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Disfluency

Anna Tennis Saturday EssayAll names in this story have been changed, because this is the internet. But not because of you. You’re wonderful.

If you had told me five years ago that a life could be forever altered by a toddler’s stutter, I would have rolled my eyes deep enough to dislocate my optic nerve. Maybe that’s a little melodramatic. My point is, I wouldn’t have understood. Like so many things, there’s often a pretty good delta between experience and imagination. I know a little better now, because of my own experience, and while this isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, it actually did change my whole life. This one little thing. A stutter.

I remember how, a week before my second daughter, Lilly, was born, I was thinking about how, in the new Pooh movie, Piglet lost his stutter. I had a little internal dialogue about the ridiculous, reactionary nature of helicopter parents, so sensitive to anything that might hurt … someone … that we couldn’t even joke around anymore. They had probably driven the change in Piglet’s fluency. Except I didn’t know to use the phrase, “change in Piglet’s fluency,” yet.

The night Lilly was born, our family was gathered at my sister-in-law’s house for dinner. I was having erratic but harbinger-y contractions, unaware I was dinking my way through early labor. I was sitting on the floor with my older daughter Rose, tickling the beans out of her. Her tickle laughter is utterly contagious: a litany of tumbling, discrete giggles — like fat little circles that bounce and burst around you while her face scrunches up in complete delight and abandon. “When I was a kid,” my very Finnish father-in-law said, “they used to say you shouldn’t tickle a kid too much, or they’d develop a stutter.” We all laughed about how silly that was. How old-timey. I tickled away.

About eight hours later, Lilly was born. Rose came to the hospital with her aunties and uncles, looking anticipatory and a little frozen. She bounded onto my lap with the new baby, and I attempted to facilitate a warm introduction, including a terrifying “hold the baby” moment. When I think about it now, I wonder what I did when she first came into the room. Did I smile at her first? Why didn’t I send everyone else out, so she could be there with us alone for a while? Why didn’t I give Lilly to her father and cuddle and visit with Rose alone? What could I have done differently — better — to lessen the impact the arrival of her sister was going to have on her? Probably a million things. It doesn’t matter. I can’t do them now.

One day later, we came home. Auntie walked Rose home. We all visited, staring at the baby and talking about the birth. Rose was glad to see us — a little hyper, but she seemed happy. She’d had a great time at her cousins’ house, and you could tell — her hair was a wild rats’ nest, she had chocolate milk on her jammas, and she had a million things to tell us. But when she started talking, she kept doing this crazy thing with her tongue, rolling it wildly around in her cheek, making “loll … loll … loll” noises and looking up at the ceiling. We thought she was imitating someone she saw on TV.

Our daughter, at 2½ years old, was incredibly verbal. Lyrically verbal. She told long and delightful stories, rife with lisping, misused word tenses and pronouns, but utterly comprehensible and coherent. She was smart, funny, and learning a mile a minute. So, we thought she was screwing around. Then, once she was done flipping her tongue around, she started speaking with a pronounced, comic stutter. We laughed at her joke. She looked at us, her eyes darting back and forth between us, and forced a hearty laugh along with us. She tried to speak again, and the same thing happened — tongue flailing followed by a five to fifteen second stutter before she could get a word out.

“She’s been doing that all morning,” my sister-in-law said.

A few hours later, we were tired of her game. It was getting annoying, and we were tired and freaked out — how was she going to react to Lilly? Was she going to get jealous? Angry? Would she regress in her potty training? We truly had no idea that this stutter was her reaction to Lilly.

We angrily demanded that she cut it out. I spoke to her harshly, using the sharp, loud tone that I reserve for discipline or danger. She shook her head, trying to speak. She was hung up, incapable of producing a word, for what seemed like a minute or more. That’s when I realized she wasn’t pretending.

We looked it up online. We asked our neighbor, whose father is a wonderful child psychologist, to consult him about it. We Googled away — every resource said the same thing: normal. No big deal. Ignore it, and it would probably go away — in six months, six years … eventually. Suddenly, everybody knew somebody whose cousin/neighbor/stepson/firstborn had a stutter when they were little. It was fine. I shouldn’t worry. We relaxed a little — if this was normal, we’d treat it that way, and get back to the exciting, hairy business of parenting three children.

As each day passed, she struggled more. Not just stuttering on the first word of a sentence anymore, she began hanging up on the first word after every breath, then on each word. My lyrical daughter locked eyes with me, struggling to tell me she needed the potty. She abandoned sentences and began using single-word commands, “Milk!” “Potty!” “Help!” More painfully, she used the same imperative single-word declarations in place of our formerly robust, intimate conversations: before, she would have told me, “I like that dress. It’s pretty. I want a pretty dress. Do you want to wear a pretty dress with me?” Now, she pointed and said, “pre…pre…pre…pre…pre…pretty.” As she struggled to force the word out, her whole face began to turn red — she shook with the effort, shaking her head, clenching her fists, passing gas and spitting as she tried to say one word.

All the stuttering websites recommend parents and caregivers ignore the stutter, keeping their faces impartial and engaged. I was sure trying, but it was getting harder and harder to do. When she was speaking (or trying to), I could see in her eyes that she knew she was struggling, and that awareness hung between us like a side of beef. It felt ridiculous to ignore it. She knew something was happening. She knew she was sacrificing what she wanted to say in favor of what she could say. And I was standing there, a big stupid smile frozen on my face. I felt like I was the monster version of her mother in a nightmare, like Neil Gaiman’s button-eyed “Other Mother” in Coraline: “What? Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. This is all just how it should be.” And she was smiling along, terrified, waiting for her real mother to show up and rescue her.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was parenting a teenager and a newborn. At least, I was arguing with a teenager, and feeding and kissing a newborn. Mostly, I was a hologram of myself, there but not really there, repeating the same words, the same actions over and over again in an endless loop. I felt helpless. And Rose’s stutter was getting worse and worse.

At Lilly’s two-week checkup, after briefly making sure our newborn was alive, we spent the entire appointment talking about Rose. (“Yeah, yeah … new baby miracle of life yadda yadda. Let’s talk about the toddler…”) Our doctor referred us to a local speech program. We called, but the assessment lady was on vacation for two weeks and couldn’t see us until she returned. The administrative assistant, apparently in the know, assured me over the phone that this was normal. Common. She reaffirmed the techniques we should be using between now and our appointment — speak very slowly, limit the questions we ask, wait patiently for her to get through her word or sentence, show no sign that anything is amiss … check. We would keep doing these things until she could come out and tell us how to fix this.

A week later, just three weeks after Lilly was born and the stutter began, I put Rose down for her usual afternoon nap. I put her fan on, for white noise, in case Lilly got too loud. And, because my big girl was 2½ years old, I didn’t bother to put the monitor on. I hadn’t used it in months. About two hours later, I thought, “gee, Rose has been sleeping a long time.” But all was quiet upstairs, so I dismissed it.

About an hour later, I suddenly had a terrible feeling that something was not right. Sometimes Rose slept for three hours — it was certainly not unheard of. But I had that awful bone-deep feeling you get as a parent that something was really wrong. I gingerly opened Rose’s door, and saw her, sitting on the edge of her bed. Her face was blotched and swollen — she had clearly been crying for a long, long time. She started crying again the minute she saw me — reaching for me and sobbing. I lifted her up and she looked at me, her eyes panicked. Then she tried to say it:

“Mmmmmmmm…mmmmmm….mmmmm” her face turned beet red and the veins stood out on her little forehead. I knew then what had happened — she had woken up, and tried to call to me, and couldn’t say “Mama.” She had just sat there, weeping, silent. I don’t know why she didn’t scream, or break the rules and climb out of her bed to come get me. She just sat there, weeping, her alien mouth locking her brain out.

She stuttered and struggled, her lips pursed around the sounds that she was stuck on, and then she started hitting herself in her mouth with her little fist. I held her arms and clenched her to me. She raged, screaming and crying and then, she relaxed against my chest, weeping. She couldn’t say a word.

I started crying right along with her. I realize that one of us should probably have acted like a mom, but I just fell to bits. I offered weepy utterances of assurance, undoubtedly more alarming and unbelievable than comforting. Who believes “everything’s gonna be okay, honey,” when it’s emitted from the snotty face of your bawling mother? And it was a lie, really. I didn’t think everything was going to be okay. I was scared shitless, utterly confounded, and viscerally sad. She was like Baby Jessica, stuck in the well, and we were all just standing around, staring down at her, smiling and saying it was all just fine, nothing to worry about, as she slipped further and further down. It occurred to me that she might disappear completely. Maybe this was the beginning of some development regression or illness, and she would slip and slip and slip away entirely. “Stutter,” didn’t describe what was happening.

You know what to do if you’re experiencing a mild cognitive break? If your paradigm has endured one too many Nagasaki-style attacks, and has gotten weird and Bjork-y? Watch Yo Gabba Gabba. Your life will always make more sense than Yo Gabba Gabba, and the wacky synchrony of your internal disharmony and, say, two carrots, a handful of peas and a chicken leg singing a little ditty from inside the belly of a green furry troll thing with spider legs will get you back on track.

I clutched my little girls: my newborn to one side, nursing, and Rose to my other side, sucking her thumb and hiccupping the sharp intakes of breathe little children do after they’ve been crying hard.

When my husband got home, I went to pieces, following him around the house while he changed out of his work clothes, opened a beer, and tried to settle in. I was carrying Lilly the whole time, too, nursing and walking. I began the conversation by immediately bursting into tears, saying, “This has been the worst day. She can’t talk at all!” I told him about what had happened, crying my face off. He got colder and quieter with every word I said. He turned to Rose, and his face broke into a huge smile. He spent the next two hours before her bedtime playing, laughing, and roughhousing with Rose, ignoring me. When Rose was tucked in upstairs, (monitor re-installed and turned up to jet aircraft engine volume), he sat down across the living room from me, and turned on the TV. I finally asked him what was wrong, if he was angry with me. He blew up. “I feel like at any given moment you’re going to fall apart! I need you to be okay! I need you to be okay, be happy, and sell it! I need you to make Rose believe it!”

Sitting there, nursing Lilly (doesn’t it seem like that’s all I ever did? That’s because it was), swirling in the postpartum delirium of the first couple of months, I wondered if I would experience a nervous breakdown. I postulated that if one was on the way, this panicked, rootless fugue state certainly was what I imagined the onset of “bananas” would feel like.

“Do you believe in me?” I asked my husband. “Do you still believe in me?”

“No.” he said. “Not right now I don’t.”

I stopped thinking. Not on purpose, but my whole cerebral cortex sort of shit the bed, totally overloaded by the surge of conflicting processor information: the schemas of our life together, our roles as father/mother/wife/husband, ideas about parenting, and thronging, throttling waves of emotion. The room smelled like ozone. Then, from a place inside of me I both cannot deliberately locate and definitely can’t touch, a crazy wave of electric laserbeam rage exploded, like I was channeling the spirits of 150 gospel ladies. Sarah Palin calls it her “Mama grizzly bear,” and although she can go fuck herself, that’s not a terrible description. I felt a crazy passion, a firmness of being and constitution that I have only felt right before pushing a baby out of my body. I knew that I would never give up on my baby — any one of my babies — never allow them to suffer alone. If she was in a well, I was going into the well with her, and I would stay there as long as she was there. It didn’t matter what that cost me, didn’t matter if I was afraid, didn’t matter if no one else went with me. If Rose was going behind a wall of silence, I was going with her. Period.

“Okay.” I said. “Listen. I’m not going to have a breakdown. You can trust me.” In hindsight, I should have said “By the way, fuck you, motherfucker,” too, but I was shaken up. (I’m on my game now.)

And then we watched Supernatural. I realized, while Sam and Dean Winchester, the male protagonists, had their eponymous whiny arguments about whether or not one should be allowed to: a) die, b) save the other one, or c) have a normal life, that I had done a great deal to make my husband believe I could not handle deep shit. Pregnancy isn’t exactly the time to establish your reputation for emotional stability. Teletubby-caliber satisfaction and joy, yes. Brittney Spears-style meltdowns, yes. Number one pick for the keep-calm-and-carry-on squad? Nope. And I’m a talker. So I had spent the better part of a year parading my husband through the wormiest, shakiest parts of my psyche, blubbering and shoving Hawaiian pizza into my mouth with my psychologist and my OB on speed-dial. There was a pretty good reason my husband didn’t trust my strength, even if he was ungentle in sharing that with me. I think back on it now, and it’s probably the best and most important honest thing anyone has ever said to me that I will never forgive them for.

The next day, I woke up determined to save everyone. Including me.

I called back the local speech therapist my awesome doctor had referred us to. The admin answering the phone asked me to describe Rose’s current symptoms. “She can’t really talk,” I said. She asked what we were doing in response. I explained. “You’re doing everything right,” the admin said. “I know it’s hard to see it right now, but you’re doing everything right.” It was the first real comfort I had felt. We made an appointment and two weeks later Nora walked into our living room.

Nora is a more-than-20-year veteran of the speech program. She’s a small-framed, middle-aged brunette with delicate features and a penchant for vests. When she walked into my living room I would have had a difficult time describing her to a composite artist, she’s so understated in appearance. Of course, then we started talking and that changed everything. Everyone’s appearance is transformed by his or her actual self; some for the better, some not. Nora is already an attractive woman, but when your kid is the one she’s helping, she is luminous. Then you’ll see her the way I do — as one of the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful women in the world.

She comforted me, praised me, and then showed me how to do what I had been trying to do, better.

She taught me to slow my speech to Mr. Rogers’ speed, forming my thoughts into great lumbering mammoths who’d get there when they got there. She taught me to insert pregnant pauses wherever they could be inserted, making me sound like a caricature of a politician — I was pontificating at 12 words per minute. If my voice was deeper, it would have sounded like Barry White, delivering some news about the easy way to make a blue snake out of PlayDoh.

The signs for “please,” “thank you,” and “milk” all re-entered our daily exchange, along with a host of improvised signs.

Rose’s doll house was her favorite toy. I would watch her silently play, without the constant chattering and in-fighting of the dolls (I don’t know about your doll population, but ours is like the cast of Real Housewives). I would watch her face change, all of the dialogue happening inside her head. I could tell what was happening, which dolly was the perp, which one the victim, which one the righteous and hell-fired Mama, putting all those rascals in time out. Sometimes, I would be so overwhelmed with sorrow and aching for her that I would go into the other room and cry for exactly long enough to get my shit back together. But that laser-bolt steel-spine gospel squad was right there. It wouldn’t let me cry, or feel bad for long. Every obstacle seemed to make it stronger. It was as if the harder it got, the stronger I felt, the happier I actually was. I realized, with no amount of wonderment and a smattering of disgust, that “fake it ’til you make it” was based on empirical proof as much as folk wisdom.

A stutter. Such a small thing. But it changed us all.

As Rose slowly but steadily became more fluent over the next six months, I saw my family with different eyes. My mom was a rock. She mommed me really hard those first few weeks, helping me face the situation with love and her characteristic no-bullshit clarity. My in-laws, with whom I have been so fortunate to enjoy close friendships, rallied around us like a band of warriors. Nothing got through. I realized that we were actually family, not just close friends.

My surly, sullen teenage son, more interested in computer games, sarcastic repartee, and Ramen noodles than any other thing on the planet, revealed how much he had grown up without my knowing. When he was a little boy, I was constantly battling the differences between us. It took him ten minutes to accomplish a standard human minute. He looked like he existed on a different plane. I was like an old movie, flickering by at 55 images per second. And there he was, loping through the frame like a shaggy-haired tree sloth. “Mom,” he used to object to my urgent appeals for him to hurry the hell up, “Mom, I’m going my slow and steady pace.” The “slow and steady pace” was something that entered household parlance, i.e., “CHRISTOPHER! We don’t have time for your slow-and-steady routine if you want to make the bus!” Or, “You’d better get up at 4 a.m. if you want to accommodate your slow-n-steady routine and still get to work by 6.” Now, when speaking to Rose, Christopher’s slow-and-steady pace set the tempo for the whole house. He was born knowing how to talk to her. Rose became fluent with him first.

And then it was now, the way it is when you have children, or live in the world. And you can hardly tell any of it ever happened. Rose chatters away, so much so that I catch myself thinking, “talk faucet = ON,” and other normal maternal ruminations. I have the luxury of doing so, because she is okay. She might have another mondo episode during development spurts (i.e., puberty —won’t that be a hoot?), and she might just continue on like she is, fighting her way through the occasional sentence, but usually no more noticeably stammery or stuttery than anyone else.

In hindsight, laying softly in my memory without the detail of retelling it, it just seems like another thing that happened to us, like the time we got a flat tire driving through Minneapolis on our way to Omaha. But in the retelling, I am washed with the intensity of the experience, and how changed we are because of it. It’s remarkable. I struggle, during struggle, to find gratitude and comfort. I wrestle with indignation and a brutal feeling of unfairness and entitlement. I glare balefully at the heavens and challenge God and everyone around me to prove their love. It’s probably hilarious to watch. But this time, I didn’t. And the truth is, it was just another thing that happened to us.

And that’s the deal, I guess. She has disfluency. It might get better, it might get worse. But we’ll handle it with love, and with each other, just like everything else. That’s good to know.
 

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