The first glimmer comes out of nowhere. I knew it would come, and yet I didn’t expect it so soon. It comes at the tail end of a Saturday lunch, as my husband and I look at the dirty dishes spread before us and know the sink is already filled with them and we have no dish washing machine.
“Petra,” Justin says from across the table, “I can’t wait til you can do dishes.”
“I can’t do dishes,” the not-quite-three-year-old says. She’s sitting on my lap.
“But when you get older,” I say into her newly washed hair, “you’ll do dishes.”
“And I will walk and talk,” Petra says illogically.
“And Fiona will do dishes.” I look at Fiona. She’s tired and stuffed up, silent with her talker in front of her. I’ve already calculated that she’ll be tall enough to reach the sink by about age 18, at which point she will promptly learn dish-doing.
“And Fiona will walk,” Petra says.
“Fiona already walks,” I say. Fiona has been walking a year.
“But she won’t talk,” Petra says.
There’s a pause. It’s like the the spinning earth is actually a spinning record, and it skips a beat. Something has changed, and it had already changed, and it will never quite be the same again.
“She might talk,” Justin says, stealing the words from my mouth.
“She uses her talker to talk,” I say over Petra’s head.
See kid, I mean to say. She might talk one day, and she does talk now, in her own way, and so all is fine. There’s no great loss here.
But Petra says, all sing-songy and without a hint of sadness, “But she doesn’t talk like I love you. She doesn’t talk like tha-at.”
She’s not even three. It’s the first time she’s told us she knows. Of course she knows. Petra has already had to learn a different language to understand her sister. Ah-ah, Fiona says after every meal, and she waves her right hand over the other, and Petra replies, “You’re all done, Fee.” She knows the subtleties of Fiona’s communication just as well as I do.
But this is the first time Petra has named her sister’s limits. My sister doesn’t. My sister doesn’t. The not-quite-three-year-old is looking unflinchingly at the facts. And in her matter-of-fact assessment, I hear the truth. She doesn’t talk like I love you. She doesn’t talk like tha-at. I don’t want Fiona’s limits to be a loss. But sometimes they are.
“No,” we say. “Not right now,” we say. “She doesn’t talk like that.”