“No, Tay,” Acorn tells his cousin. “Turtles can’t swim.”
My nephew and I share an amused glance as we fill a bucket with a few inches of water and add a large rock. Minutes later, Acorn watches with delight as our newfound turtle dives beneath a ledge of the rock, then swims around it to climb up and sun itself. Already he has learned that the inch-long turtle has red ears (and yes, he corrected Tay about that initially as well, saying gently, “No, turtle green”) and that you must wash your hands carefully after touching it.
“Do you want to give the turtle a name?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says with a quiet passion.
“What would you like to name it, then?”
Acorn glances up at me, a bit confused; but he is too much in awe of this first turtle he’s seen outside a zoo to pay me much attention. I had wondered if he would understand what I meant by the question, since he only recently developed his speech enough for giving things names to be a possibility. His favorite stuffed animal is called Puppy only because I called it that for convenience; he has lately taken to referring to his only remaining pacifier as “my blue one.” In Acorn’s world, so far, people and pets come with names — I start to say, “names given by other people,” but it may go beyond that: I wonder if in his mind, living things spring into existence with their names attached.
Acorn’s speech has developed rapidly over the past few months. He is at last past the point at which each word he utters is like a precious jewel that my parents and I will hold on to, and polish in our memories so that we can pass it among ourselves. Even phrases are no longer unusual. Longer sentences, or short sentences strung together, are noteworthy still, but they’re not so shocking any more. Not a relief any more from that constant worry that something was wrong, really wrong — because that worry has mostly faded away, and been left behind in the bad old days.
And yet. And yet. Even when he eats an apple, and shows me the sticker, and asks, “Who put sticker on a apple? That’s silly,” it is still a relief. Because we still don’t have any reason for his speech delays, beyond the speculation my mother and I have done (together with the conversations I had with his Big City pediatrician on the subject). Our speculations, and the suggestions from folks who wanted to pin the blame on me somehow, who believed that I breastfed him too long or not long enough, or that I let him have a pacifier too long. That maybe he had just never learned to talk because I was too quick to give him whatever he asked for, without requiring him to use words, or that I hadn’t paid enough attention to him when he was an infant and had thus stunted his development.
And that’s the short list of unhelpful suggestions I’ve gotten in the last couple of years from people whose opinions I never asked and did not need. I’m not going into the long list. I will only say that the same kind of attitude that blamed mothers for their children’s schizophrenia in past decades (because they were clearly either cold and unloving, or overly affectionate and smothering) is still alive and well, and far too easy to internalize.
That’s what makes me wish we knew the cause of Acorn’s speech delays. It’s not that we need a diagnosis so we can proceed with treatment, because the therapy he’s getting is working. Having a label would make our lives easier in several other ways: Acorn himself would be able to explain the problem (and that will start to matter soon). I’d be able to offer a simpler explanation when asked. And I could shed this guilt I still have to fight, the guilt that’s been thrust on me like a watersoaked quilt with every casual suggestion that I somehow caused this or could have fixed it easily or didn’t fight hard enough to get therapy started sooner. This guilt that I know is so fruitless, so ill-founded — and which I have to fight anyway.