At a trauma training, one of the many I attend, we diagram the brain, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the orbitofrontal cortex. The lines showing where the stress hormones come from,where they flood to. My friend Christy, in her bright red turtleneck, explains. Like a kindergarten teacher she tells us where to write the numbers, the arrows. That it takes six or eight weeks of stability and calm for cortisol levels to go down, to recede like the tide on an oily shoreline.
(How the moon moves the water? he might ask)
After that, when the brain is no longer flooded, 80% of children are able to make changes. It’s like living in a war zone. I explain this to my family. About “feeling nervous.” The fear center is fully formed at birth, develops at 6 weeks gestation.
I imagine him, before anything, a speck of dust, a swimming minnow.
We talk about how children need to feel safe. For their brains to be calm, to learn new things. But I do feel safe! He says. Cause I’m here with y’all!
I am mesmerized, watching my son form letters. He sits on my lap and uses a careful hand. A year ago he could not write anything. His school papers came back a crumpled scrawl, the houses and turkeys and mops and maps glued at crazy angles, one on top of the other. He could not connect the rhymes or group the words with the same first sounds. Or the teacher would write across the top: worked with an aide, sheepishly. I found out at my first parent-teacher conference that he always worked with an aide. Now, his progress report is a row of circles around the words MASTERED and DEVELOPING.
In my kindergarten class we had plastic bears and silver letters on hard black cards. The word for that is tactile. Multi-sensory. The curving letters take shape, gain meaning through association.
He writes with chalk on the side of the house: MOM WOW.
He writes on the bathroom door: NO FNTLS. No throwing towels.
The teacher writes on his progress report: I’m often surprised by his spelling of things and then a smiley face, large, I guess so we wouldn’t be offended. I’m not offended, my child is interesting. In the sense that: watching him is interesting. He makes me curious, this odd little person who came to my house and never left.
I’m sorry, I’m trying to say something meaningful but I’d rather just sit here gazing at my child’s tiny hand as it forms letters, outlines them in the shapes of themselves. What does the brain have to do—where does it have to reach into itself—before it can do this?
A year ago he knew one letter, X, but could not form it because to draw a diagonal requires one to cross the invisible line in front of the middle of the body.
(This is not a parenting column; this is a series of notes on things my child did when I stepped back and stopped interfering, when I stopped worrying, when I was my best self, which is my waiting self.)
We are making a note for his occupational therapist, who is getting married and moving to Miami. When I tell him this he says, oh, I’ve never been to your Ami before.
For the brain to make sense of this is nothing short of miraculous, which means it happens every day, when we get out of the way.
Which is not to say I would love him less if he were non-verbal (needed supportive technologies to communicate) or if his loping run towards literacy had been instead a pained crawl, an anguished drag. (Us, dragging one another, crying to the alphabet.) I thought it would be like that, was gearing up for the struggle. But then like paint dripped into water, the bright blooms.
Like everything else, I was afraid it wouldn’t happen, and then it did. My worrying got in the way of my watching, my wonder.
Motherhood makes it hard to think about animal questions, environmental questions. If J—knew the world was burning and the seas were rising and that we are the middle of a major mass extinction—his worldview would be shattered. The safety we’ve built, day after day, for over a year. It’s all he would talk about.
My wife’s mom, his Nona Maryann, brings him a book about sea turtles, an easy reader, written in sight words and easily decodable words. It reads like an experimental poem. When we read the book he gets sad that the mom will never see the babies.
Even though he can read all the words he wants me to read the pages that say: “this bird wants to eat the babies. These birds want to eat the babies. Will the baby make it? This baby makes it!” The last pages show fishing nets, floating pollution, and the mom turtle swimming away. “Will she make it?”
Will the mom make it? Will the baby?