Of Words and Westings

“Hold on, Missy wants to talk to you,” Heather said over the phone. I raised an eyebrow in surprise, but waited.
“Hi …” came a familiar, querulous voice.
“Hi, Miss. How’s today going?”
“ ‘Kay. … I wan’ go to pool.”
“You do, huh? Bowling, too?” I asked, throwing in an old favorite.
“Yeah ….” she said, adding a giggle.
By the time I hung up, I had to smile. It was one of the longest conversations we’d ever had.
I don’t mean to imply that Missy is unfriendly. Quite the opposite. She smiles easily, hugs warmly and in general is as pleasant a young woman as a guardian could ask for.
But between her disability and maybe a little bit of shyness, she doesn’t say much. Most of what she has to say is done through gestures, expressions, and a brief second or two of speech; brief enough that she gets reminded every so often to “use your words.”
There are exceptions. Sometimes glorious ones. The most notorious came a few years back, when her dad was driving with her and had a close call on the road. And suddenly, the young lady who says maybe a hundred words a week spoke up.
“Dammit, Frank! Are you trying to kill me?”
Jaws dropped. Followed by amazed laughter.
It’s a good reminder that a quiet mouth can hide a busy mind. Frankly, it’s a lesson I started to internalize close to 30 years ago, long before I ever met Missy.
Right about the time I first read The Westing Game.
If you’ve missed this children’s mystery by Ellen Raskin, check it out sometime. It’s a glorious, complicated puzzle of a story that doesn’t talk down to kids, delivering a group of characters that are well worth spending time with.
And one of the best parts – something I didn’t consciously think about until spotting the book on the shelf the other day – is how often appearance fails to match reality.
Bride-to-be Angela seems beautiful and content – but constantly doubts herself inside, wondering what she has to do to be seen as more than a “pretty young thing.”
The elderly delivery boy Otis Amber seems almost imbecilic – but a quick peek in his thoughts reveals someone startlingly perceptive.
Or the greatest contrast of all, the 15-year-old Chris, kept in a wheelchair by a muscular condition, barely able to speak clearly – but his internal monologue is fluent and fluid, revealing the fine mind that his traitorous body won’t let him express.
Words unsaid. But not unthought. And when the window opens, however briefly, the reality can be startling – and sometimes gratifying.
Missy’s been using more words lately. She’s even been singing along with some of our CDs, making up in heart for what she lacks in clarity. Maybe it’s a sign that she’s getting more comfortable. Maybe something’s giving her a little more control. Whatever it is, it’s wonderful to hear.
A word to the wise, they say, is sufficient.
But a word from the silent is golden.

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