Learning the Language

By Melinda Bailey

At eleven months, she still had the cleft—wide enough to cover the roof of her mouth. “That’s a very small cleft,” the surgeon said but when he saw the look on the feeding specialist’s face, he looked again. “I take that back. That’s the largest cleft I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”

At eleven months she crawled and cruised, but she was a little behind in meeting development milestones. I said it was because she didn’t read infant development books. Her speech therapist said, “She should be babbling by now.” That meant I was behind as well.

At eleven months, she could sit and play, perfectly balanced on her bottom with two identical slivers of thigh peeking out from where her onesie ended and her matching leg warmers began. I cut her bangs too short, but they offset the two perfect curls at the nape of her neck so that she looked like a kewpie doll.

At eleven months, she could reach out and pick up books the books that were scattered around her without tumbling over. She never chose the primary-colored, graphically simple, one-or-two-word board books that babies her age needed for proper visual development. She wanted the intricately illustrated books. Books sent from distant relatives or brought out of basement boxes. Books with covers crammed from corner to corner with images—tiny messages from the outside world.

“Ah?” she said. At eleven months, she always said “ah,” but it had different meanings. By the tilt of her head and point of her index finger, I knew this “ah” meant that I was to name that thing for her. The exact thing she was pointing at. I was not to elaborate. Sometimes I did elaborate. “Oh. That’s another part of the house. I guess you could call it the siding, but it doesn’t have a real name.” She responded with an “ah” that told me I was doing it wrong. I soon learned to do it right. I only named what she was pointing at and kept everything else inside my head.

“That’s a flower.” Is that the stamen or the pistol? “That’s the inside of the flower.” “That’s a pirate ship.” Should I explain to her about pirates? Is it too scary? Should I explain that some pirates are good? Do I need to tell her about good and evil right now, or will there be time later? “That’s the flag of the pirate ship.” Should I have told her it was a Jolly Roger?  No. That would confuse her if she meets someone named Roger. That would be unlikely, though. “That’s a path.” “That’s a cobblestone.” “That’s a garden wall.” “That’s ivy.” Should I tell her about plants? When will she learn about plants? Pre-school?  “That’s a mermaid.” Shit. Should I have told her that mermaids aren’t real? Will she always believe that mermaids are real now? Have I ruined her? “That’s a shell.” Should I tell her that sea creatures live in shells? “That’s the ocean.” I have so much to tell her about the ocean. Is that really all I can say? “That’s a strawberry.”

Each time I named something for her, she nodded—just once—and pointed at the next thing to be named. She did this several times a day until her first cleft surgery. After that, she didn’t say “ah” or point at the books. She didn’t want me to name the world for her anymore.

At two, we brought her back to the surgeon. He had to decide if she needed to have a second surgery to fix her speech problem. “How does she communicate?” he said.

“She has an elaborate system of pointing,” I said.

The surgery was scheduled for the week of her third birthday.

At four, she hated preschool and cried every time we dropped her off. One day, we picked her up, and her teacher smiled and said, “I understood something she said today. Princess.”

I smiled and said, “prince-sess,” emphasizing each syllable.

At six, she ran screaming through the halls at school. It was a Big Problem. She was a Problem. Later, she told us that three boys teased her daily about her speech. They were having fun. We talked to their parents. They promised it would never happen again.

At seven, she hid in a bathroom stall and pulled her hair out in clumps. She was given a stress ball and a sheet of paper that told her how to handle anger. Finally, she told us that two girls were bullying her. We talked to the parents. They said, “We need to fix this.”

At nine and a half, she didn’t want to go to the party. “You can stay five minutes and leave if you don’t like it.” I knew she would eventually like it, but it would take more than five minutes, so I added, “You can stand on the stoop until you’re ready to come in.”

When we got to the stairs, other kids were standing on the top, leaning over the railing. (I knew them all. I’d talked to all of their parents about teasing. They responded with shock, sometimes with tears. “We didn’t raise our child that way,” they said.) The kids acted happy to see her. She walked slowly up the stairs. I walked behind her, and noticed for the first time that she hadn’t brushed the back of her head like I’d asked—the snarls at the nape of her neck made her hair stand up like angel wings.

At the top of the stairs, stood two polka-dotted shoes—too old for a fourth grader. “Those are great shoes! Where did you get them?” I said.

“Paris,” Julia, a girl her class, said.

I was going to say “Ooh la la!” but I could tell by the look on her face that that wasn’t the response Julia was looking for, so I just smiled and turned to my daughter. “Coming in?” She shook her head.

Later, she found me in the kitchen. “There’s soda,” I said. She nodded and poured herself a cup. With her second sip, she must have felt braver because she turned to the girl and said, “Julia, have you tasted this soda? It tastes like strawberries.” As she tried to say the word strawberries a bit of soda leaked out of her mouth. She caught it with her hand, but it was too late. The bubbles had already made her voice even more nasal than usual. Julia stared at her for a moment before walking away on her polka-dotted Paris shoes. We watched her. Neither one of us said a word.

At almost ten, she wants me to sign her up for cheerleading. She just needs her front walk-over, but she is nervous about the audition. “Do you think I’ll make some friends?”

“Yes.” I do not elaborate. Is that really all I can say?

Photo Credit: AliExpress.com

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Melinda Bailey:  I am a freelance writer and comedian living in San Francisco with my husband and an amazing ten-year-old girl who will still only allow me to name her world, not explain it.  I have studied Creative Writing at Harvard University and Rivier University. My nonfiction has appeared in Devil in the Woods, VegNews, The Boston Phoenix and High Fructose. My fiction has appeared in Litbreak.