MOM CAN YOU HAND ME THE SALT?” Brian asks. He sits at the breakfast table, cereal in hand.
“This is sugar,” I say for the hundredth time. “Salt is…salt is what you put on eggs.”
“They look the same,” he says. “I forget what to call them.”
After breakfast we go outside and sit in the grass. Brian watches a pair of robins build a nest in our wild cranberry bush. We peek in and see one sky-blue egg. Each day there is one more, till there are four. Newly hatched, the baby birds have threadlike veins underneath their transparent skin. Their hungry throats are yellow like the sun. Summer opens up before us, hot and free as the last days of school are crossed off the calendar.
Brian is slim and blond and cannot read. He’s eight years old and doesn’t remember the names of the individual letters of the alphabet. He can’t recall the sounds they make. He tries and tries. We go over and over the letters. I stalk bookstores searching for materials he will understand. Finger-play alphabets. Sing Your Way into Reading. Phonics Made Easy. I frequent the early-reader aisles going from first-grade to kindergarten readers and later descend into preschool readers where I wade through blends, digraphs, and double vowels.
School begins again, and Brian’s test scores come in far below average. He is nine years old and still he cannot read.
I sit in a small bland room. Business-like, the doctor taps the papers on his desk. He clears his throat, signaling his verdict, “Your son won’t be any valedictorian. He’s what we call borderline…. His intelligence is frankly quite low.”
I go home with shaking hands and slam doors. I scream at God. The doctor’s words cannot be true. Can they?
Our pediatrician sends us to an audiologist. Brian sits in a booth. He is small, sitting in a large swivel chair. He spins around, blurred red T-shirt in a navy nest, and answers questions. He points to pictures. The audiologist is in a hurry, patients waiting. Brian concentrates. He squints his eyes and stares off into space.
“What do you think?” I ask when it is over.
The audiologist answers, “He wasn’t paying attention.”
His tenth birthday comes and there’s no improvement in his reading. I take him in for more tests, more questions. The specialists say, “There’s no discrepancy between his IQ and his functioning. To be dyslexic there must be a gap.” I go home without a diagnosis. There is no word to hang my hopes onto. I bargain with God. He’s not in the mood for a deal.
Brian wakes up one day, bright and shining, and knows the sounds of the alphabet. The next day he has forgotten. He tries to track a thought and captures only its tail. The world confuses him. I know within a minute of his waking whether or not it will be a good day.
“Does he know the alphabet?” doctors ask me.
“Most of it,” I answer concisely. They don’t want the details: most of it, most of the time. Not the L and the Y. The B and D only capitalized.
He reads agonizingly, his lips spitting out each sound. His concentration is so intense, by the time he works through a five-word sentence, he forgets the beginning. He starts over, again. It takes a minute to do a word, ten minutes to do a sentence, an hour to do a paragraph. And yet I tire out before he does. I take out my knitting; at least my hands are busy.
He pounds his pencil on the table. Bang, bang, bang, bang.
“Stop it,” I say to him.
“Stop what, Mom?” he asks. Bang, bang, bang.
I say, “Shhh, quietly.”
“Ppp-iii-ggg,” he whispers. He taps a finger on each of the three letters.
“Pppp-iii-ggg.” He slides his thumb across to pull the sounds together.
“Pig?” he questions. “Pig? Oh! Pig!”
Where is the puzzle piece that’s missing? I walk through fog. He’s getting so tall.
I find a woman who specializes in reading difficulties and arrange an assessment and consultation time.
“We’re going to California,” we tell the kids.
My husband takes a month off from his job. We drive the fifteen hundred miles. The children pick oranges and grapefruit from trees that look like they belong in Eden. We rent a house by the ocean and walk barefoot in the sand.
The ocean shines at us each morning as Brian and I go to the reading specialist. She has certifications I didn’t know existed: licensed educational psychologist, certified cognitive behavioral therapist, licensed speech pathologist. She’s on the board of disability analysts. I place my dreams in her hands. She works with us for three weeks, testing Brian, assessing him and teaching me how to teach him.
We turn our faces toward the ocean breeze, take pictures of sea lions, and have kelp fights on the beach. I listen to the monotonous waves as they beat upon the sand until I am tired of their repetition. But in this struggle of continuity is survival, and life.
We return home to Minnesota and I implement the new programs. Brian’s teacher wants us to work on improving his short-term memory skills. Right now he can hold four things in his brain. More than four is overflow. It spills out and is lost to him. I incorporate balance beams, mirrors, and memory games into my son’s daily routine. I make clay alphabets and sandpaper letters. He does soldier crawls and duck waddles. He walks figure eights—till they become a pattern in our carpet—while repeating number sequences and letter names.
Brian’s teacher said in order to read well he must be able to remember seven things. Seven in a row; this is the goal. If I tell him to color the F on page one blue and underline the Z, he is lost. He remembers to color the F, but not which color. He remembers he is to underline a letter, but not which letter. Seven seems as far away as an undreamed dream. It is the mystical number that eludes my touch. I reach out to claim it for Brian and fail. Joseph interpreted the dream: seven years of good followed by seven years of drought. Who will interpret my dream? Will these seven years of drought be followed by seven years of plenty? And David killed his seven hundred, whereas Delilah only took the seven locks of hair. And on the seventh day God rested.
“Put a star over the A and draw a green box around the P,” I tell Brian. On a good day he can remember these five things. Five is a very good day.
As the months go by the sunny hope of California is replaced by cold and blue and ice. The snow is three feet deep outside my schoolroom window. It muffles and mutes the world. There is a strange carpet-like silence.
Brian sits at his desk. We’re working on the b/d conundrum. He colors in the fat outlined letters. Red b. Green d.
“See, the big B and the little b both face the same direction.”
He tries so hard. I hear the dull break of the crayon, hear it hit the floor, thrown down in frustration.
“It looks like a baby did this!” he shouts. He sees what he cannot do. But still he cannot do it. I buy him thick triangular colored pencils that are easier to hold.
I walk a fine line. I push him to learn; I play and laugh and tease him to learn.
He breaks down in tears. “I don’t understand!” he yells at me.
I’ve gone too far, too fast.
Brian’s life overwhelms me. Some days I can hardly breathe between our lessons. I find a writers’ group and join. We meet every other week, in the evenings.
He enjoys stories. I read for hours every day into a microphone. I read stories that I love: Robinson Crusoe, Captains Courageous, Robin Hood. When I’m tired, his little sister, five years old, reads to him. She reads Shel Silverstein poetry and they laugh together. She reads Mouse Soup and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.
“Hey, Bri, listen to this,” she says, then reads with perfect feeling and inflection.
His little sister sits beside him, holding a book, and reads to him. They are entirely comfortable with this arrangement. It is all they’ve ever known.
And I think, “Thank God, my youngest is going to learn easily.”
Spring comes. Mewing catbirds lay four deep blue eggs in the old robins’ nest. They are smaller and darker than the previous owners’ eggs. They are nestled into the bottom, snug and appealing. Every day we peek at them. The dark gray parents hop around and flick their long tails at us, showing off the rusty under-color. They bob their black-capped heads and sing in a plaintive mew. We laugh at how feline they really do sound.
“What did you do today, Bri?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he answers, and that is all he says.
He lies in the hammock, under the branches, lost in his own quiet thoughts.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask.
“What are you thinking about?” I repeat, curious what he will say.
I don’t let it go; I ask again.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I just decided not to think.”
In all my life, in all I’ve read and seen and done, in forty years of walking this earth, I have never done this. I have never decided not to think. I wonder about this boy who I cannot see even though he swings in a hammock right next to me.
The days are long and warm. We stay up late. Lying in the grass we watch the stars come out. We see Mars, low and red, down near the horizon.
“The locations of the stars change throughout the year,” I tell Brian, “but in relationship to each other, every star has its own spot. Do you remember the North Star? It’s the last star in the tail of the Little Dipper. That’s its home. That’s where it belongs.”
Later, as I tuck him into bed, he turns and asks the question I’ve long expected.
“Mom,” he says to me, puzzled eyes looking intently into mine. “Mom, why can’t I read?”
I clear my throat. “You do so many things,” I say. “There are lots of things that I can’t do.” I turn my head so he won’t see my face.
Brian is eleven years old. At five-foot seven he’s embarrassed by baby books, the cats and the hats. I can’t find any books for him.
He has a new bike, with shocks and gears. He bikes the summer away, bikes around our circular block, within the boundaries we’ve given. Our neighbors ask, “Why does he bike in circles?” But what they mean is, “Why don’t you let him go?” I don’t know what to say.
We see other experts. This time they tell us, “He’s a smart kid. It’s an auditory processing disorder.”
My brain echoes all the night long. “He’s a smart kid. He’s a smart kid.” I want to believe this. And then I am ashamed. Is it really so important?
We invest in an auditory stimulation program. Brian listens to cassettes with special headphones. The music dances from ear to ear and flows above his head. He listens to more and more books on tape. We get them from the library. His little sister tells him, “You have headphones growing on your ears.”
He needs to read and I begin to write stories just for him. I know every word that he can and cannot read. I know what trips his tongue or baffles his thinking. He reads only short vowel sounds. Two syllable words are okay. I write about his grandparents, Oma and Opa. They can’t live in a house (silent e, double vowel) but they can live in a cabin. Ca-bin. Yes, it works. Brian reads a page a day, he struggles through it diligently. And then, it is a good day, a banner day, and he finishes the book.
“Did you like the story?” I ask expectantly.
“Not really,” he says. “It’s not true. Opa and Oma don’t live in a cabin. They live in a house. And the wooden car I made in Opa’s shop wasn’t red. It was blue.”
I see the book through his eyes. Fraudulent. A dozen little lies, when all I wanted was words that he could read. I try to remember, but constantly forget how literally he thinks.
My husband buys me roses on our anniversary. At breakfast he sets them on the table and asks our son, “Do you know why there are flowers in the house today?”
“Sure, Dad, because you bought them,” he replies.
We all burst out laughing. “No, it’s our anniversary,” we say.
“Oh, okay,” he says, asking for salt, eating his cereal.
I hate his birthdays. Each spring a year older. The gap of his reading and age widening. We invite his friends over. In the midst of the party I get up and go to the kitchen. I need to be alone, to compose myself; it only takes a minute. I am well practiced.
“Happy Birthday, Bri,” I say and carry in the cake with twelve burning candles.
I am on the web constantly. I find a therapist who says, “It’s an ocular muscular weakness.” We start another program. We are strengthening his eye muscles, his auditory perception, his short-term memory, his small motor coordination, his balance. When he closes his eyes and tries to walk, he tips over.
I am lost in the maze of life.
Not screaming anymore, I talk to God. I look up and ask, “Why don’t you make him better? I’m doing all I can.”
I write six short chapter books. Brian is the hero in each one. He reads them. At least it’s something.
Sometimes I try to talk about Brian. I start to tell a few friends. They break in with their own stories. “Anna can’t read well, but she’s a natural at art. Her clay sculptures are almost lifelike.”
“Yeah, I know,” they say to me. “Kev isn’t much of a reader, but he’s got five computers all hooked up in his room. He tears them apart, and rebuilds them himself. He doesn’t need to read the manuals.”
My friends try to help. They say, “Find what he’s good at. Focus on that.”
Believe me, I’m trying.
His older brother hits holes-in-one, does flying header goals, canoes in the national Boundary Waters with friends. His younger sister plays word games. I write the word M-E-A-N in her favorite pink notebook. She puzzles out words using the same four letters. She writes in petite and perfect penmanship N-A-M-E and A-M-E-N.
“Give me a harder one,” she says.
I sit in the ER waiting room with Brian. He fell off his bike. One arm is broken; his face needs stitches under his nose. I take digital pictures of his blue cast and say, “Wow! Another story to tell Oma and Opa about.” He smiles through swollen lips.
Stories prey on my mind. Ugly stories with vulnerable children. “Tell me your phone number,” I say to Brian. Sometimes he gets it right. “Here’s the phone,” I say, handing it to him. “Show me how to use it.” His hands tremble as he pushes the buttons. He misses the three when his finger shakes and slides down to the six by mistake. We do it again and then I say, “Tell me your address. Where do you live?” I have a laminated page that we review each day. Name, address, phone number. Father’s name. Mother’s name.
I wake up in a sweat at night. A recurrent nightmare. He doesn’t know where he is. He cannot spell his name.
Brian is thirteen years old and plays defense on a soccer team. I go and watch every game. His legs are long and skinny. His feet are big. He looks like every other thirteen year old on the team. Blond hair flying in the wind.
I am a researchaholic. I stumble across hi/lo books on the internet. High interest, low vocabulary. It’s an astounding find. He’s reading at a first-grade level and for the first time has “store-bought books.” His favorites are Red Gem Mine and Fun in the Hills.
I complete one novel and start another. Isn’t it ironic? I fall in love with words, the sounds they make, their shapes, their clarity, because of my son’s inabilities. His struggles frame my joy. I think of the opera singer Beverly Sills, whose only daughter is deaf. I think of the words I write that my son may never read.
He’s almost six feet tall and has “grade-two readability skills.” Winter looms and I am afraid of its cold emptiness. I sign up for a master’s level class in creative writing, driving two hours (once a week on winter roads) to reach a literary spot.
Spring comes and there is a terrific storm. Brian finds a baby robin wet and lying limp in the grass. He puts up a ladder and returns it to its nest. The next day it falls out again. We name it Robbie, bring it in and feed it worms. Robbie takes over our life, eating fifty earthworms in one day, then eighty. I cut up hotdogs in the shape of worms and they are devoured, too. We keep count and Brian says, “It’s a world record! 110 earthworms eaten in one day!”
Robbie loves the kitchen sink. He sits on the silver faucet or drops down into the sink and sits under the drips for his morning bath. We begin to let him outside while we dig his worms. He hops around his surrogate shovel-mother and gulps worms. He flies up to rest on Brian’s shoulder. He stays out overnight.
One morning the UPS truck pulls up to the house. Brian goes out to get the package and Robbie swoops down and lands on his head. The UPS man stares, his mouth open. He tries not to look spooked by this unnatural occurrence. I smile, enjoying his confusion as Robbie chirps and pecks at Brian’s hair.
Brian buries tin cans in a circle around our big yard. He golfs the rusting cans all summer long, circling the house. Sometimes the neighbor boys join in, but they are growing up and driving off in cars.
Robbie no longer returns to sit on our shoulders. Sometimes I think I see him looking at me from a distance. I wonder if he will fly south this fall and return to us in the spring.
I attend a writers’ conference and afterwards convert an unused guestroom into a writing room of my own. Three of my short stories are published. I have found my place.
Brian turns fifteen. He stands next to the kitchen door.
“Measure me, Mom.”
I take out the black pen and mark the door. He’s taller than his dad.
His vocabulary is enormous. All those books on tape. When he listens to The Adventures of Robin Hood he speaks with phrases like “Ho, good fellow, what news?” When he listens to Louis L’Amour it’s “Thank you kindly, ma’am,” and “Howdy, boys.” He surprises me.
He uses words and phrases correctly. I tell him to do his math. “What specifically do you require?” he asks me. I look at him quizzically. Where did that come from?
More than all the rest of the family, Brian is helpful. He takes out the trash before I ask. He mows the lawn without complaint, stacks the wood, and vacuums his room.
He is sixteen. Sweet sixteen. Sweet boy. How can I help you find where you are going?
He is so persevering, so diligent.
I tell him, “You work harder than anyone I know. You never give up. I’m so proud of you.”
He looks at me and says, “My friends are all getting their driver’s licenses, Mom. I’m going to work real hard on reading this year. I want to pass the exam. Do you think I can?”
He asks me questions I cannot answer.
My friends come and cry on my shoulder. They say their sons and daughters are going off to college. My friends say, “How will I survive?” I bring out the Kleenex and dry their tears. I listen; sometimes I cry with them. A week later they are laughing, “He called from the dorm. He’s having so much fun.” I follow the new girlfriends, the college exams, the ups and downs vicariously lived. And always, always in the back of my mind I see Brian. I want him to read. I want him to go to college, have friends, and drive off. I want to be able to cry because I am so sad and he is leaving.
Should the catbird weep that it must use the robins’ old nest? It only seeks a place for its young. And the robin that fell out of the nest. Should it care if it is raised under silver faucets and pecking human hair? Does it matter really? I protest and want the right egg in the right place. I want my nest to grow the correct bird. I want. I want. I want.
I lie awake, alone. No Kleenex. No shoulder. But God is there, a silent presence.
I ask, “Don’t you love my son?” I strain to hear his voice. And God astonishes me, like my son astonishes me. I never quite know what to expect.
I am a catbird in a robin’s nest with a deeper blue egg than the previous inhabitants’. I am a robin unafraid, perched on a boy’s shoulder. I am Brian asking for salt. It is not what I need. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another.
I go away for three days to care for my aging parents. I return tired and put on an old black-and-white movie. Brian comes and stands in the doorway, “Mom, how do you spell welcome?”
“W-E-L-C-O-M-E,” I spell out as I watch.
Ten minutes later he returns. “Tell me again, Mom.”
Later I repeat it for the third time, by memory, not even hearing myself.
Far into the night I turn off the lights and pass by my study. The screensaver on my computer has been changed into a bouncing, playful font. Thirteen letters of the alphabet glow at me in the dark room and cast their moving, colored shadows on the wall.
w e l c o m e h o m m o m
It is my son who welcomes me and takes me in. And this: when I wake up tomorrow morning I will be home.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.