You know that scene in The Miracle Worker where young Helen Keller, deaf and blind, finally understands what Annie Sullivan has been trying to teach her?
“Wa-wa!” she shouts, excited, over and over as she pumps water from the well. “Wa-wa!”
Words mean things.
One of the great joys of parenting is watching a mind develop and come to understand the world around it.
Robby was barely a year-and-a-half old when we left Minnesota with my husband to visit his relatives in Pickles Gap, Arkansas. It was a miserable trip in the depths of summer, and I was at an impasse in my marriage. I wanted out but I didn’t yet have the nerve to leave.
We spent two weeks in an old farmhouse teeming with flies in undulating heat with my mother-in-law, her wheelchair-bound mother, my sister-in-law, Rhonda, and her small son, Rory. (Yes, it was a family of R’s.)
The house was half an hour from the nearest paved road. There were no neighbors in sight. On the railroad tracks in the distance, we sometimes saw a train.
“Choo-choo,” I said to Robby when it came by, and he cheerfully replied, “Choo-choo.”
They were light, sweet moments in the vacation from hell. Rusty and I fought almost every day, and I stopped caring if anyone overheard us. Finally, Rhonda came into our room and warned us that we were upsetting Robby in the living room. Normally, this would have made me get hold of myself; I didn’t want to mess up his little psyche. But this time, I didn’t care. Rusty didn’t give a crap, why should I?
I stormed past Rhonda, Robby, and the rest and stalked out the front door, determined to walk the entire dirt road out of there. What I would do then, I couldn’t guess. But Rusty followed me and made peace. Relieved that I wouldn’t have to keep walking in the heat, I let him talk me into going back inside.
I picked Robby up and apologized. Just then, I heard the train whistle.
“Choo-choo,” I said, and Robby replied, “Choo-choo.”
A few days later, Robby and I took a plane home while Rusty, for some reason I can’t recall, boarded a Greyhound. He would join us in a couple of days.
We got home late, exhausted. I put Robby on our big bed and lay down beside him. As we drifted off to sleep, a train whistle blew in the distance, and blew again.
Suddenly awake, Robby sat straight up, eyes wide.
“Choo-choo!” he cried with new comprehension and delight. “CHOO-CHOO!”
“Yes, it’s a train!”
I took him in my arms and laughed as he repeated it again and again. It was a Helen Keller moment, and I felt privileged to witness it.
Now he knew: Words. They mean things.