To Say the Least

“Ma shoe.”

Missy had just finished her bath and gotten into pajamas. She pointed a small finger at her blue sneakers as she had done on many nights, sometimes just to point out they were there, sometimes to ask to put them on or get them out of the way.

“Ma shoe.”

Pause.

“Ma tennis shoe.”

I blinked.

OK. That was new.

In fact, for Missy, that was practically grand oratory.

If you’ve read this column regularly, you’ve probably started to get a feel for Missy, my wife Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. She is, to say the least, a lady of personality, capable of being roused to high excitement at the prospect of bowling or dancing or even having a bite of peanut butter pie.

But she’s not a woman of many words. Not normally, anyway. People who meet Missy for the first time are sometimes surprised that she speaks at all; those that hang around her longer get used to hearing some of her more common phrases such as “I wanna eat the food” or “I wan’ my book” – the latter of which can mean “book” or “purse.” Many times, her exact meaning has to be decoded from her face, her gestures and a carefully chosen vocabulary.

But lately, that vocabulary seems to be growing.

After a weekly trip to the therapy pool, Missy proudly told Heather that she had been “swimming.”

My own title, which has mostly been “He” or “Frank” (her father’s name) for three years is now sometimes “Scott.” Or even “Dad,” to my startled surprise.

And when our biggest dog started pestering her for food, Missy doubled us all over with laughter with a hearty “Gonamit, Blake!”

A well-chosen word can do that. And Missy has more choices than she used to.

That’s heartening for a lot of reasons.

We’ve never been quite sure what goes on inside Missy’s mind. The incident that caused her brain damage happened in infancy, and even now, I often describe her as “sometimes 4, sometimes 14 and sometimes 40,” based on the various ways she interacts with the world. Her occasional words are a part of that, sometimes reflexive, sometimes hinting at much more going on behind those mischievous green eyes.

In electronics terms, it’s a question of whether the computer itself is damaged – or just the printer and monitor. How much does she understand? How often does she know exactly what’s going on, without being able to express it?

I’ve often suspected the latter, especially since in moments of high excitement, she seems to bypass whatever’s blocking her communication and express herself. (Her question of “Where’s Gandalf?” during a tense moment in “The Hobbit” is now one of our most retold examples.) Every time she adds another word or phrase, another building block, she reinforces that.

More than that. She reinforces my own hope. Missy and I are the same age – so if she can keep learning and growing, so can I.

So can any of us.

Did I say Missy’s words could be reflexive sometimes? Thinking back, that’s true of most of us. We get locked into patterns of speech, of behavior, of life. After a while, it’s easy to stop noticing our surroundings and just fly on autopilot.

Shaking that up can be the healthiest thing in the world. It might be a big trip across the country or just walking instead of driving through the neighborhood. Anything that makes you put on new eyes.

Heather’s joked that in Missy’s case, she suddenly found herself with two guardians who wouldn’t shut up. There may be some truth to that. Certainly, we’ve often talked to her, with her and around her. Maybe her own words started to come in self-defense.

Whatever the reason, it’s happening. And it’s exciting, as new lessons often are. I can’t wait to see what the next bend in the road will reveal.

Wherever it leads, Missy has her shoes ready.

Her tennis shoes.

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