The Pain of Not Being Able to Communicate


This is the second installment of my column Pain and Joy.  I plan to continue on with it the first Wednesday of each month, so wish me luck!

Christopher, Nicholas and I sat on the couch, their pointy elbows pressed into my ribs, and their pointy chins digging into each of my shoulders as they tried to crowd in to get a better look.

“How come Christopher is always so cute in pictures, and I’m not?” Nicholas wanted to know.

“Kiddo, this album is from 2011, and you would have been four – that cute kid is you.”

Nicholas looks sheepish and pleased with this realization, but also surprised, “I was so little!”

“Hmmm, yeah guys, this is Christopher,” I point at a picture of a toddler with impossibly chubby cheeks sitting in a red plastic wagon, “He would have been one and a half here.”

Christopher, so mature and lanky at six years old, lets out a squeal over how cute he was, while I notice a pattern to our pictures. “Hey, what’s up with you, here? In every other picture you are completely crabby!” Actually, in three out of four pictures he looks either completely unimpressed with life or, as Thomas the Tank Engine might say, quite cross.

Giggling hard he gasps, “Why was I so angry?”

“I know, right?” I goof with him, flipping pages rapidly, “Cranky, cranky, cranky, happy! Cranky, cranky, cranky…”

When Christopher laughs now his cheeks still get round and full. He’s now laughing so hard that he is slightly out of breath and…


He lets out a long sigh and wipes his eyes.

I didn’t realize how much of his unhappiness from that age would have come through in those pictures. I do know why he was angry, or rather I can guess. Long past when he should have started, Christopher either couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, talk.

Christopher was, and is, wonderfully adept at reading people’s faces, at discerning the tone of their voices and at understanding the nuances of gestures. As a toddler he could express himself non-verbally almost perfectly. His body language transmitted his mood exactly, and he brought his whole body into sadness or frustration or manipulative charm. He knew to direct your eyes to where he wanted you to look by staring you full in the face, and then directing his gaze at what he wanted. His sighs and squeals and yells were unmistakably clear, but that was it. He didn’t babble. He only had one word by the time he was two.

I knew he was angry that he couldn’t get us to understand what he meant or what he wanted, or more importantly, needed. We would begin a ridiculous guessing game. It was a lightening round of 20 questions, where I would survey the situation, scan my memory for what he would be most likely interested in, and ask a yes or no question. I hoped like hell that I asked the right one before his frustration detonated. If he shook his head “no” too many times steam would practically pour out of his head before he began stomping his feet, and I would frantically try to get it right before he would collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor in utter hopelessness. Or his tantrum would be quieter, with him simply stopping in his tracks, refusing to look up and refusing to walk forward another step.

Christopher began speech therapy after he turned two.

The Halloween he turned two and a half, I had been wondering out loud what his costume should be. I had grown accustomed to making these decisions for him, as he rode quietly in the seat of the shopping cart. I picked up a little faux leather jacket and muttered to myself that he could be a rock star. Christopher paused in what he was thinking about to focus his eyes on me and said very, very clearly, “Dog.”

I was stunned. This was the first time, the absolute first time, he was able to calmly express that my ideas for him were not the ideas he had for himself. Just one word, one syllable; the access to that one word gave him power. That one word gave him the ability to feel secure in his message, to feel secure enough in his ability to be understood that he didn’t have to scream. He didn’t have to cry. I didn’t have to guess, and guess wrong. I blubbered, “Of course you can be a dog! Of course you can be a dog.” He smiled, a very quiet serene smile.

Christopher turned three in April, and the volume of the words he could use had exploded. At his meeting with the school district, the evaluator said that he was no longer delayed, but he could continue with the program for pronunciation help and emotional support. His tantrums were no longer something that dominated our days, though he still didn’t have quite enough words to communicate everything that went through his mind, so they did still happen now and then.

In May, I brought the boys over to my parents’ house to visit and tell my mother that they loved her, now that both of them could. I dropped them off at my in-laws to stay the night, as my father and brothers and I would be helping Mom through open heart surgery the next morning.

When Mom’s surgery was successful, and after she had been in the recovery room for the initial few hours, we were allowed to see her, two at a time, in the ICU. I don’t remember who went first. I know Dad was one of the first two, and then maybe one of my brothers Scott or Matt or Anthony. She was not awake the first time I saw her. The second time I came in I know Matt told me, “She seems happy when you hold her hand.”

So I did, and as I held her left hand I thought about what she might be feeling. Her face was flushed and scrunched and looked distressed. I wondered if she felt anxious about the breathing tube still being in place. I wondered if she was feeling pain from the incision, or if she felt worried about her Parkinson’s meds being off, or if there was a part of her that felt scared or lonely. Then she tried to wriggle her fingers out of my hand. At first I held tighter. She seemed to be trying to break free of my grip, and I chastised myself that perhaps I had been patronizing and she didn’t need my hand.

Confused, I then tried to release my hand, and Mom, with limited motion because of all the equipment attached to her, waved it back and spread it open. She traced something on the palm of my hand, and I looked up at her face with surprise, “Are you trying to write something?”

She blinked her light green eyes so deliberately I knew she was nodding yes.

“H…” I would look down at my hand to make sure that the letter I felt was what the letter actually looked like. I had so many years of practice when she would trace the alphabet on my tiny back and I would proudly tell her that I knew what she was writing. As I said each letter I looked up at her face to confirm I had gotten the letter right.

“O…T. Hot?” I looked up at her and with a softening of the tension in her face she indicated yes. Just one word, one syllable and her power came back. I wrenched myself away from the soft fuzzy imaginings of what she might be feeling, and was able to focus on the practical things that needed doing. My ideas about her were not the ideas she had herself. I played twenty questions with mom, “You feel too hot? It’s really uncomfortable?” Then I would ask the nurse, “Can we remove that blanket? Is this normal to feel so hot?”

By then I know Anthony was in the room with me, and I would call out letters to him so he could help me string them together coherently.


“The tape is bothering you? The nurse says we have to keep that on, its holding the breathing tube in place, I’m sorry.”


“Oh yeah, the soothing meditation sounds for afterwards. We’ll get that set up right now.”

“C…A… wait I missed that one, you have to slow down a little because I can’t keep up…H…B? Okay Mom, the nurses need to you to relax for a little while to get deep breaths to get your oxygen levels up.”

When Mom breathed deeply enough, she would fall asleep and her oxygen levels would drop, which meant waking her up again. I explained the situation to her and she wrote in my hand one more time before I was shooed away. I was so tired I couldn’t catch it. “Tell me later, Mom. You can tell me later.”

Later on she told me with a smile, “I’m surprised you didn’t get that one. I was writing ‘Catch 22’ joking about what the nurses wanted me to do with the breathing.” I smiled back at her and apologized for missing it.

The same way I had apologized so often to Christopher, “I’m so sorry I didn’t understand you.”

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