It began with a deep family discussion. My wife Heather and her sister Jaimee had become embroiled in one of those topics that can transform an entire autumn: should Jaimee dress as Princess Leia for Halloween, or as a unicorn?
The arguments were weighed and considered with the seriousness of a House investigating committee. (I kid, of course – it was actually much more serious than that.) In the midst of it, without warning, our disabled ward Missy looked up.
“Unicorn,” she said.
A pause followed.
“Well,” Jaimee said, “if Missy says so, I suppose that settles it!”
I’m not saying Missy is an Old Testament prophet, whose judgments come replete with ominous clouds, rolling thunder, and a lightning show worthy of Castle Dracula. (Well, not until she gets really impatient with us, anyway.) But if you’ve followed Missy in this space at all, you know that she tends to the quiet side. Some people say a word to the wise is sufficient; for Missy, a few words to a conversation is abundance.
But in the time that Heather and I have cared for her – seven and a half years now – there are periodic bursts of new vocabulary, like a river carving new channels. Every so often, the results are striking enough to mention here, like when “ma shoe” became “ma tennis shoe” a few years ago, or last Christmas, when she improbably added “Hallelujah” to the list. Even calling me “Scott” sometimes instead of “Frank” (her dad’s name) or “He” counted as a major milestone.
The thing is … lately, there have been a lot of milestones.
“I wanna go” is a standard phrase. But “Let’s move over here” is new.
“Lookit!” is an old favorite. But “Look at the animals,” said while pointing to a herd of horses, caught us off guard.
“Can you do me up?” popped out one afternoon, as she extended a jacket in one hand.
And even the stock comments sometimes turn into short conversations now.
“Where are we goin’?” Missy asked for the 10th time near the end of a drive one day. Rather than answer again, I lobbed it back to her.
“I don’t know, Missy, where do you think we’re going?”
She was absolutely right.
We’ve always known that Missy understands more than she’s able to say, that a lot hides behind her silence. One night, as I read A Wrinkle in Time to her, the character Mrs. Whatsit was describing the art of “tessering” – folding time and space – by noting how much more easily a caterpillar could cross the edge of a picnic blanket if the corners were pinched close together.
Heather peeked her head in. “How far have you gotten?”
“We’re learning how to tesser,” I responded.
And Missy, quietly, picked up the edge of her blanket and brought the corners together. And grinned.
And now, by fits and starts, the words are starting to catch up. Not in a mass wave – the limitations she has are still real ones, an internal wall rarely scaled. But she’s increasingly finding cracks in the wall. And every once in a while, she builds windows.
I don’t claim to know how. Yes, we read to her a lot, we talk with her a lot. Maybe it’s as simple as that – that what you give your attention to flourishes, like seeds receiving water.
But that discounts Missy’s own work. The learning and growth that’s going on inside her, the process that only she can see.
Maybe that sort of growth always seems kind of magical, regardless of your age or condition. We’ve all done it. The lucky ones never stop. And most of us are still powerless to explain it fully.
I’d love to hear what Missy thinks. Maybe someday I will, just a little. After all, she’s already folded time and discovered unicorns. What’s one more miracle?
Let’s move over here, and see.