In this memoir, I explore silence through the lens of my young, tongue-tied son.
Shortly after turning 2, my little boy is diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, a disorder that leaves him unable to form words.
As I help him with his struggle to speak, I begin to explore my own fraught history of silence."
Say it. Notice how it floats like a gust of spring air, like a cotton ball sent windward. Say it fast. Say it slow. Think about all that goes into it. First, the tap of tongue tip on the upper palate, just behind the teeth. Next, a burst from the lungs to form the “Tuh”—the first soft explosion of sound.
The jaws snap open and closed again. The lips pillow on top of each other. For a moment, they dwell together as the nose expels air: a lilting, near-sigh. Pressure forms between the teeth and lips.
There’s a need for release, but not quite, because the tongue cuts it short, barely grazing the teeth, just enough to turn “bah” into “bul.” Liquid. Your tongue rests in the solid embrace of those teeth for as long as you wish. You are done. You’ve said it. You can say it again and again.
When you tumbled into this world, you wailed. It was a beautiful wail, full of life. You wanted—to be held, to be warm, to eat. You didn’t have the words to express yourself, but we knew well enough.
Your father and I chose Elias—Eli for short—a name derived from the element el, meaning “powerful.” We knew the name evoked strength and confidence. But we didn’t know then how much strength you would need to draw on.
You were our miracle baby, the precious child we thought we would never have. From the beginning, your precious-ness weighed down on you like a blanket made of lead. The pressure had everything and nothing to do with you. I was only half aware of it myself. It rippled back generations. It spoke of loss, of the familial struggle to survive. You were the last tender shoot on my family’s shrunken tree. Up and down—fissures, gaps. I knew all too well of my own, but generational wounds—wrought by divorce, water, a disease that strangled, they stayed hidden, shrouded by silence. I would come to appreciate the weight of those wounds, the ways that loss can metastasize when fused with silence. I would come to understand the cost, the sting left behind, the pressure building as generations contract.
I didn’t see it back then, but it was all there. The expectations we placed on you, the unspoken words: Our last hope! We needed you to survive, to thrive. How terribly unfair of us, to heap so many hopes on your tiny shoulders.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by your silence.
Before we knew of the forces that kept your words inside, we waited for them, excited at the prospect of understanding what you, our long-awaited son, thought and wanted.
We waited—joyfully at first, then fretfully. As time passed, our trepidation grew. Clearly, you understood words. The ones you wanted to say were right there for the taking, as bright as brand-new pennies. But out of your mouth came unrecognizable sounds, tarnished and hoof-scraped.
The silence deepened.
We waited but the words didn’t come, and eventually the words inside you, the ones you couldn’t speak, came alive inside my head. They took root—not as sounds, exactly, but as dreamlike images that teased and tormented.
I imagined the words as fish. They glittered in a soupy, dark sea. You stood waist-deep, holding crackers in your small fist to lure them toward you—Goldfish! Your favorites!—and the fish came from every direction, thick and ravenous. You willed yourself to stand there as the crackers turned liquid. They slipped through your fingers, a cloud of melting crumbs. The fish surrounded you. They tickled and nibbled your skin, cold and scaly and fluttering like your heart. They closed in from all directions. But they were too quick, too slick to grasp.
As time passed, your silence transformed into something almost tactile—phantoms that floated in and out of my consciousness, twining and disentangling.
I imagined pulling open curtains one morning and finding not the sunlit branches of the crab apple tree, but only fog and crows.
And the fog became billows of smoke spewing from a distant chimney in the coldest of winter, ragged plumes that choked the brittle sky.
And the plumes rounded into tumbleweeds, spiny and unyielding, that bounced down a barren highway.
I imagined your yearning. I wished I could do something, anything: give you sun, clear the air. I wanted to clean out your cluttered passages, pull taut the tangled threads of light in your skull, unknot the bird’s nest of messages thrumming there.
I wanted to help you discover the taste of words. But your words stayed inside, unreachable.