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Jamie's First Words

by Ken Sanes

Jamie was sitting in front of the television set watching cartoon characters as they offered lessons on how to spell. One of them spelled out the word “cat,” one letter at a time: “c-a-t.” Another spelled the word “kangaroo,” pronouncing it in an odd way so it sounded like a made-up word.

At twelve years old, Jamie should have been too old for this kind of program, which was aimed at much younger children who were just learning about spelling. But, unfortunately, Jamie had never spelled out a word. In fact, she had never spoken. At a time when other kids her age were already talking in front of the class and sending text messages to their friends, Jamie was silent and mostly alone, lost in her own world.

To look at her, she seemed perfectly okay. She had bright eyes and a friendly smile that made people feel at ease. But she just didn’t say anything -- at least not with words -- and the various schools she went to had given up trying to teach her how.

At first, the doctors thought her difficulties might be because she was partly deaf. But after she had surgery that improved her hearing, and even after they made new efforts to teach her, she still didn’t speak. They then tried to teach her American sign language, so she could communicate by making signs with her fingers. They spent endless hours showing her the signs for things, and also showing her how to use her fingers to spell out words. But it seemed that she was unable to learn that, as well.

Finally, the doctors said that she might never write or speak or use signs to communicate her thoughts. And she would just have to learn to live in a world full of words. That was perfectly okay with Jamie. She was happy just the way she was. But sometimes she heard her mother crying late at night and knew it was because her mother was worried about her.

Jamie did, however, have one thing going for her that temporarily made all her problems go away. You see, every Saturday her rich Aunt Julia sent a driver to pick her up so she could come for a visit.

Up until six months before, Aunt Julia had always taken the car to pick up Jamie herself. But Aunt Julia was getting older, and her eyesight didn't work as well as it used to. So now she had a driver take Jamie back to the big house in the country where she lived alone.

Once Jamie arrived at Aunt Julia’s house, she and her aunt always followed the same routine. First, they would enjoy a delicious lunch. Some days it was tuna fish sandwiches cut into quarters, with celery and cucumbers, and tall glasses of lemonade full of ice. Other days it was broiled chicken or tender chicken salad with fresh sliced carrots, also with lemonade.

But it was what happened after lunch that Jamie particularly looked forward to, because that was when Aunt Julia took out the watercolor paints, and the two of them sat in the garden or went out to the meadow and painted pictures of nature.

Oh, how Jamie loved those Saturdays! She lived for them and dreamed about them all week. She loved to hear the sound of the crickets and watch the long, slender dragonflies as they flew through the air. And she loved to walk through the carpet of flowers that grew wild in the meadow between Aunt Julia's house and the pond beyond.

But her Saturdays at Aunt Julia's weren't all fun. You see, Aunt Julia had taught sign language to young people when she was younger, and she wasn’t ready to give up on Jamie. So every Saturday, after they painted with watercolors and had a nap, Aunt Julia showed Jamie how to spell out letters and make words, by signing. Aunt Julia had even hired a driver who spoke sign language, and told him to speak to Jamie at least some of the time in signs when he wasn’t driving.

So this Saturday, like every Saturday, when the driver honked, Jamie jumped up from watching cartoon characters spelling words on television, and ran out smiling to meet him.

"Hello my little buttercup," the driver said as she ran up to him. He always called her that, and she always responded by bowing like a buttercup flower swaying in the wind.

A half hour later, the car carrying Jamie arrived at her aunt's house. Soon they were having a lunch of broiled chicken on rice, with a lettuce and tomato salad. And freshly squeezed lemonade. Her aunt never forgot the tall glass of ice-cold lemonade.

Then they gathered up their canvasses and paints and folding chairs and headed out for a place to sit. "Let's go all the way out to the clearing on the other side of the pond," her aunt said. "It'll be an adventure -- just you and me. No one will ever find us there."

Jamie nodded and off they went. Soon they were walking through the meadow as the bees and dragonflies flitted around in the hot air of the early afternoon. Having made their way through the meadow, they then walked around the pond and, at last, came to a secluded clearing that was out of sight of the house. Beyond it was the forest, which Jamie had never seen before, except from a distance. It scared her a little bit, just like everything she wasn’t familiar with made her nervous, although of course she knew she was safe here with Aunt Julia.

Next, they set up their canvasses and Jamie began to paint interesting shapes, inspired by this new location and all the new sights and sounds. What she painted on her canvass looked sort of like the forest. It was dark green and tall and uneven, and it seemed to loom over the viewer. But you couldn't really see any trees or leaves in Jamie’s painting because she wanted to use paint to capture how the sight of the forest made her feel. She was painting an image of things with her feelings, rather than an exact picture of a forest.

Aunt Julia understood that. And so she looked at Jamie’s painting and said, "You have outdone yourself with this exceptional work of art, my dear. I think you’re going to grow up to be a famous painter."

"You know," she continued. "Being able to talk -- or use sign language -- would make your life easier. You would be able to define your thoughts and tell people what's on your mind. But there are a lot of ways to say things. And maybe you'll be someone who talks to people with pictures, instead of words."

Then, as Aunt Julia leaned over to pick up a paintbrush, it happened.

"Oh – no-- " Aunt Julia cried out in pain. "My back."

With that, her aunt fell back onto the blanket that luckily they had spread out on the ground before they started painting.

"I've got a terrible pain in my back," her aunt said, with a sound of urgency in her voice. "Oh -- it hurts. You've got to get help, Jamie. I don’t think I can stand up."

Jamie went into a panic. What should she do? She began to run toward the forest. No, running toward the forest didn’t make any sense. So she turned and ran toward the house. As she headed in that direction, she ran around the pond, only to slip and fall in the tall wet grass. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her, so she picked herself up, wiping the dirt and water off her dress as best she could, and started running again.

Soon she had made it beyond the pond, all the way to the meadow. Suddenly, the dragonflies and bees and everything else seemed to be getting in her way as she was running through the meadow. So she swatted them away from her with her hands, as she continued running. Finally, crying, she arrived at the back of the house.

By this time she was completely out of breath. Even so, she forced herself to walk through the house and out the front door, where the driver for her aunt was just driving up, having taken the car to get gasoline.

The driver realized there was a problem as soon as he saw Jamie half-running out of the house, breathing hard and in a panic.

"What's wrong," he said to her.

Jamie began waving her hands. She tried to point but she was so tired and confused, she wasn't even sure what direction to point to.

"Show me, Jamie. Show me," the driver said.

But all she could do was vaguely point in the direction beyond the house.

"You've got to tell me," the driver said. "Tell me, Jamie. Please tell me."

Jamie tried. She opened her mouth. But she just didn’t know how to speak.

“You’ve got to reach inside yourself and the find the words,” the driver said.

So Jamie reached deep inside herself. But still she couldn’t say anything.

Then she lifted her right hand and very slowly at first bent her fingers over her palm. The driver recognized right away that she was making the letter "a" in American sign language. Next, she made a different sign, holding two fingers up straight together, while bending the other two fingers over her palm, and placing her thumb over one of the fingers. Then her hand started to shake and she put it down.

But it was up long enough for the driver to recognize the sign for the letter "u". He spelled out the first two letters – a-u – and realized that Jamie was starting to spell out the name Aunt Julia.

"Yes, what about Aunt Julia," the driver said quickly.

Now Jamie raised her hand again and, this time, with more assurance spelled out "P-O-N-D" in sign language with her hands. Then she waved both hands in the air to show that Aunt Julia was beyond the pond.

With that, the driver jumped in the car, as Jamie ran around and jumped into the front passenger seat next to him. Then the two of them drove right across Aunt Julia’s lawn, over the meadow and around the pond, crushing the tall grass under the big wheels of the car, and passing the bees and dragonflies as they flitted through the air, but avoiding the carpet of flowers, until they reached the clearing. And there, right in the middle of the clearing, was Aunt Julia, unable to get up from the blanket, raising her hand in the air and saying loudly, “I’m here, darlings. I’m here!”

The driver then carefully lifted Aunt Julia into the back seat of the car and drove her home.

"You’re going to be alright now.” the doctor said to Aunt Julia as he stood over her in bed. “The medication I've given you will reduce the pain and begin healing your back,"

Meanwhile, Jamie and the driver were standing on the other side of Aunt Julia’s bed, as she lay there holding Jamie’s hand.

Aunt Julia then turned to the driver, and asked him, “How did you find me? I was all the way on the other side of the pond.”

“Simple," the driver said. "Jamie told me where you were.”

“Jamie told you?" said a shocked Aunt Julia. "You mean she spoke?”

“She spoke to me in sign language,” the driver said.

"Aha!” exclaimed Aunt Julia. “I always knew that all those lessons teaching Jamie sign language were doing some good.”

Aunt Julia then turned to Jamie: "And now, my dear," she said, using sign language, "I will teach you how to paint words by signing with your hands, just like you now paint pictures with a brush. You'll stay here for the week so we can get started."

And with that, Aunt Julia and the driver and the doctor all got big smiles on their faces, because they knew that Jamie now had a great new adventure ahead of her. And they all looked forward to learning what was on Jamie's mind.


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