. Janet looks like me. Of sixty-three grandchildren, six of us girls took on a specific genetic pattern, not more than five-two, smallboned, thin, all, apparently, finished to the last structural detail like a great-grandmother we never met. Janet and I look eye-to-eye. Our hair is the same color and our fingers begin and end at the same points. She’s lost some excess energy over the last few years. She still paces, wiggles, and fidgets, but doesn’t scale walls. But she can dance, and I’m not much good at that. My gift is language, of which she has nearly none.
The brain damage information doesn’t jive with the theory that Janet is merely aphasic. Still, it’s the defining thing. I have no idea how much she actually comprehends. I read once, in junior high, a rather lurid book called Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, or something. I read about the Bermuda Triangle, was introduced to Kaspar Hauser. I read something about a town in Germany where a single cloven track, most likely Satan’s, had appeared in a perfect trail for miles through the new-fallen snow. The one that reminds me of Janet was the one about a man in India who, even with his eyes bandaged and cloth wrapped around his head, could see what was in front of him, could ride a bike through the streets of Calcutta with unerring vision.
If there was ever a kid who could comprehend on a normal linguistic level but not reciprocate, it was Porter. And he didn’t climb walls like a fly or snatch babies from their beds. He wasn’t uncanny like Janet, didn’t need to sense anything outside the reach of his own physical [p.116]capacities through curtains of oblivion. He was a thoroughly unalarming little boy, full of expression, rich with responses. He just couldn’t speak.
And it was hurting him.
This was when my mother-in-law asked, “Do you think it might be a reaction to all the stress of the last couple of years!”
I reviewed: the sequence of personal and institutional events that had placed me, at thirty-two, as chair of the English department at the height of faculty warfare. My preoccupations with departmental concerns in my conversations with my husband. Mark’s increasing desperation at being the stay-home parent, with an increasingly distant spouse, my deepening anger at feeling no alternatives. My urgent wish to leave Alpine, Utah, my hometown, behind with my religion. His equally passionate wish to raise our children here, geographically a city of dreams, and to hold as well as he could to his heritage of faith. Ugly political developments in Alpine that directly and publicly affected my father and his family. Mark’s wish to build a house, the one he had been planning for years, the one that meant we were settled, irrevocably, on a lot we owned in Alpine. My wish to write something besides inter-office memos. Shocking, screaming arguments, shaking the foundations of the stable world we had so carefully built around our young children.
And, in the heart of it all, a surprise pregnancy. Through an interminable segment of it, Mark stayed with the kids while I went to work, stayed at his parents’ thirty miles away when I came home. We couldn’t speak. Couldn’t let our eyes meet.
Porter, demonstrably sensitive to body language, certainly picked up plenty of pain. Can pain paralyze one form of communication, even as it unleashes another!
We went back into marriage therapy. For a while we met separately, with different therapists, then met together, the four of us. Gary and Sally coached us carefully, sentence by sentence, as we learned to speak again. We played games. Speak only when you hold the “talking stick.” Hand it to him after sixty seconds.
Try to respond directly to what she’s saying, before you go on to the next issue.
Stop now, and acknowledge his anger.
It’s only a game. It’s a symbol, too, just like a word. Let it be what it is.
[p.117]Five weeks before the baby was due, I went to South Carolina to attend a conference for the college. We used the occasion as a chance for Mark to settle back in. Mark, Amelia, Christian, and Porter met me at the Delta wing, drove me home. The school year ended a week after that, and I finalized plans for a one-year personal leave of absence. We made the imminent arrival of our fourth child a final reason to retire our well-used camping tent and buy a little fold-out trailer, complete with stove and refrigerator, beds for everyone and a collapsible eating table. We spent the week before the baby was born on the San Rafael Swell, comfortable as eight months and three weeks pregnant could be for any of us. We sat peaceably on the banks of the San Juan River, perpendicular orange cliffs above us. We pondered the snaky ghostly Barrier Canyon petroglyphs. Half hoping it would put me in labor, I walked with Mark and the kids to the precipice of Black Box Canyon. We sat on a ledge, ten feet square, keeping a grip on small shirts and hiking shorts and the small bodies inside of them as we ate crackers and cheese, the San Juan coursing 600 vertical feet below. Back at camp, Porter reveled in the sunlight, shamelessly shed his clothes to splash in the shallows, sang out loud to the moon, devoured his morning pancakes.
We named the baby “Maya,” for lots of reasons, not the least of which was that it is easy to say. Porter loved her instantly, still after twenty months insists that really she’s his own baby. His first perfect word was her name.
Speech therapy perplexes me. I wondered when we first took him how it was that a speech therapist might proceed. I guess I was hoping for something mysterious yet efficacious. It’s actually pretty unmysterious. It’s drill and practice, one sound at a time, one sound position at a time. “P,” for instance, is easiest to make as a sound when it’s at the end of a word. So we start with “p” sounds at the ends of words. We practice for two weeks.
Therapist: “Watch my lips, Porter. Cap.”
Therapist: “Okay. Nap.”
Porter: “’ak-puh.” He held my hand as we walked back out to the [p.118]Wrangler to drive home.
“What’s that, Porter!” I asked.
We go on, if we can stay systematic, to other final consonant sounds, one at a time, two-week intervals. Then we have to re-learn “p” as a middle-of-the-word sound. Speech therapy breaks up the sounds and positions into the tiniest possible components, teaches them one at a time, again and again, over weeks and sometimes years. Practice and drill. Watch my tongue. Speech therapy teaches a child like Porter the smallest mechanisms of what Amelia and Christian seemed to produce spontaneously, the same way they grew fingers and toes. Look at my teeth, Porter. On my lips. “Flat tire” sound. We break up the monotony with games, an alligator with pushable teeth, say, or brightly colored tokens to move along the spaces on a board.
Something mysterious and efficacious did begin to occur, actually, although I do not understand how it sprang from speech therapy, or from a different family season, or from genetic designs and traces of neural paths. Porter started to make intelligible words. Not as fast as they might come for a natural speaker, but a heck of a lot quicker than the therapy calendar.
He has a pattern. I’ve watched it seven or eight times now. His language goes backward for a day or so. He loses almost all intelligibility. He cries with frustration, sweats at his temples just trying to make simple words. He’s exhausted, physically and emotionally, by five or six in the evening. He sleeps hard, cries out, goes back under. Wakes up with a breakthrough, a new set of sounds, a clear mind. The speech therapist said to watch him closely at times like that, to speak to him in clear, simple sentences, giving him plenty of time to respond. Otherwise he could develop a stammer, too much too fast. So far he’s holding steady.
Porter is almost five years old. At home he’s constantly talking, long sentences with abstractions of time, imagination, and possibility. I sometimes have to remind myself not to tell him to hush a minute. He’s cunning and calculating enough to negotiate his way through any sibling negotiation, even with the disadvantage of youth. His shrewd reading of nonverbal signals gives him the advantage of seeming to know what’s going on in an unfamiliar situation. He’s quick and funny [p.119]with a joke. “YUCK! OO AWTED?” He giggles in the bathtub with Christian, after squeezing the rubber duck under the water.
He asks questions, urgently, as if he were catching up for a long season of silent curiosity. “Mom, how does waddo make you wet?” “How do ’ey make aopwanes?” “When I ’et big, will my name s’ill be ’oto ’out?”
He points out the “oowuck oowacks” on the snowy street.
He tells me, “I made a new oo-wend at ees—ool ooday.”
I ask him, “Was it a boy or girl?”
“What’s her name?”
“Taylor? Did you have a nice time playing with Taylor?”
We stop for doughnuts every morning that we drive to work and pre-school. It’s a standing deal with Porter. “Unwess we aw wate,” he concedes, generously, for his mama’s sake. But he shuts down in public. His pre-school and Sunday school teachers tell us he’s extremely shy. In a strange environment, he is. He has a way of turning his eyes to a fascinating brick on the wall, of studying his dimpled nail-bitten fingers, and tuning out any foreign inquiries. He just doesn’t respond, not at all, not a flicker in his flashy green eyes.
And talking, even when he’s on a roll, taxes him. Words, phrases, comebacks, questions, authority fly like magic from the lips of his older siblings. Maya, at twenty months, says fifteen reasonably intelligible words. It’s not hard to see the language gathering in her, like a swirling reservoir, and it’s clear to all of us, maybe especially Porter, that the floodgates are about to open.
For the last two or three weeks Porter has been carrying a heavy old 35mm camera around his neck, one that I used years ago and never had fixed once it broke. It doesn’t look broken, though, and the shutter snaps with a satisfying sequence of clicks. It winds clean and snaps again. Porter asked if he could have it for his very own. He loves mechanical objects. He snaps pictures all over the house. Pictures of Maya eating cereal. Pictures of me in the kitchen, or at the computer. Our new house, a beautiful one, built by an artist for his own four children, has a separate studio twenty feet across the driveway. Porter puts on his [p.120]boots and coat, trudges the snowy distance, opens the door with a frantically suppressed giggle, sneaks the camera into the opening and takes his shot. He catches Christian and Amelia from the front porch as they come home from the bus stop. They grin and wave. There’s no film, but the sound of the shutter freezes an image for me, every time. Maybe for Porter, too. Someday I will buy him a real camera, a really fine camera.
Oliver Sacks describes, in much of his writing, the ability of the human mind to find alternative paths for intelligence, create remarkable compensations for broken functions. I keep thinking of the old irrigation system in Alpine, a complex and beautiful series of dams and headgates, almost endlessly interchangeable in their routes and channels. Some of my best memories of childhood come from the nights my dad let me get up with him for a late-night water turn. We’d trace the ditches to each dry headgate, pulling the gate and placing it in another slot, cleaning debris and fortifying with dirt and sand. Dad would say, “Listen for the water now. It’s probably at Bennett’s gate,” and suddenly we would hear it, pull the dam, re-route the cold, black, perfect water toward our orchard, follow it down until it roared at our turngate, dropped through the rusted culvert under the street, rose to the level of our trees, and spilled back out into the moonlight.
I can’t love my dad in quite the same way I did then. But Porter can. Porter knows how. And we couldn’t imagine how Janet would survive without her mother. Elaine has been dead of cancer for more than half a year. A month before Elaine died, my two sisters and I stayed with Janet while her family attended a wedding. We danced to “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” Boy, did we. Two and a half hours. Janet lunged and gyrated, leaped and boogied. Threw her arms, swung her hips, flipped her head. So did I, like I never did in my life. Janet seems to be getting on with her father and grown-up siblings pretty well.
Mark and I can have long conversations, even painful ones, that actually seem to nourish something between us, and we can do it without the talking stick.
And Porter speaks. He’s making his own maps, covering territory we can’t follow him through, breaking his own trails, following the tributaries. I’m learning another kind of faith, and watching for signals.