She is constantly telling me things, feeding a long invisible thread between us with beads of context completely lost, despite the fact that I am holding tight to the other end. It has begun to matter, the heaviness of the line, the ornate string of incomprehensible chatter. She looks with a narrower eye now, an intensity that’s coming with age: listen closer, this is important, decode it.
She is right; her lexicon is broadening. The words come out unclear, but she resolutely knows them. I should know them, too.
We are reading a board book version of Anna Karenina lately. Each time we visit it, she can identify more of what the writer asks: Where is the cloak? Can you also find the clasp? Where is the uniform? Can you also find the feather? Where is the parasol?
Feather, she’ll say in her gauzy way, like the words have all been thickly wrapped and bandaged. I am learning, too, to unravel packages of pronunciation, to preserve the sounds. Each new word is a figurine, a gift, set on a glass shelf of memory. She will say it again someday soon, and I will lift it out. I’ll admire, if not quite understand, what she means.
This is the girl at three, at school. It’s sudden, the shift in both temperament and awareness, like a lever pulled. Something inside her has opened. Something has opened inside us all. It is jarring, too, like the day after a parent marries and your house, once so still and known, fills with loud and foreign faces purporting themselves as family.
When she comes home, her classmates’ phantom muddied footprints tromp in with her. Those blank, timid, scowling, or curious faces I glimpse only at gymnasium drop-offs and pick-ups never seem far from her mind. She has tracked in a little world, wholly unknown to me: tempestuous, vibrant, sickly, and boisterous. I do not know which, if any classmate, she prefers, do not know what they do together on any given day. It’s her secret. (But is it witting or the work of all the words being held hostage?)
Two months into the school year, I am still matching quiet eyes and scruffy hair and backpacks to names on a parent-child dismissal sheet, still relying entirely on circled emoticons in a daily progress notebook to find out about how she felt about her day. The limits of language can make private investigators of us all.
This is what I tell the women ’round the conference room table, pens poised over clipboards, eyes and ears expectant. Her teacher is here, her speech therapist, and others whose titles I’ve already forgotten. They agree that they’ve seen great progress, that she is making more decipherable statements, that she learns well through rhythm and song.
“There’s one in particular she loves,” her teacher beams. “Whenever we sing it, her face just lights up.”
I nod knowingly. “I have a funny story about that.”
They lean forward in anticipation.
But the anecdote won’t contain what the moment held. I tell it anyway.
A few weeks into preschool, my daughter began singing a song — one it was clear she’d memorized, the first ever that I couldn’t decipher at all. It was the kind of thing for which I couldn’t have prepared. Music is our Morse code, our clarity, a call for which we always have an understood response.
I was surprised by my own helplessness, by how crestfallen we both were. She was already learning something I couldn’t quickly come to know.
“Yum, yum! Pee yew!” she’d chirp brightly over breakfast, from the backseat, in the bathtub. She’d rub her tummy or hold her nose; she’d wave her arms.
I felt so thoroughly locked out, shrugging in apology: “I don’t know it,” and she’d frown or stomp and a chasm would widen between us.
Here is the thing about toddler language-impairment; it opens an eyelet into which parents can peer at the long stretch of adolescence, where all roads converge at the epicenter of I don’t know.
The women are pleased. I have given them a succinct and satisfying ending. They lean back and laugh. One says she’s familiar with the tune herself and will have to seek it out. My daughter’s teacher invites her to drop in on her class.
What they do not hear — what I do not tell them — is that the moment I saw her face light up when I played the song and immediately began to learn it is one of my most triumphal experiences as a mother.
I do not tell them this was the moment I learned that the needs mothers meet are rarely as basic as they seem and how rare it is to feel like I’ve completely succeeded at meeting one. I do not tell her how motherhood occasionally feels, even on its easier days, like something else to survive.
It doesn’t matter. They don’t need to know it. And the truth is: I am pleased, too. How often are we forced to pay such close attention? How many of us can say we have learned, on some minuscule scale, to read a mind?