Today, my son learned to say a new word. “Red,” he declared to a large plastic block with easy, round edges. “Red!” I enthusiastically answered back, prompting him to find other red blocks in the pile. “Let’s add another red block to the tower,” I suggested. He picked up another, placed it onto the growing structure and proudly declared again, “Red!” I beamed quietly with pride, as not to disrupt the moment with unnecessary expressions of triumph.
But triumph it truly was, considering where we’ve come from. I’ve been waiting—sometimes patiently, sometimes not—for these word-laden days since we brought my son home from the hospital. When he was a newborn, he only seemed to know one word: “Mad.” Put him in clothes? Mad. Change his diaper? Mad. Try to feed with breast? Mad. Attempt to feed with bottle? Madder. He was so enraged all the time he’d turn beet red, his tiny, wrinkly appendages flailing desperately in opposite directions, yelling with the lung capacity of an opera singer.
For nearly six weeks straight, all he did was yell at me, and not only did I think something was wrong with him, I was convinced there was something wrong with me for not being able to meet his needs, or intuit what in the bloody hell he was so freaking mad about all the time.
“Is it going to be like this forever?” I remember asking a friend as we walked around my neighborhood with our babies strapped to our chests. I’d barely seen the summer sunlight since he was born in July, and it was now closing in on September. I’d finally figured out a way to remove him from the house without incident: securely fasten him to my body with fabric knots and loops so he literally couldn’t move even if he wanted to. This had a profound effect on us both: we were each rendered calm, he physically and I emotionally. Although I finally felt assured enough to leave the house without an ensuing meltdown, I was frightened that the exhaustion, paranoia, and deepening depression I felt would continue to grow without hope of an unfolding new phase.
“Oh, Katie, of course not. And you never know—he may wake up one day and be a completely different baby.” I nodded away tears but remained skeptical. “I just wish he could tell me what’s wrong,” I said.
Miraculously, that friend turned out to be quite right. Just around six weeks, something marvelous happened—he began to smile. And it wasn’t just here-and-there; it was frequently and consistently, with encouragement from Mom and Dad but also seemingly by internal motivation. He started cooing and burbling at us from his diaper changer, a vastly different scene than the wild limb-flailing witnessed just weeks before. He became so smiley, I wondered again if there was something wrong with him, because what in the heck does this kid have to be so happy about all the time, and then I realized, oh, everything, because everything is awesome, DUH, MOM!
Nonverbal communication really isn’t my forte. While I pride myself on being a fairly observant person, there’s a lot of stuff I miss when it isn’t said, because I am also very literal. I will always take your word at its value. When no words are being said, my brain is much more susceptible to anxiety-fueled combustion. I spent the better part of my son’s first year just staring at him, wondering what his pre-word babbles indicated, even imagining sometimes that he uttered something identifiable. I was clinging to the hope that if something was wrong, I’d somehow know.
Walks around the neighborhood became a regular, manageable part of our activity together. Last fall, when the weather was still somewhat agreeable and walking bundled in winter gear while wearing him in a baby carrier was still feasible, I’d hoist my son onto my back, setting out for the major thoroughfare in my city’s neighborhood. This particular street is a never-ending landscape of cars, trucks, buses, and construction vehicles. Just after turning 1, he became obsessed with the scene, mesmerized by its frenetic pace, and of course, all the super-awesome moving machinery. He’d bounce up and down on my back, gesticulating with delight as traffic sped past us and dancing a little jig when I broke into song with “Wheels on the Bus” verse or two.
Our walks now are interactive in a different, evolving way. Instead of listening to him grunt in my ear, he rides in his own push car, pointing to the vehicles and often greeting them with a cheerful, “Hi!” He watches the excavators as they lift dirt out of the ground with an exclamatory, “Dig!”
And today, for the first time, it was as if Red was finally known, appearing for the first time in his field of vision, marking itself on all kinds of identifiable objects along our path: red cars, red stop signs, red flowers in bloom. I breathed a sigh of relief, accompanying the feeling in my gut that life is unfolding as it should.
Although he’s still at the beginning of his linguistic life, he’s on the verge of verbosity. He is closer to being able to tell me about his day, recall his likes and dislikes, and when he is hurting, or upset, or mad. He is inching closer to communicating in a way that alleviates my anxiety, but also makes life together easier—and I imagine, more challenging, too, as the words keep coming. As much as I am grateful for his relatively uneventful young years up until the present, I cannot wait to hear more of what he has to say, today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter.