The First Time Feels Like the Earth Skips a Beat


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.”


13 thoughts on “The First Time Feels Like the Earth Skips a Beat

  1. You could give Fiona a little plastic tub to do dishes in(put it on the table or the floor, give her some little plates to wash), just because she can’t reach the sink doesn’t mean she can’t do dishes and feel accomplished.
    I remember when I was little how excited I was to be able to help out with dishes(actually any chore really), but I was very small and couldn’t reach the sink till at least middle school(and even then I stood on a chair) so before that my mum put a little tub of water down where I could reach and I ‘washed'(I’m using this term very loosely here lol) dishes.
    Oh how I wish I still felt that way about dishes XD lol

  2. Remind her there are lots of ways to talk, and they don’t all involve words. My daughter has Rett syndrome; Dr. Rett always said “these girls talk with their eyes.” And there was a story of a sibling who said that his sister was very very mad. “How do you know?” someone asked….” She can’t tell you.” The sibling replied “she has a very loud face!”

  3. I have been reading your posts for about a year now, and I would just like you to know that you have inspired me to train to become a genetic counselor. I hope that in some small way I will be able to help maintain beautiful, loving, and accepting families like yours and help to alleviate some of the trauma caused by medical professionals that subscribe to the doctrine of ‘normalcy.’ Thank you for changing the path of my life.

  4. I hope you don’t mind that I re-blog your beautiful posts from time to time. I love your writing in which your love for your two girls and your husband is so clear. Your warmth and compassion shine through the heart stopping moments like this and times when there is judgement of your Fiona. Can I suggest you write a memoir?

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