She Only Said It Once
Her ‘voice’ barely registered
skimming along the fibers of my optic nerve.
A concise, comprehensive gesture—
it’s in there.
In my haste
to keep us moving toward task completion
(that trajectory of necessary stuff
like getting to work, being prepared)
In my haste
she ‘spoke’ of something else,
missed my question.
Thank God, I did not scold
just kept parroting my question.
But she only answered once.
Twenty minutes later…
when I stopped looking everywhere else,
and listened to her,
she forgave me;
but that is her story.
My daughter Brie, is 22 years old. Clinically speaking, she is nonverbal, as well as discernibly developmentally delayed. In practice, however, she is at times profoundly articulate. This was one of those times.
Brie works two days per week at a farm supply store. Stellar job coaches, engaged co-workers and graciously committed administration support her efforts. It is almost magical. Brie enthusiastically wears a vest that identifies her as part of the store family and the legacy that goes with it. She excels at go-backs, and job-site morale. Work was item #4 on the day’s list. We couldn’t find her vest.
As we prepared (in advance, I might say) for her work shift plus line-items 5 and 6, I said, “Brie, it would help if you found your vest for work. It is almost time to get in the car.” We finished putting on shoes and I left to load up activities 5 and 6. When I came back, she sat in the same spot, closing the zippers on her overnight bag ( she likes fasteners). No sign of the vest. It is not in its place in the closet. Not to worry, I think I have seen it… Where did I see it last? Vest or no vest, it is time to get in the car. As Brie buckles in, I ask her, “Where, ” and she makes one clean gesture toward her bag. Meanwhile I am looking: Perhaps it is in the horse bag, or still in the car from Monday…This may seem inane disorganization to you, but we take really good care of that vest. I could not find it in any of the places I had ‘last seen it.’
” I know you are excited about your overnight bag (item #6), but right now we need to find your vest…” By this time Brie and the bag were in the car, and I was still talking to the air about finding the vest – for twenty minutes. Finally, we had to leave, so I grabbed the back-up vest, lacking her radio headphone safely stowed in the pocket; when it dawned on me that Brie had answered my question. Once. And I had failed to listen. I underestimated her listening and her capability and the completeness of her response – repeatedly.
Woe to me, when I am too busy multitasking to listen to a quiet, less frantic, vulnerable voice. Whoa to me when I am too busy getting the job done, to regard and listen to another who is participating in that work.
In practice, Brie is sometimes profoundly articulate: some of my friends would say, Jenny, you are being too hard on yourself. She couldn’t say it out loud, and that would have eliminated the disconnect. (It has been a twenty-two year decoding journey.) But that would miss the point. She can’t answer me in words. Or in sign language. Or with a voice box. She can’t answer me in the kind of voice that I am most used to hearing. She answered me with a gesture, with the means at her disposal, and I failed to listen. If I listen, with understanding, only to those who speak in ways familiar or readily comprehensible to me…perhaps I need to change my pattern of listening.
Some further thoughts: I probably understand Brie in real time, better than anyone else on the planet (except perhaps my husband.) If we are invested and willing, yet still falling short; how narrow is her window for being understood?
How reflective is this incident of my finesse in listening to others who speak in a form to which I do not gravitate, of matters less readily understood? I am not comfortable with loud, angry voices. I am not attuned to all forms of oppression. I can tell you I do not like assumptions being made based on the color of my skin. In Brie’s case, as a parent, it is my job to ask Brie to be respectful and appropriate. To work on maturing. But it is my job, my choice, my privilege, to listen. Am I willing to miss critical information because I cannot fully appreciate the way it is delivered? Or will I choose to learn something new, in order to understand, to facilitate someone else’s better today?
Am I in charge? Not really… How willing am I to listen to others’ good ideas about effective solutions?
In spite of all we thought we learned from the early months of Covid 19 about caring for one another, and what I thought I knew about prejudice; I am invited anew in 2020, to pause in my frantic hurry to where I am going, and listen to those whose stories are different, whose needs are different, whose dreams may be different, but at the core, sound strangely familiar. To choose to listen, for the nuances behind the content and method without assuming that those voices sound strange to my ear because they are somehow less capable or accurate. To first lose the oppressions in how I listen, in order to lose the oppressions in living.
jfig lessons of 2020