by Kristin Lieberman
On June 30, 1994, I returned home from brain surgery to insert a catheter into my mid-brain, the center of my brain, and drain a congenital cyst in my mid-brain—a cyst so large that I was in a wheelchair within a week of its discovery. My hair was shaved from the top of my head to the top of my ears. Under anesthesia the surgeon drilled a hole through my skull at the top center of my head, slanted a bit to the left. The catheter went down, down, down, and then cut a sharp angle at the back of my head, penetrating the cyst. The cerebral spinal fluid was drawn out through the catheter and the cyst collapsed.
It was a benign cyst in a malignant location, and I was left with weakness on my right side from my cheek to my toes. My right hand was slow and I still couldn’t walk. I had forgotten the meaning of some words, and others didn’t come to me easily. My speech was slurred and slow, and I slept most of the day.
After ten days in the hospital, I returned home to you, my three-month-old son, and a marriage that was broken, so broken that we no longer shared the same bed. But he was there, my husband, who is now my ex-husband, your father. He cared for you and drove me in the car to physical, occupational, and speech therapy. It lasted close to a year. He stayed until I could walk with a cane, work around the loss of movement in my right hand, and communicate haltingly in full sentences. He stayed and then I told him he should leave. You were thirteen months old when he left for good.
It was spring and we were on our own.
We took walks, you and I. I leaned against your stroller during long, slow trudges through our neighborhood. My right leg was heavy as we walked slowly among the sweet-smelling jacaranda. I was afraid to wander too far from the house. I worried that I might fall, I worried about my stamina, and I worried about your well-being as you looked up at me, smiling, in your open stroller. I worried.
I had many fears in those first days, the worst being that something bad would happen to you and that I would be helpless, useless, and unable to act.
* * *
During the first year we were on our own, we stayed close to home most days and nearly every evening. It wasn’t always like that. Up until the day I was admitted to the hospital, I’d been working long hours as a partner in a law firm. I’d bought a large life insurance policy and disability policy that I increased as often as I was allowed. When I fell ill, my employer adhered strictly to my partnership agreement: three months of paid disability. When three months were over, I had no job, but the disability policy provided me with an income. Often I’ve wondered what would have happened to us if I didn’t have that policy. It paid our house payments, help around the house, food, and medicine. Later it paid for school fees. It paid for books that I would read to you.
Time passed and I didn’t know when or whether I would ever be well enough to return to work. As I struggled to heal, I bought you toys and books that were delivered to my door, and I read to you as both of us snuggled together on your blue, quilted bed with the two soft pillows you called your birdies.
Dr. Seuss, counting books, simple easy readers—books with colorful, silly pictures. You loved the books—you never tired of the words or pictures.
I read them for myself as well as to you. You see, I was learning to read and speak again. My brain was still healing from surgery and a subsequent subdural hemorrhage that left me unconscious in the hospital and then delirious in ICU. I still stuttered and paused as I translated the printed letters to spoken words. The mental acrobatics of all this effort exhausted me, as it still does now when I read aloud. But at that time, during those precious moments of your childhood, the cadence, the rhythm, and the softness of my voice was deliberate enough to lure you into the words. You looked at the page with intense concentration as I toddled each word off the page and into the air.
At least, that’s what I like to think. That’s what I remember and what I want to believe—that I lured you into the written word and the beauty of books.
The truth is that you started to read on your own before you were two years old. At first I doubted. I thought you had memorized the book, or were guessing at the words from the pictures, or maybe I was just crazy—seeing something that wasn’t there. At that point I was well enough to realize that I wasn’t well enough to be the best judge of every circumstance.
“How did you learn to read?” I asked you when I was convinced by flash cards that you knew every word that you read. “I’d like to know now, before you’re older and you forget.” You replied that you watched me read to you, over my shoulder, focusing on the words that you didn’t know, but were interested in. You memorized the words, and noticed the words around them, and how they were used together.
Soon you were correcting my errors, jumping ahead and taking the books into your own hands; you read to me about trains and fire trucks and wizards. Just before you were three, you began reading the newspaper over your cereal. I watched you, sipping my morning coffee. You were a serious little man, there with your spoon full of Cheerios over The New York Times, trying hard not to spill your milk onto the table, struggling, to my horror, over words and concepts like genocide and bigotry. And it wasn’t just the reading. You could count past one hundred, past a thousand. You learned to skip-count by fives and threes and twos when you were twenty months old.
It jarred me a bit, but I remembered that I read and skip-counted before I went to school. So why shouldn’t you read early? Why shouldn’t you skip-count? It made sense to me. It made sense because I couldn’t stretch the thought out. My brain was still healing. I had no other children to compare you with.
You had only me. I had only you. After my illness and divorce, the neighbors stopped calling. When we walked with your stroller, they crossed to the other side of the street as we approached. They didn’t speak to us or ask us if we needed anything. They were uncomfortable around us. We became invisible and somehow I knew they wished we’d move away. I reminded them of illness and divorce, possibly of their own mortality and the fragility of relationships. As their apathy took shape and grew, I realized that it wasn’t important to me. My own family lived far away with cares of their own. Your dad was becoming distant. I was never sure they knew how ill I was. I couldn’t read their minds, and I didn’t think it would matter if I could.
There were some play dates but not many. My fatigue was growing, not abating, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I wandered from doctor to doctor like a nomad. I began to read to you from children’s books about world history and literature and science. While you were still three, we had gone all the way through the sixth grade series, and then you begged me to start over. Listening and studying each word, you frequently stopped me and asked me questions. I began asking you questions too.
“What if,” I said. “What if the South had won the Civil War? What would America look like today?”
“I think if would look a lot like India,” you replied with a considered tone.
* * *
One day when you were three, we went to the grocery store. Usually our housekeeper shopped, but I was trying to get out and take on more responsibilities on days when I could. You sat in the cart and looked around, observing the store as I chose fruit and vegetables from the produce department. You noticed the dairy section and turned to me. Taking the pacifier out of your mouth, you pointed to the sign above it.
“I know what that sign says, Mommy. It says ‘Refrigerated Goods.’ That’s milk and yogurt and butter. I would like some yogurt.”
A man was standing beside the bananas. He rushed over, nearly pushing me aside, and started talking to you. “How are you doing, buddy?” he said. “Won’t you talk to me?” The man beside the bananas was a tall, skinny man with curly hair, dressed in a crumpled shirt and blue jeans. The banana-man’s voice was loud and direct. His look demanded an answer.
You put your pacifier back in your mouth and stared at him. Wordless, my hands shaking, I turned the cart away and pushed it toward the cashier.
That was the first time I had a full thought that you were different, that you were unusually advanced for a little kid, and that you might need something more. It was only half a thought from a still healing brain. I strapped you in your car seat and started the motor. I drove home, wondering what I should do.
You were too young for school. You needed enrichment but you also needed to be safe from the curious eyes of strangers like the banana-man in the grocery store. As I unpacked the groceries and put away the fruit, my thoughts kept stalling. I could express a wisp of the issue, a half-turn of my mind, but I could not formulate a solution.
My worries had returned. I felt helpless, useless, and unable to act. How could my damaged brain raise a child as special as you? I felt deflated, depressed, burdened, and then something stirred. Although my brain was damaged, my heart was full. My heart was heavy with love for you.
I took your hand and we walked to the comfortable green sofa in the family room. “Go find a book you like,” I said. “Any book and we will study it together.” You smiled and ran to get an encyclopedia. You smiled up at me, your face bright and ready to learn.
“Let’s start with ‘A,’ shall we?” you said as you snuggled up beside me.
“Yes,” I said, taking the book. “Let’s start with A.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story