The Beautiful Lesson One Writer Learned From Her Sister's Cognitive Disability
My sister Betty was 12 then, unable to read or write. But she, too, was forging a chummy rapport with our mother tongue, an affinity far freer than my own.
"I had the three-other bug," she might say.
"You mean the 24-hour bug."
"Yuh. The three-other bug."
"Twenty-four-hour bug, Betty."
She'd nod, patient as the moon. "The three-other bug makes you squeezy."
And so it went. Betty's chatter was a word salad, language flung willy-nilly into a lexicon that—because I was a kid who worshiped rules—drove me flat-out nuts.
"Say cement, Betty."
In adulthood, however, I came to enjoy the surprises in Betty's speech, this winsome symptom of her lifelong cognitive disability. As we get older, I've begun to wonder whether Betty's diction goofs are less about how she hears and more about how she listens. Her mistakes sound more like the way things should be. Try getting your own tongue around cmenent and you'll be waist-deep in an onomatopoetic sludge that renders the actual word—crisp, clean cement—an anemic impostor.
At the mall, Betty and I sit on a bench outside "Jenny Penny" to people-watch. She settles in for a good rest, for she is feeble these days. You might mistake her for an old woman except for her blue eyes, which are gem bright and merry.
A girl happens past us in a skimpy dress stretched over an undergirding of shapewear, her hair an exploding hay bale. From deep inside her oversize handbag appears a tiny, fully dressed dog. After babies, cats, and garbage collectors, dogs are Betty's favorite earthly delight.
She darts from the bench to admire this canine gumdrop with oil-black eyes. "Hi, friend!" she says to the dog. And to the girl: "Hi, honey!"
"What a honey!" Betty says. "What brand?"
The girl frowns. "Prada."
"She means the dog," I say.
"Oh. He's a Yorkie."
"Awww," Betty says, "a jokey."
As the girl decides what to make of this little person, the mall seems to plunge into a sepulchral quiet. Sometimes people react to Betty cautiously, wary of her friendly oddness. But the dog—who, like Betty, makes no distinctions among people—suddenly steals a kiss, catching Betty on the chin with his long pink tongue. Betty squeals as the dog slips her a second kiss. Then the girl laughs, and I see the face beneath the made-up one: younger than I thought, sweet, self-conscious. She opens the bag a little wider, inviting Betty to give the dog a good petting. Now we are all friends.
Betty's verbal slipups have a way of animating the mundane. In her company I've learned to walk squiftly and bundle up against freezebite. When a benevolent friend's heart fails, she's revived by a peacemaker. Apple crisk is the ideal autumn dessert, that hard k echoing the snap of fresh fruit. And speaking of dessert, who among us can resist lemon lorraine pie?
As the girl departs, she turns back to wave, and I like to believe that her humdrum day is now unfolding like a flower. Betty Godspeeds our new pal with these curative parting words: "Onward and awkward...."
Couldn't have said it better myself.
Monica Wood is the author of four novels, including, most recently, The One-in-a-Million Boy. To read more from her, click here.