let me talk
I have moments I collect like treasure–the moments I never thought I’d see, and this is one of them:
I rush in late in the middle of a song and slide into a seat next to Kevin, picking up the melody, letting the words gather in my mind.
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My children sit among the other teens in a tight row—two together, right there; one just a few kids down on the end, in a knot of friends. Their necks, the knobby crests of their spines, are pink-brown with sun. When I start to sing they turn and look back, tilting bronzed noses–one, two, three, and then one again, again. Mom’s here. Ask me what’s beautiful about creation and I’ll tell you it’s the way God knits children to their parents; the way they know the sound of your voice even in a room full of voices.
How is it that I get to be that person to them?
The song ends and our voices fade, dropping off slowly at first, twisting softly away like dead leaves, and then suddenly, the room falls silent.
Riley jumps up from her chair and walks to the front of the room, and with her, a friend, and together they turn to face us. “Well, this is what we did this week,” Riley says, moving her hands in front of her. I notice dusty blotches on her lemon yellow t-shirt, remnants of the afternoon’s work. She must be tired, but that’s not what I see. Right now, I only see light, like she swallowed the sun. It shines in her eyes, glows on her cheeks. “Well, on Monday morning,” she says, throwing her arm in a wide arc, like voila, “we arrived at 8:15…“
I remember when Riley first started talking with her hands, the way she’d drag my arm around a room and hurl it toward whatever she wanted, grunting. Her hands were emphatic phrases, propelling me in the direction of some desire she couldn’t name. Much later, after Riley found words, she started trying to be less conspicuous. She studied people for hours, watching what the rest of us do when we speak, and then she started trying to mimic what she saw. The result looks like some cross between gesture and pantomime. Right now, she builds boxes in the air with her hands, balancing one on strict, straight fingers, crushing another with a wild smack of her palm. She recounts each day’s activities, even the food, first this, then that. She twists her body back and forth, shifting her weight. She blinks and squints and sometimes pauses just to smile, gushing, her brassy braid flipping across her shoulders. “…and then we, um, then we went to host homes and got cleaned up, and then we came back here, and then…,” she’s saying, so quickly I can bearly breathe. I don’t want to miss a word.
I look at her and I can still see the shadows of all our history; I hear the way she sobbed over every word we made her say; I see her shrieking, covering her ears because every sound was too loud. And I sit here pulling out my treasures while I listen—the first full sentence she ever spoke; the first time she made a joke; the first time she said I love you, Mom; the first time we had what I could actually call a conversation. And now she’s standing in front of a room of people, recounting three days she spent without me. Without me.
“Huh?” Riley says, stopping mid-phrase, looking closely at her friend beside her. Friend spoke so softly I didn’t know until Riley responded. Friend smiles and the smile is all lit up, and I can see the words on her lips before I actually hear them. Let me talk, she says. “Mmhmm, okay,” Riley says gently, without feeling any censure, stepping back just a little, turning to listen.
Let me talk. You could not have told me, that day they spoke Autism into the air across the table from preschool mama-me, that there would ever come a day when one of Riley’s friends would have to stop her talking to get a word in. There was a time when she could not speak at all. That was the day they showed me that baby-cheeked, flaxen, curly-headed Riley would walk away from me without looking back to be sure I was there. That was the day they pointed out that the few words she said were either meaningless or mis-spoken. That was the day I asked them if she would ever be able to have a life of her own, and they said, “We don’t know. We can’t predict.” And now she stands at the front of this room, and the words rush out like a tide that can’t quite be reigned, and I gather it in, another utterly amazing, glittering time, a grace overflowing right into thanksgiving to YHWH–the God who specializes in “we can’t predict.”
Oh, thanks be to God for His indescribable gifts.