When I was a young girl I read everything I could find about Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Even now I remember how excited I was by this powerful story of Keller’s intelligence and desire to connect–coupled with Sullivan’s tireless belief that something would get through to Keller.
I imaged many times being each of them…both of them…connecting, pulling on each other until they found their separate worlds overlapping. I would stare at pictures of them in their puffy dresses and consider what I thought would have been a single moment of clarity for Keller, with her fingers in Sullivan’s mouth, recognizing the vibration of sound and communication…and choosing to reach out for it. I imagined the validation Sullivan must have felt watching Keller’s personality, thoughts, and ideas come flooding out from having been locked inside her uncooperative body.
It was so powerful to me that for a time I wanted very much to be a teacher of children with hearing impairment and I started learning sign language. However, somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about doing that sort of work. By junior high I still knew some sign language but it had become only a method to communicate with friends during class without the teacher noticing. By the time I graduated high school I only remembered the alphabet and just a few signs.
I hadn’t really thought about Anne Sullivan or Helen Keller in years until I started noticing Esmé’s tendency to stick her fingers in my mouth with some sort of express purpose. She had done this as an infant…and I assumed that it was just baby-like exploration. But, several months ago I noticed that she seemed to be systematically exploring my mouth when I spoke. And the story of Helen Keller learning to communicate by feeling Anne Sullivan’s mouth positioning and the vibration as she spoke came flooding back to me.
These explorations of my mouth seemed to come in almost obsessive waves. For days she’d have no interest and then out of nowhere she’d be insistent that she needed to explore my mouth, shoving her hands in as I was singing or talking to her at night. She would feel around, touching my teeth, under my tongue, the roof of my mouth, and as far into the back of my mouth as I would let her. Then she would pull her hand out and explore her own mouth…giddy, smiling.
I felt certain that Esmé was trying to figure out where my voice was coming from…and how she might be able to mimic me. And the connection to Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller and their journey toward understanding each other filled me with a kind of certainty–a certainty that Esmé and I have already begun our own incredible journey toward establishing a way for her to connect and better communicate what she thinks and how she sees the world. And a certainty that pushed me to encourage parts of this (perhaps slightly inappropriate) behavior.
In many ways Esmé is already an exceptional communicator. Like me she seems almost incapable of masking her thoughts and feelings at any given moment. She is not terribly interested in doing things just to please people, but she is very happy to see others be pleased by what she is doing. And her feelings demand attention. And, as I have written here before, she seems to understand so very much of what is said around her.
However, her expressive communication is very limited still. We have had breakthroughs here and there, but not much has stuck around. For awhile she would say “bub” for bubbles, but it stopped after a particularly difficult cluster of seizures. From about 9 months on she would say “Maman” with pretty clear intention…by 18 months she would call out to me in the morning “MAMAN MAMAN MAMAN.” But, in what I have felt is one of the hardest blows of all these years, that stopped too at some point, that precious word stolen away by seizures.
And there were long periods of silence after that.
However, in recent weeks her babbling has gotten much more frequent…and it has taken on a demanding and emphatic quality that made us shift from the sort of encouraging sideline commentary of “Nice words Ezzy! Keep it up!” to trying to legitimately guess what she is attempting to say. About a week ago we sorted out that the often pronounced “Mung mung!” was, in fact, Esmé saying “All done.” I thought she might explode from joy and relief when we finally sorted it out. And already she is pronouncing it more easily “AH Ding” or “dung dung.”
Soon after that we started recognizing that she said “Night night.”
So on Sunday night when, instead of falling asleep easily, she started yammering and trying to explore my mouth again, we just went with it. She seemed to be more willing to practice her “words” in the dark, just the two of us. But she was still shy enough that she would hide her face in my arm, her fingers in her mouth, while trying to get ready to produce a sound. Then she would throw her head back for a moment before sitting up tall and saying “Night night.”After a few confirming “Yes Ez, it is time for night night,” I tried to test her. Placing her hand on my mouth I said: “Hey Ez, can you say ‘Night night Maman’?”
Silent, she put her head into the crook of my arm. I could feel her clicking her fingers against her teeth. Then she threw her head back, sat up, and said, clear as a bell: “Nigh Nigh MumMum”
And then again and again.
Of course by this point there were tears running down my face, but I tried to keep my voice steady and clear.
“Ezzy, can you say your name?”
“Ah Ah Ah”
(Realizing that the -zzy sound might be too hard) I tried again: “Esmé, can you say Esmé?” She sticks her hand in my mouth.
Head down, pause, head up…”AH-May”
“Did you just say Esmé?”
“AH-May, Ah-May” and then “Ah-May nigh nigh, nigh nigh Mum Mum.”
She was not mimicking. She was not parroting. She was telling me something…something that seemed (still seems) like the most profound thing I’ve ever heard…she took her words and pulled and pulled against me until our worlds overlapped just that much more.
After years of speech and physical therapy and special ed can say that do I understand that the bridge of communication built between Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller was not a matter of a large break-through, as I imagined as a child… While the big break-through may make for a better story, I know now that it is only through consistent focused work and tiny moves forward that such things are possible. After a time it seems like it is a matter only of plain old effort…and that there might be nothing miraculous about it.
But occasionally there are moments like this, moments where the movement forward is so concentrated, so powerful…that your world shifts. Writing the exchange here, it seems so miniscule. And I guess in some ways it was…but it was enough to let me know there is something magical there–some snap of electricity that jumps the space between two people when they really, truly understand each other.
“Nigh nigh mum mum.”
“Night night my love.”