By Liam Callanan
My youngest daughter, almost two, won’t speak.
It’s a problem, but not much of one, the pediatrician tells us—or rather, that’s what her mouth tells us. Her eyes betray a little more—I’m not worried now, but will be the next time we meet.
I don’t have to wait. I’m worried now. Maybe it’s perfectly normal for one’s child not to be a fluent communicator by eighteen months, but in our house it’s not. She has two older sisters who said more sooner, and worse yet, my baby girl’s father—me—is a fiction writer. If she makes it age two or twenty or beyond unable to catch a fly ball, fine. But she has to speak.
Right now, though, only the doctor’s speaking, and she says: Be patient.
Patience is a precious commodity in our house—Jane is the fourth of four girls. It may be that she’s not spoken yet because she’s not been able to get a word in edgewise.
And if the math is tripping you up at this point (1 baby + 2 older sisters = 4?), don’t worry—arithmetic is another problem area for us. Jane is our fourth child, but only the third we brought home from the hospital. She was born in 2007, her sister Honor in 2002, and Mary in 2000. Lucy was born February 19, 1998, and by the time I got to hold her in the hospital, she was already still and quiet. You have no idea how beautiful she was—or how quiet that room was. Up and down the hall, babies cried, mothers shouted, doctors and nurses called to each other. Anyone entering our room quickly fell quiet as soon as they saw the yellow rose a cautious nurse had taped to our door: hospital code for what had happened within.
We couldn’t be so oblique with our daughters. Instead, we followed the advice of experts and told them about Lucy directly. Just the minimum, we were told: Don’t overwhelm them. So we didn’t. But our girls occasionally overwhelm us. Every February, Mary, our oldest, reminds us that it’s time to buy the crib we purchase and donate each year on Lucy’s birthday. Honor, who inspires her teachers to ever-more elaborate euphemisms—”spirited,” “lively,” and, my favorite, “capable of extreme leadership”—will sometimes tell strangers in line at the grocery store about her “stone sister” (as in gravestone?) “who doesn’t speak.”
On the other hand, Honor will sometimes try to egg Jane into speaking in various public situations—which Jane never does. She smiles shyly, giggles or points, but she doesn’t otherwise greet the cashier or, say, the person behind her at church, or the other child on the playground.
At home, Jane’s a bit more loquacious. We’ve assured the doctor that we do hear “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and for a while, we were quite certain that her first official word would be “cheese,” which was fine with me. A word’s a word, and Jane was our first child to be born in Wisconsin. It would make a good story. But then cheese retreated, and Daddy melted into “Diddy” and then I started noticing that both I and Dora the Explorer went by “Diddy.” Then Dora’s friend Boots the Monkey, too. That’s not a good sign, I thought, but couldn’t think of a way to share that with the pediatrician: My daughter confuses me for a small lavender monkey.
Be patient, the doctor says, and we are, even though these are the months of the “language explosion” when other children—especially, it seems, the children of parents who blog—are learning a hundred words a day, and in multiple languages. That our doctor isn’t concerned yet is frustrating, but also reassuring. One of the things I like about her is her slowness to panic. When she asked Honor at age five to draw a self-portrait on her clipboard (I confess I don’t remember this diagnostic test from when I was a kid), and Honor instead drew a thigh-high stiletto boot and went to the other side of the form and marked “yes” beside all the “Abnormal Mental Health Symptoms” before we could get the pen away from her, our doctor did not commit Honor—or her parents—to an asylum. She smiled and said Honor was precocious and that she’d see her next year. She did, and Honor brought her a beautiful, full-length self-portrait—ponytail, crown, stiletto boots and all.
But the girls have always been good with doctors. Once, when the pediatrician finally did hit the panic button and send us to the Children’s Hospital emergency room—it was midnight, and Mary, seven, had been throwing up for twenty-four hours straight—we found ourselves in an exam room with a nurse practitioner who was going through her triage sheet. Midnight, and my daughter hadn’t kept anything down for more than a day, and had never been up this late in her life: “Would you say she’s acting … playful?” the NPT said. Mary’s head lolled against my chest. I didn’t answer. Two hours later, when the IV saline solution drip had miraculously restored her, the NPT returned to check on us. She whispered to me over the tubes and beeping: “How’s she feeling?” Before I could answer, Mary opened her eyes from her two a.m. nap and said just one word: “playful.”
In short, Mary and Honor are not shy—nor ever at a loss for words. When I told them I was reading at a local bookstore, they both asked what their role would be—they couldn’t imagine not having one. Since I’m still learning what it is to be a writer, and parent, and writer-parent, I said they could do whatever they wanted. Honor spun like a ballerina, fell, rose, and then curtsied to broad applause. Mary read a story that consisted of two lines: “I like chocolate. If you like chocolate, raise your hand.” When the entire audience did, she smiled and both girls gave me a look that very clearly said, Top that, Dad.
Of course, I’ve learned there is no topping them. What do you say when your six-year-old wakes you just before dawn, whispering at your bedside in the cold dark, Dad, I need a stapler? Or, when you’re invited to your daughter’s third-grade class to talk about “what writers do,” and after answering polite questions like Do you have a limousine? and Do you think of the words or pictures first?, Mary asks, “Dad, why are you so wild at home, and normal here?”
What could I say? That at home, I like plugging my iPod into the stereo and blasting whatever comes out so my girls and I can dance like popcorn in a kettle, because I spend all day very, very quietly sitting at a desk and talking to no one? That I’m wild with them—talking, tickling, tackling—because they’re so funny and so fun? That I will, and have, taken them to New York or Chicago or a random city some Saturday because life is short, and I’ve never been patient enough to wait for the adventures to come to me?
Or that I love talking a wild blue streak with them, dancing until we drop, because there was a day—a lonely cold one in February—that I thought I would never know a noisy life, that I thought my first daughter, so pretty, so silent, would also be my last.
Jane is our last.
Every milestone of hers that passes—smiling, sitting up, crawling, walking—is bittersweet. I already dread the day I dismantle the crib—the one we bought for Lucy, the one we’ve used for each girl since—and take it to Goodwill instead of storage.
And maybe Jane senses this in me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she understands everything we say. Maybe Jane knows that that first word will also be a last hallmark. Maybe she’s waiting.
Her sisters aren’t, of course. Honor has decided we’re aiming too low—she sits Jane down with chapter books, tries to get her to repeat words like “conversation” and “tiara.” Mary, meanwhile, recently completed a worksheet that asked her to predict the future. She came up with a list that included “boys will like Barbies,” “people will drive plastic cars,” and—”your first word will be fiction.”
Author’s Note: Jane loves fiction, loves cuddling with a book any time of day. And sometimes afterward, she will speak—low, steady, earnest, but absolutely unintelligible whispers that she sometimes punctuates by patting my cheek or nose. I want to ask Mary what she’s saying. Or, for that matter, Honor. I want to ask Jane. I want to ask Lucy. I want to ask all my girls if what I do all day as a writer is so different from what I do as a parent—imagine what might be, what could have been, and patiently, quietly, wait for the words to come.
Brain, Child (Winter 2010)
About the Author: Liam Callanan’s novels include All Saints and The Cloud Atlas. He coordinates the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s on the web at liamcallanan.com.