He remembers the paths we walked last year, along the beach and across the cliff-top fields toward the seal rookery. I let him lead. We never get lost.
Each day, he speeds down the beach, twirling two rubber snakes in his hands. I stop trying to keep up, but instead hold back to see how far he will really get before he notices I’m not with him. He goes, and goes, and goes. Do I need to run? No, now he stops. He finds me with his eyes, far back along the beach. He turns back. He never comes all the way to me, but just enough so that we are close, walking on together again in the same direction.
I spy a tiny speck of red and black crawling up the sand and I pick it up to show him. He labels it quickly – ladybug – apparently unimpressed, and moves on.
While he’s close, I point out the dolphins who have arrived again, just offshore, their dorsal fins cresting the waves in twos and threes every few yards. I can’t tell if he looks out long enough to see them.
Two rubber snakes spin over every surface along the beach, the road, and back at our oceanside apartment.
He declines to come near enough to the surf to see the huge crab claw washed ashore, looking unnatural, as if someone on a dinner cruise tossed the carcass overboard after dipping the meat in melted butter.
My child – who swam nonstop in the freezing water every year before this – won’t go near the waves this time. As we saw before his first surfing experience last summer, he is uncharacteristically hesitant and unsure at the water’s edge. He still loves to run on the beach, chase seagulls, walk and walk and walk – but he won’t get his feet wet.
I reassure him that no one will force him – he can return to the water whenever he is ready. Although I don’t know why he’s had a change of heart, I hope he will love to swim in the ocean again in time. He says nothing until after our trip when we are back home, looking at photos. Then, a song emerges quietly: People swimming in the water, people swimming in the water…. shark coming in the water, shark coming in the water…
My son can’t always find the words at the right time, and when the language does come, it is often coded, masked, singular. In order to hear him, I have to take the time to listen. He is speaking to me, in his way.
This break gave me time to practice this listening, to slow down and just be with my son, follow his lead and see where he takes me. It helped me notice what I am often missing in our busy, hurried life – that he is throwing me little sparkling clues to what he is thinking.
Within his daily babble – streaming scenes from his movies or books or games – I begin to hear small words that don’t fit in the script, but align perfectly to the situation at hand. When my mother joins us one morning, I hear the word “grandpa” sneak into his rambling soundscape, and I guess he is wondering where my father is. With his question acknowledged, he is visibly happy to have been heard. This pattern repeats in other situations – I start to listen more closely to everything we believed was only “verbal stimming” before. Is his awareness and connection stronger this week, or am I just now slowing down enough to hear it?
On the beach, I catch sight of a seal bobbing in the waves just beyond where the boogie boarders float. He disappears and reemerges several times before the swimmers notice he is there. When they finally see him, their attention is newly focused, their experience made brighter, more memorable. All they can do is watch and wait, let him choose to be near them – if they try to approach or chase after him, he’d be gone.
Each time I hear my child express what’s on his mind – in clips of song or a re-engineered phrase – I catch a fleeting glimpse of all that is just below the surface. In my eagerness, I tend to jump at it too soon, too forcefully, and the silence returns. But if I stay still, listen – float – his words appear.
I returned from vacation recharged to cultivate the patience I need to support my son’s still-emerging voice and to encourage his trust in me as a communication partner. As much as I yearn to know what my son is thinking right now, to have a conversation with him, to ensure that he will be safe and understood when he is away from me, none of these skills come quickly.
It is hard and treacherous work to find the words, and it may take years for him to know the rewards of shared communication. I am finally beginning to understand that just because his voice is not fully here yet doesn’t mean it will never come. If I can just slow down to listen, I can catch glimpses right now.
I will walk the beach with him, following his lead. I will point out what I see, despite his lack of response, hoping he’s soaking in the language he can retrieve later. When he’s ready to look back, I will be here, believing that he understands and desires to know more even if he can’t yet form the questions. I will wait and watch for the creative ways he is communicating – now or in the hours or days later. I will offer what he needs to build his voice: more patience, more time, more assurances that someone will hear him.