To the Battlements, Wherever and Whatever They Are

I think about September 11th a lot. More, lately.

I was working at Duluth’s now-defunct Ripsaw newspaper at the time, and we were confounded for the first hours. Do you remember the world in which an attack on U.S. shores was impossible? The idle impenetrability of the United States? We invaded. The world was our bully pulpit. But that day, the paradigm shifted as surely and as immediately as that of a new mother, who, in the second her child leaves her body finds her heart, her worst fears, vulnerable and exposed to the worst the world has to offer. You could almost hear it, the snap of collective consciousness as the reality became apparent, over the day. One hour at a time, our perceived security, the luxury of our superiority, rolled away like so many layers of fog.

My sister came and picked me up. We drove around, listening to the soundtrack from the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and tuning in to the news for updates. We smoked a million American Spirit cigarettes. We felt scared.

Later, I stood on the balcony of my third-floor apartment, on the phone with my best friend. “We’re going to war,” he said.

“Definitely,” I replied.

I tried to comfort him — of course we were going to war. We were a country founded in rebellion and dissent. Our history was written in blood. From our arrival on these august shores, every new version of us was achieved while standing on a field of bodies that dissented or resisted. It made sense, I explained. When you establish a government that assumes and protects disagreement as a staple of every decision, whose presupposition is that every citizen has equal right to and protection from his or her government, coupled with a right to vocal dissent and to bear arms, you can expect blood. Every inch of territory claimed was taken from or in spite of indigenous people, over their dead bodies. Order and authority were created with no less bloodshed and acrimony.

The United States wasn’t like the moon, empty and waiting in the sky. We didn’t discover anything. And still, as I said all of this to my friend, I felt the swell of emotion and fire in my chest that I’ve since come to recognize as patriotism. I’m sorry for these things; I mourn and regret and attempt to make amends for them, but I continue to love both my country and its inhabitants. I understand why someone would attack us, but am filled with indignation and fury if they dare do so.

Deep down, I know that we are not better or different people for our allocation of resources. We are the most powerful country in the world, but we’re not better humans. My love for us is conscious and judicious, a sometimes confounding combination of hope and cynicism. Because they are equally warranted, based on the empire of data provided by our relatively short history. I love us, but I know us, too.

In the days following the attacks, every permutation of the phrase, “we stand united,” was suddenly plastered across every surface — T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards. As the next months unfolded, through Anthrax attacks and a seemingly endless series of blurry night-vision aerial shots of what looked like a bunch of water towers, chatting over coffee, we marched to war. Weapons of Mass Destruction, Pre-Emptive War, the Geneva Accords, Saddam Hussein — all entered the everyday parlance of gas-station America. We were savvy, but we weren’t united. We were deeply divided. The one thing we were united in was our horror — whatever shared experience we might have had in that moment, whatever somber reflection and collective, “We Are the World”-ing that might have occurred was beaten out of us by our leaders. We never even got to have a conversation. We never got the truth. We had been inexplicably and silently stripped of some aspect of our freedom.

It made me so angry. Not just because I am so deeply and passionately anti-war, although that is certainly true. I was angry because we didn’t get to talk about it. I felt duped and coerced and spoken to like a silly child. For the first time in my adult life, I thought, “we aren’t running this country anymore. What we think doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I can now: at some point, our representative government became leaders, rather than representatives. While I want and respect leadership skills and qualities in my representatives, I am both capable of and legally endowed with the ability to make my own decisions. I expect this handsomely-compensated and carefully-selected group of politicians to not just know how to do politics, but to do them on behalf of their constituents.

As we steadily marched to a war whose reasoning and justification were specious, under the direction of a group of leaders who showed little concern for the desires of the people they were selected to represent, I got madder and madder. I felt every bit as strongly as they did, but differently. I was no less American than they were, but what I thought didn’t matter. I kept picturing those first responders, rushing into the twin towers. I kept hearing the voices of the rebel passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.

I was ready to go to war, too. But not that war. Not that way.

I felt in every moment of banality — choosing the cheapest ketchup from the grocery store, vacuuming the living room, folding towels and watching TV — that somewhere else, those buildings were falling, over and over. The world was on fire, burning to the ground, and I was folding towels. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t count.

In March of 2003, we went to war. Bombs started falling that night. I was at a concert in Minneapolis — Godspeed, You  Black Emperor. Before the band got started, its members stood on the stage and talked about the war that was just beginning. They lamented the call to arms, and derided first the U.S. government, then the American people — for who we are, for our violence and our power. At first I was ashamed of us, but then furious. How dare they speak to us about our country like that? It was like somebody else was yelling at my kid. This country was mine. For the first time it occurred to me that my disenfranchisement was my problem. If I didn’t count, it was up to me to change that.

Because I was a telemarketer and a single-parent, it occurred to me that what I really needed was agency. So I enrolled in college, thinking my degree might garner me both the right to speak to power and the money to be taken seriously. It was terrifying to me. I’d always thought I was reasonably intelligent, but college seemed impossible to me. I cried in the admissions office, I was so ashamed. It was a little like I was in a confession booth, admitting I had rejected college not because I sincerely rejected the institutions, but because I was afraid that I wasn’t smart enough to do it. Two and a half years later, I graduated. I was the first woman in my family to finish college. I designed my own degree so that I would better understand the problem I was trying to solve, and I worked at it like a lunatic. I graduated, and, as soon as I could, I applied for graduate school.

On one of the first days of my first graduate classes our professor asked the class about September 11. Where were we? What did we feel? There was a remarkable difference in the responses of the students. We varied in ages from early twenties to late fifties. Many of the younger people didn’t remember where they were. They had never lived in a pre-9/11 world, in their recollection. They came into awareness in a post 9/11 world. Many of the younger students, and all of the older students, including me, had near-universal clarity on what (exactly what) we were doing that day. We related our stories, now over five years old, with solemnity and heartbreak. Each and every one of us had reacted the same way. We had all rushed literally or figuratively to war, all summoned by those same burning buildings.

While we completed our coursework, we held down jobs, raised families, and worked like dogs to change the world. We volunteered and interned for political campaigns, we phonebanked and door-knocked and attended city council meetings. We debated and discussed, wrote letters and attended a thousand rallies. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. Whether or not anyone agreed with him politically, his victory was significant for another reason: Obama was not a millionaire white guy. It seemed like maybe the political system was changing. Average people could elect a president, even with all that money floating around. I told people, sincerely, if they didn’t like Obama they could simply vote him out of office. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect and agree with Obama — I certainly did and do. I believed that Obama’s election signaled the end of the ruling elite. The end of the radical partisanship and money-mauling that had run our country for the previous several terms. We had elected a person. Just a person. Our work was done.

I see now I was fooled by the same rhetoric I had been so critical of. I allowed myself to believe a terrible myth: that the party of ascendancy was a real and lasting indicator of persistent social change, and that progress, including progress toward ideals in which I did not believe, was an organism whose growth would organically continue from inception infinitely forward. I stopped talking to people, and I stopped listening. While I grew angrier and angrier at the increasing prevalence of corporate interests in our government, the influence of the economic class (that 1 percent), I did nothing to stop it. I bit my tongue in mixed company, like a secret agent, carrying those conversations in my mind, but saying nothing in each moment.

I had naïve and unfounded confidence in our government, rather than confidence in and relationships with my brothers and sisters. I allowed myself a relationship with my allies and family, like some kind of social Darwinism had happened, and all of the troublesome and vexing lesser adaptations had been selected against. They would eventually die out. In the eight years of a president with whom I agreed and in whom I found considerable inspiration, I did the thing I most abhor: I did not compromise, I tolerated. Because my party was ascendant, I ignored the horrible ways the system that had made that possible operated, the things it was doing to everyone outside my circle, and the danger on the horizon.

We are responsible for our change in leadership. We fill the pipeline. If we elect partisan ballbusters, then that’s who runs our country. If we elect representative leaders, who, because every single constituency in the nation includes diverse political opinions, compromise and creatively problem solve in ways that include even diametrically opposed perspectives, then we get representative policies. Our country reflects not one winning party or the other, but instead the blended results of a diverse and vocal (and well-represented) constituency. Political party affiliation isn’t meant to be determinative — it’s meant to be indicative of shared missions, visions and values. The “platform” we hear about so often. Instead, it has boiled down to two inflexible positions, with leaders at the heads of each equally committed to all or nothing. It’s usually nothing, isn’t it? And everyday people, the working and middle classes, are paying so much for health care that we can’t pay for our food, amassing heroic credit card debt and living further and further beyond our means until we are working to service debt. We are richer than almost everyone in the entire world, but we’re terrified our kid will need to go to the emergency room, or our furnace will blow up. Because what in the hell would we do then?

Meanwhile, the partisan amalgam of power and money blame us for the problems that are killing us. They tell us why to hate each other. They put us in little cages to watch us fight. Republicans elected a maniac because they’re all so ignorant. Democrats bankrupted our country because of all the welfare recipients that use all of our tax dollars. Republicans are responsible for the very educational failures that made them so stupid because they cut education funding. Democrats are responsible for unaffordable medical care because of Obamacare’s socialist medicine costs. Republicans elect zealots. Democrats elect zealots. Everyone is wrong, there is no solution, and you can’t do anything about it. Meanwhile, the richest people in this country pay no taxes, the poorest people can’t physically work enough hours at the wages they are making to feed their families, and corporations are people with more of a safety net, more welfare and more rights than the actual people of America.

It’s not us failing. It’s not Republicans. It’s not Democrats. It’s brinksmanship and concentrated power. They are distracting us so we won’t realize that we are enough to change it. We don’t need to fight each other. We need to fight together.

We’ve been led to believe that there are just two ways of doing things, like some massive country-wide reenactment of the Hatfields and McCoys. But the truth is that most of us are part Hatfield, part McCoy. Our leadership is forcing a false dichotomy, a fraudulent ultimatum. Choose one thing or the other. Choose Donald Trump or choose abortion. Choose Hilary Clinton or choose racism. Are there really only two ways things can be done? For example, is there really no other alternative between pro-choice or pro-life? Is there really no other option between single-payer health care for all, or relying on the juggernaut corporations to offer their employees health insurance? Why couldn’t we, for instance, have access to single-payer health insurance that allowed users to choose whether or not they want to subsidize abortion, birth control, or other services? Is it all immigrants, or no immigrants? Do we deport anyone here illegally or let everyone stay? Don’t get me wrong, I am 100 percent OK with women making choices for their own bodies, immigrants continuing to grow this country, and single-payer health care. But I am 100 percent uncomfortable making everyone else do what I do because I think it’s a better way to be. That’s neither fair nor representative. I know these are hard questions. That’s why it’s hard to be a representative leader.

Many of the leaders we’ve so carefully selected are not good at representing us anymore. They are the ascendant leaders of either Clan Hatfield, or Clan McCoy. They are not particularly good at politics, either, or there wouldn’t exist such a profound and misrepresentative delta between our galvanized factions. It’s not like that in my life. My Republican friends are normal human beings, with whom I agree as often as I disagree. If we remove the buzzwords and trigger phrases we’ve been trained to parrot at each other, we can talk about anything. Really. And within my own political party, among the very people I have been polarly identified with and labeled as, I disagree as often with what’s being said as I agree. You know what? We can talk, too.

We were never enemies. Our differences make us stronger, more complete. When I think back to 9/11, and why I started to care so deeply, it was never to eradicate the voices of dissent. It was never to win. It was because America was under attack, from enemies inside and out. It was because I believed there was enough for everyone, and because I believed that Paul Wellstone was right: we all do better when we all do better. It was because I believed I was America as much as any of them. I believe all of this still. What I want to say to you is that I think you are America, too. America is an idea that only exists with all of us. For the people, by the people. We’re the people.

I will never abandon my fellows again. I will never think my opinion, no matter how strong, is right because mighty people say so. I will always fight for a government that represents us all, as long as I draw breath. I will never let tolerance replace compromise and acceptance. I will make room for you, hold space for you, and listen to you. Will you help me? Can we stand together? Otherwise what will we do? Go back and forth every 4-8 years? At every change in command, we undo everything you did, and then you undo everything we did, and nothing improves. Rural America continues to be lied to and misrepresented. Farms continue to go out of business, manufacturing jobs continue to leave the country, small schools lose money and small communities pay disproportionate taxes for the services they receive. College kids graduate with more debt than a mortgage would cost them and little hope of a proportionate income with which to pay it. The old and the sick are more and more vulnerable, and their families are less and less able to help them. Meanwhile, the poor get poorer, work more hours for less money at worse and worse jobs so the corporations can thrive. And us? We don’t talk anymore because we believe we’re so different. But we’re no different than our parents or our parents’ parents were.

There is no such thing as trickle-down progress. We go together, or not at all.

So today, I keep thinking about the incredible power of our collective voices, the force of us all standing on common ground. We share so much common ground — much more than we don’t. While these buildings are burning, but before they fall — here in the chaos and clamor of the moments between attack and retaliation, here in the eye of the storm, here, in the fever of our illness- we have to find each other, again. We’re right: it is us or them. But we have been desperately wrong about who “us,” and “them,” are.

There is a moment as a woman is giving birth when the contractions of labor change. The world is still, and eerily full of portent. The pain rests for a moment between a crushing, building internal pressure, and a bone-grinding onslaught of power and motion. The pause is chilling and paralytic. The next part, the pushing — it will be absolutely agonizing and terrible; brutal, transformative and so hard. But she has no choice. She pushes forward, or she and the baby die. Now, we have no choice. The world is waiting to be born.

Disfluency

All names in this story have been changed, because this is the internet. But not because of you. You’re wonderful.

If you had told me five years ago that a life could be forever altered by a toddler’s stutter, I would have rolled my eyes deep enough to dislocate my optic nerve. Maybe that’s a little melodramatic. My point is, I wouldn’t have understood. Like so many things, there’s often a pretty good delta between experience and imagination. I know a little better now, because of my own experience, and while this isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, it actually did change my whole life. This one little thing. A stutter.

I remember how, a week before my second daughter, Lilly, was born, I was thinking about how, in the new Pooh movie, Piglet lost his stutter. I had a little internal dialogue about the ridiculous, reactionary nature of helicopter parents, so sensitive to anything that might hurt … someone … that we couldn’t even joke around anymore. They had probably driven the change in Piglet’s fluency. Except I didn’t know to use the phrase, “change in Piglet’s fluency,” yet.

The night Lilly was born, our family was gathered at my sister-in-law’s house for dinner. I was having erratic but harbinger-y contractions, unaware I was dinking my way through early labor. I was sitting on the floor with my older daughter Rose, tickling the beans out of her. Her tickle laughter is utterly contagious: a litany of tumbling, discrete giggles — like fat little circles that bounce and burst around you while her face scrunches up in complete delight and abandon. “When I was a kid,” my very Finnish father-in-law said, “they used to say you shouldn’t tickle a kid too much, or they’d develop a stutter.” We all laughed about how silly that was. How old-timey. I tickled away.

About eight hours later, Lilly was born. Rose came to the hospital with her aunties and uncles, looking anticipatory and a little frozen. She bounded onto my lap with the new baby, and I attempted to facilitate a warm introduction, including a terrifying “hold the baby” moment. When I think about it now, I wonder what I did when she first came into the room. Did I smile at her first? Why didn’t I send everyone else out, so she could be there with us alone for a while? Why didn’t I give Lilly to her father and cuddle and visit with Rose alone? What could I have done differently — better — to lessen the impact the arrival of her sister was going to have on her? Probably a million things. It doesn’t matter. I can’t do them now.

One day later, we came home. Auntie walked Rose home. We all visited, staring at the baby and talking about the birth. Rose was glad to see us — a little hyper, but she seemed happy. She’d had a great time at her cousins’ house, and you could tell — her hair was a wild rats’ nest, she had chocolate milk on her jammas, and she had a million things to tell us. But when she started talking, she kept doing this crazy thing with her tongue, rolling it wildly around in her cheek, making “loll … loll … loll” noises and looking up at the ceiling. We thought she was imitating someone she saw on TV.

Our daughter, at 2½ years old, was incredibly verbal. Lyrically verbal. She told long and delightful stories, rife with lisping, misused word tenses and pronouns, but utterly comprehensible and coherent. She was smart, funny, and learning a mile a minute. So, we thought she was screwing around. Then, once she was done flipping her tongue around, she started speaking with a pronounced, comic stutter. We laughed at her joke. She looked at us, her eyes darting back and forth between us, and forced a hearty laugh along with us. She tried to speak again, and the same thing happened — tongue flailing followed by a five to fifteen second stutter before she could get a word out.

“She’s been doing that all morning,” my sister-in-law said.

A few hours later, we were tired of her game. It was getting annoying, and we were tired and freaked out — how was she going to react to Lilly? Was she going to get jealous? Angry? Would she regress in her potty training? We truly had no idea that this stutter was her reaction to Lilly.

We angrily demanded that she cut it out. I spoke to her harshly, using the sharp, loud tone that I reserve for discipline or danger. She shook her head, trying to speak. She was hung up, incapable of producing a word, for what seemed like a minute or more. That’s when I realized she wasn’t pretending.

We looked it up online. We asked our neighbor, whose father is a wonderful child psychologist, to consult him about it. We Googled away — every resource said the same thing: normal. No big deal. Ignore it, and it would probably go away — in six months, six years … eventually. Suddenly, everybody knew somebody whose cousin/neighbor/stepson/firstborn had a stutter when they were little. It was fine. I shouldn’t worry. We relaxed a little — if this was normal, we’d treat it that way, and get back to the exciting, hairy business of parenting three children.

As each day passed, she struggled more. Not just stuttering on the first word of a sentence anymore, she began hanging up on the first word after every breath, then on each word. My lyrical daughter locked eyes with me, struggling to tell me she needed the potty. She abandoned sentences and began using single-word commands, “Milk!” “Potty!” “Help!” More painfully, she used the same imperative single-word declarations in place of our formerly robust, intimate conversations: before, she would have told me, “I like that dress. It’s pretty. I want a pretty dress. Do you want to wear a pretty dress with me?” Now, she pointed and said, “pre…pre…pre…pre…pre…pretty.” As she struggled to force the word out, her whole face began to turn red — she shook with the effort, shaking her head, clenching her fists, passing gas and spitting as she tried to say one word.

All the stuttering websites recommend parents and caregivers ignore the stutter, keeping their faces impartial and engaged. I was sure trying, but it was getting harder and harder to do. When she was speaking (or trying to), I could see in her eyes that she knew she was struggling, and that awareness hung between us like a side of beef. It felt ridiculous to ignore it. She knew something was happening. She knew she was sacrificing what she wanted to say in favor of what she could say. And I was standing there, a big stupid smile frozen on my face. I felt like I was the monster version of her mother in a nightmare, like Neil Gaiman’s button-eyed “Other Mother” in Coraline: “What? Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart. This is all just how it should be.” And she was smiling along, terrified, waiting for her real mother to show up and rescue her.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was parenting a teenager and a newborn. At least, I was arguing with a teenager, and feeding and kissing a newborn. Mostly, I was a hologram of myself, there but not really there, repeating the same words, the same actions over and over again in an endless loop. I felt helpless. And Rose’s stutter was getting worse and worse.

At Lilly’s two-week checkup, after briefly making sure our newborn was alive, we spent the entire appointment talking about Rose. (“Yeah, yeah … new baby miracle of life yadda yadda. Let’s talk about the toddler…”) Our doctor referred us to a local speech program. We called, but the assessment lady was on vacation for two weeks and couldn’t see us until she returned. The administrative assistant, apparently in the know, assured me over the phone that this was normal. Common. She reaffirmed the techniques we should be using between now and our appointment — speak very slowly, limit the questions we ask, wait patiently for her to get through her word or sentence, show no sign that anything is amiss … check. We would keep doing these things until she could come out and tell us how to fix this.

A week later, just three weeks after Lilly was born and the stutter began, I put Rose down for her usual afternoon nap. I put her fan on, for white noise, in case Lilly got too loud. And, because my big girl was 2½ years old, I didn’t bother to put the monitor on. I hadn’t used it in months. About two hours later, I thought, “gee, Rose has been sleeping a long time.” But all was quiet upstairs, so I dismissed it.

About an hour later, I suddenly had a terrible feeling that something was not right. Sometimes Rose slept for three hours — it was certainly not unheard of. But I had that awful bone-deep feeling you get as a parent that something was really wrong. I gingerly opened Rose’s door, and saw her, sitting on the edge of her bed. Her face was blotched and swollen — she had clearly been crying for a long, long time. She started crying again the minute she saw me — reaching for me and sobbing. I lifted her up and she looked at me, her eyes panicked. Then she tried to say it:

“Mmmmmmmm…mmmmmm….mmmmm” her face turned beet red and the veins stood out on her little forehead. I knew then what had happened — she had woken up, and tried to call to me, and couldn’t say “Mama.” She had just sat there, weeping, silent. I don’t know why she didn’t scream, or break the rules and climb out of her bed to come get me. She just sat there, weeping, her alien mouth locking her brain out.

She stuttered and struggled, her lips pursed around the sounds that she was stuck on, and then she started hitting herself in her mouth with her little fist. I held her arms and clenched her to me. She raged, screaming and crying and then, she relaxed against my chest, weeping. She couldn’t say a word.

I started crying right along with her. I realize that one of us should probably have acted like a mom, but I just fell to bits. I offered weepy utterances of assurance, undoubtedly more alarming and unbelievable than comforting. Who believes “everything’s gonna be okay, honey,” when it’s emitted from the snotty face of your bawling mother? And it was a lie, really. I didn’t think everything was going to be okay. I was scared shitless, utterly confounded, and viscerally sad. She was like Baby Jessica, stuck in the well, and we were all just standing around, staring down at her, smiling and saying it was all just fine, nothing to worry about, as she slipped further and further down. It occurred to me that she might disappear completely. Maybe this was the beginning of some development regression or illness, and she would slip and slip and slip away entirely. “Stutter,” didn’t describe what was happening.

You know what to do if you’re experiencing a mild cognitive break? If your paradigm has endured one too many Nagasaki-style attacks, and has gotten weird and Bjork-y? Watch Yo Gabba Gabba. Your life will always make more sense than Yo Gabba Gabba, and the wacky synchrony of your internal disharmony and, say, two carrots, a handful of peas and a chicken leg singing a little ditty from inside the belly of a green furry troll thing with spider legs will get you back on track.

I clutched my little girls: my newborn to one side, nursing, and Rose to my other side, sucking her thumb and hiccupping the sharp intakes of breathe little children do after they’ve been crying hard.

When my husband got home, I went to pieces, following him around the house while he changed out of his work clothes, opened a beer, and tried to settle in. I was carrying Lilly the whole time, too, nursing and walking. I began the conversation by immediately bursting into tears, saying, “This has been the worst day. She can’t talk at all!” I told him about what had happened, crying my face off. He got colder and quieter with every word I said. He turned to Rose, and his face broke into a huge smile. He spent the next two hours before her bedtime playing, laughing, and roughhousing with Rose, ignoring me. When Rose was tucked in upstairs, (monitor re-installed and turned up to jet aircraft engine volume), he sat down across the living room from me, and turned on the TV. I finally asked him what was wrong, if he was angry with me. He blew up. “I feel like at any given moment you’re going to fall apart! I need you to be okay! I need you to be okay, be happy, and sell it! I need you to make Rose believe it!”

Sitting there, nursing Lilly (doesn’t it seem like that’s all I ever did? That’s because it was), swirling in the postpartum delirium of the first couple of months, I wondered if I would experience a nervous breakdown. I postulated that if one was on the way, this panicked, rootless fugue state certainly was what I imagined the onset of “bananas” would feel like.

“Do you believe in me?” I asked my husband. “Do you still believe in me?”

“No.” he said. “Not right now I don’t.”

I stopped thinking. Not on purpose, but my whole cerebral cortex sort of shit the bed, totally overloaded by the surge of conflicting processor information: the schemas of our life together, our roles as father/mother/wife/husband, ideas about parenting, and thronging, throttling waves of emotion. The room smelled like ozone. Then, from a place inside of me I both cannot deliberately locate and definitely can’t touch, a crazy wave of electric laserbeam rage exploded, like I was channeling the spirits of 150 gospel ladies. Sarah Palin calls it her “Mama grizzly bear,” and although she can go fuck herself, that’s not a terrible description. I felt a crazy passion, a firmness of being and constitution that I have only felt right before pushing a baby out of my body. I knew that I would never give up on my baby — any one of my babies — never allow them to suffer alone. If she was in a well, I was going into the well with her, and I would stay there as long as she was there. It didn’t matter what that cost me, didn’t matter if I was afraid, didn’t matter if no one else went with me. If Rose was going behind a wall of silence, I was going with her. Period.

“Okay.” I said. “Listen. I’m not going to have a breakdown. You can trust me.” In hindsight, I should have said “By the way, fuck you, motherfucker,” too, but I was shaken up. (I’m on my game now.)

And then we watched Supernatural. I realized, while Sam and Dean Winchester, the male protagonists, had their eponymous whiny arguments about whether or not one should be allowed to: a) die, b) save the other one, or c) have a normal life, that I had done a great deal to make my husband believe I could not handle deep shit. Pregnancy isn’t exactly the time to establish your reputation for emotional stability. Teletubby-caliber satisfaction and joy, yes. Brittney Spears-style meltdowns, yes. Number one pick for the keep-calm-and-carry-on squad? Nope. And I’m a talker. So I had spent the better part of a year parading my husband through the wormiest, shakiest parts of my psyche, blubbering and shoving Hawaiian pizza into my mouth with my psychologist and my OB on speed-dial. There was a pretty good reason my husband didn’t trust my strength, even if he was ungentle in sharing that with me. I think back on it now, and it’s probably the best and most important honest thing anyone has ever said to me that I will never forgive them for.

The next day, I woke up determined to save everyone. Including me.

I called back the local speech therapist my awesome doctor had referred us to. The admin answering the phone asked me to describe Rose’s current symptoms. “She can’t really talk,” I said. She asked what we were doing in response. I explained. “You’re doing everything right,” the admin said. “I know it’s hard to see it right now, but you’re doing everything right.” It was the first real comfort I had felt. We made an appointment and two weeks later Nora walked into our living room.

Nora is a more-than-20-year veteran of the speech program. She’s a small-framed, middle-aged brunette with delicate features and a penchant for vests. When she walked into my living room I would have had a difficult time describing her to a composite artist, she’s so understated in appearance. Of course, then we started talking and that changed everything. Everyone’s appearance is transformed by his or her actual self; some for the better, some not. Nora is already an attractive woman, but when your kid is the one she’s helping, she is luminous. Then you’ll see her the way I do — as one of the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful women in the world.

She comforted me, praised me, and then showed me how to do what I had been trying to do, better.

She taught me to slow my speech to Mr. Rogers’ speed, forming my thoughts into great lumbering mammoths who’d get there when they got there. She taught me to insert pregnant pauses wherever they could be inserted, making me sound like a caricature of a politician — I was pontificating at 12 words per minute. If my voice was deeper, it would have sounded like Barry White, delivering some news about the easy way to make a blue snake out of PlayDoh.

The signs for “please,” “thank you,” and “milk” all re-entered our daily exchange, along with a host of improvised signs.

Rose’s doll house was her favorite toy. I would watch her silently play, without the constant chattering and in-fighting of the dolls (I don’t know about your doll population, but ours is like the cast of Real Housewives). I would watch her face change, all of the dialogue happening inside her head. I could tell what was happening, which dolly was the perp, which one the victim, which one the righteous and hell-fired Mama, putting all those rascals in time out. Sometimes, I would be so overwhelmed with sorrow and aching for her that I would go into the other room and cry for exactly long enough to get my shit back together. But that laser-bolt steel-spine gospel squad was right there. It wouldn’t let me cry, or feel bad for long. Every obstacle seemed to make it stronger. It was as if the harder it got, the stronger I felt, the happier I actually was. I realized, with no amount of wonderment and a smattering of disgust, that “fake it ’til you make it” was based on empirical proof as much as folk wisdom.

A stutter. Such a small thing. But it changed us all.

As Rose slowly but steadily became more fluent over the next six months, I saw my family with different eyes. My mom was a rock. She mommed me really hard those first few weeks, helping me face the situation with love and her characteristic no-bullshit clarity. My in-laws, with whom I have been so fortunate to enjoy close friendships, rallied around us like a band of warriors. Nothing got through. I realized that we were actually family, not just close friends.

My surly, sullen teenage son, more interested in computer games, sarcastic repartee, and Ramen noodles than any other thing on the planet, revealed how much he had grown up without my knowing. When he was a little boy, I was constantly battling the differences between us. It took him ten minutes to accomplish a standard human minute. He looked like he existed on a different plane. I was like an old movie, flickering by at 55 images per second. And there he was, loping through the frame like a shaggy-haired tree sloth. “Mom,” he used to object to my urgent appeals for him to hurry the hell up, “Mom, I’m going my slow and steady pace.” The “slow and steady pace” was something that entered household parlance, i.e., “CHRISTOPHER! We don’t have time for your slow-and-steady routine if you want to make the bus!” Or, “You’d better get up at 4 a.m. if you want to accommodate your slow-n-steady routine and still get to work by 6.” Now, when speaking to Rose, Christopher’s slow-and-steady pace set the tempo for the whole house. He was born knowing how to talk to her. Rose became fluent with him first.

And then it was now, the way it is when you have children, or live in the world. And you can hardly tell any of it ever happened. Rose chatters away, so much so that I catch myself thinking, “talk faucet = ON,” and other normal maternal ruminations. I have the luxury of doing so, because she is okay. She might have another mondo episode during development spurts (i.e., puberty —won’t that be a hoot?), and she might just continue on like she is, fighting her way through the occasional sentence, but usually no more noticeably stammery or stuttery than anyone else.

In hindsight, laying softly in my memory without the detail of retelling it, it just seems like another thing that happened to us, like the time we got a flat tire driving through Minneapolis on our way to Omaha. But in the retelling, I am washed with the intensity of the experience, and how changed we are because of it. It’s remarkable. I struggle, during struggle, to find gratitude and comfort. I wrestle with indignation and a brutal feeling of unfairness and entitlement. I glare balefully at the heavens and challenge God and everyone around me to prove their love. It’s probably hilarious to watch. But this time, I didn’t. And the truth is, it was just another thing that happened to us.

And that’s the deal, I guess. She has disfluency. It might get better, it might get worse. But we’ll handle it with love, and with each other, just like everything else. That’s good to know.

Bug Ear

One time, I got a bug stuck in my ear. Which is a funny coincidence, since I have always wanted to never have a bug in my ear.

It happened in early summer, and I was fast asleep. At some point around 4 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of a helicopter crash-landing inside my head. I, like all humans on the planet, have experienced bug fly-bys of my ears on many occasions. Bees, for example, seem to really like my ears. They enjoy repeatedly buzzing up behind me, like fat, airborne playground bullies, chasing me around the swingset. Their dumptrucky buzzing is a nice reminder that a bee is almost in my ear. I like to run around my yard, waving my hands around my head and saying, “You won’t even fit in there! And I’ll probably kill you if you try, which I really don’t want to do because you’re the future! You’re the future!” I bet this is pretty funny to my neighbors.

Generally, I dislike flying insects. It seems like they get an unfair advantage. They are already bitey and stingy and too-many-leggy and wearing chitinous exoskeletal armor over their loathsome, malevolent silhouettes. If any bug were as big as a person, we would all freak the fuck out, even if it had a lovely personality. It would take a lot of paradigm adjustment and acceptance, not to mention furniture and undergarment redesign. Twenty percent of all meditation would be to gain control of involuntary shuddering.

So, adding “airborne” to the list of pernicious insect characteristics is unfair on the same scale as granting Donald Trump the ability to make women pregnant with his mind.

Wasps, hornets, and occasionally dragonflies are all creatures I respect and enjoy, unless they are attempting to go inside my ear. I particularly dislike lurking insects, with earwigs firmly in control of the top of the chart. Earwigs are ghastly creatures, some abominable hybrid of a lobster, a scorpion, and that Wrath of Khan Ceti Eel. And they are called “earwigs,” clearly indicating their intentions. I think, if Khan had spent more time on Earth before that whole hostage situation, he would have used earwigs. Fear, struck.

I don’t know what kind of bug went into my ear, because I was asleep when it went in, and while I can identify a short list of bird calls, I am unable to identify the type of insect in question from the sound of its various crunchy bits thropping against my ear canal. It’s a skill I wish to leave unhoned.
So, I woke at 4 a.m. and shot out of bed like, well, like a woman with a bug in her ear. I jumped around, flailing my arms and tipping my head dramatically to one side, pounding my head like a swimmer with water in her ear.

Before this happened, if I was writing a screenplay of me getting a bug in my ear, I would have written me screaming like a sorority girl under a chainsaw. But in the real scene, I sort of fluffily moaned, like a fat ghost. This makes me think I need to practice what I will do if my sister becomes a vampire or my neighbor becomes a zombie, just in case my response to those nightmare scenarios is equally unexpected.

I jumped around, flapping and pounding, for just a few seconds, while the bug did a similar sounding routine in my ear. Then, I heard a sort of wet, squunching sound, followed by frantic buzzing, more squelchy squenchy sounds, then a glurch, then, silence. I rapidly deduced that the insect had struggled itself into my ear wax, and was now ensconced. This thought was equally reassuring and repellant.

I woke up my husband, who was sleep-delirious, but sympathetic, and he shone a flashlight into my ear canal to investigate. “I can’t see anything. But there’s a kind of corner there, in your ear.” He only had one eye open. “You should just go back to sleep. It will work itself out,” he said, which was a terrific suggestion for someone completely different than me in every way.

I stood in the bathroom, stock-still and waiting, for an hour, listening intently to my own ear (as a side note, I’m pretty sure this is how Frank Zappa wrote his songs). I heard nothing. Maybe my husband was right. Just wait until some errant Q-Tip swipe retrieved the unfortunate soul’s remains. You know, in a month or something. I lay down. I reasoned with myself that searching the internet was a terrible idea. I have seen those pictures already, I told myself. All I would get out of the experience was a montage of worst-case scenarios from the National Geographic storyboard team: botflies and maggots and worms, emerging triumphantly like little pioneers from every conceivable part of human anatomy.

While I could no longer hear my ear guest, I could occasionally feel it, a kind of fluttery, tickly sensation, as though my ear was haunted. National Geographic botfly nightmare in mind, I bravely ignored it for as long as I could — which was about fifteen minutes.

I Googled, “Bug in my ear: what should I do?” with a not inconsiderable amount of trepidation. (As promised, image carousel.) Many helpful souls had posted message board accounts of their own harrowing bug invasions, and I read them voraciously. They all sort of agreed on the best approach: pour warm — not hot! — oil into the ear canal, and wait for the bug to drown. The viscosity of the oil was important, since it would need to completely fill the ear and glut the bug’s exoskeletal respiration. Which, while unimaginable not even an hour previously, had become my most passionate desire.

I heated some coconut oil by running hot water over the jar until it liquefied, and then, like a frat boy with a shot of Jaeger, I raised my little glass at my own reflection in the mirror, and dumped the whole thing into my ear. The oil filled my ear canal with a gurgle, and I definitely felt squiggling motion in the deepest part of my ear. I had to keep my head keened to the side to keep the oil in there for 3-5 minutes, which is the universally-accepted bug-drowning time. I cannot overstate to you how very profoundly, entirely yucky this was to me.

What I did not do was read about the proper technique for evacuating the coconut slurry/bug remains from my ear. I think I just assumed I would lean over the sink and it would glop out into the sink bowl, whereupon I would shout triumphantly, weep, then vomit. So when the timer went off (six minutes, just in case this bug was some kind of insect Michael Phelps) I jerkily leaned over and the coconut oil sort of seeped more than poured out of my ear.

Panicked, I lurched awkwardly over the sink, bent sideways in a modified windmill stretch, to stop the oil from just running down my shirt. It came out quickly then, but in my contorted human-staple position, I could not simultaneously watch the oil and extract it. In my haste, I had also neglected to stopper the sink. I realized this as the oil poured out and disappeared. I stood there for a long time, hoping with electric intensity for the bug’s complete expulsion. “I can always do it again,” I reassured myself, picturing the bug clinging to my cochlea like a tiny Kong on the Empire State building.

Careful examination of the sink bowl revealed a small clump of buggy things, including one discernable wing, and what looked like embrangled legs. No torso. No bug head, on which assumedly one would find pinchery bug monster fangs. Here were the things I was hoping, in the order I was hoping them:

1. The whole bug was out, but its heavy pincher/torso area had slipped down the drain.

2. If the bug or any bug detritus remained in my ear, it was dead.

3. If any part of the bug was still alive, it was small, and male.

4. If the living bug torso was alive and female, it was barren.

My doctor’s office would not open for another full two hours, and since the bug ear crisis had not been an emergency when the bug was certainly alive and in my ear, it was logically not an emergency now. I would wait. There was just one little problem: it was nearly 6 a.m., and I knew I needed to get ready, because, in the round, magical world of perfectly inverted miracles, I had a job interview at 8:30 a.m.

I went through my morning ablutions, cleaning and adorning myself. As I carefully applied makeup, it occurred to me that while my life had suddenly become some facsimile of the movie Brazil, I was handling it pretty well. I congratulated myself while I ironed my pants. “I’m unexpectedly good at this,” I said to my business-clad reflection. I called the doctor, and made my appointment for 10:30.

I arrived at the job interview, and was ushered into a huge conference room with a sprawling, lovely wooden table. Within ten minutes, five different managers were all sitting around the table, with copies of my résumé and lists of questions. I was focused enough on the interview to ignore the possible plus one for quite a while, but felt something trickling down my neck. I reached my hand up, and discovered a line of coconut oil, running down my neck from my ear. I quickly wiped it away, and cleaned my hand on my pants leg. Unfortunately, it seemed that some kind of fluid tension had broken in my ear, releasing a small trove of oil to the whims of gravity. I began a furtive campaign to wipe the now steady stream of oil every few seconds, nervous that the oil would puddle around my collar, or saturate the front of my blouse like a gunshot wound, or the weirdest sweat pattern ever seen. My various clandestine, now spastic wiping techniques were relentless, and while I was explaining the ways I was intrinsically a team player, I was staring lustily and fixedly at the clean, dry napkin under my coffee mug, willing it into my ear canal. I simply could not understand how so much more oil was still in my ear.

The interviewers came to the end of their questions. The big boss asked me what it would take for me to join their team. After discussing that, the conversation veered off into ideas for improvement, previous experiences, best practices, and more coffee. Also, 13,796 covert oil wipes. The clock on the wall approached 10:20, and the looming specter of missing the doctor’s appointment and spending another day with my bug passenger was more than I could handle. Finally, I said, “I hate to do this, but I have to tell you guys something. I have a bug in my ear. I have an appointment to have it removed in ten minutes, so I really have to go.” The entire table stood up simultaneously, and I started to giggle uncontrollably. “It’s such a relief to tell you that!” I giggled. “I’ve been really trying to keep it together!” We shook hands, and I literally ran to the doctor’s office, where the doctor verified that the only thing left in my ear was ear wax, coconut oil (how was that possible?!) and tiny bits of what must have been bug detritus.

I’ll be honest with you: having a bug in your ear is horrible, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Especially since it was in there a while. After a couple hours, I couldn’t panic about it anymore. It was kind of like one of those Wile E. Coyote falling scenes where he falls for a really, really, really long time. It turns out, you only scream for the first thousand feet or so. Then you might occasionally scream, but after an hour, hour and a half, you just get used to your new life of falling, or mopping bug-infused oil from your cleavage while discussing benchmarking in a competitive sales environment.

And for the record — all hyperbole aside — if it was an earwig I would have yowled like a lunatic-banshee, and then punched myself in the face until I passed out.