Dad, it’s your turn to read
How do you respond when life offers you sudden and unwanted changes?
Chase and I sit on the couch and are about to begin reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” out loud. If you’re not familiar, “Wimpy Kid” is about a skinny kid named Greg, who records the comical trials and tribulations of being a middle schooler. Parents. Homework. Video games. Gym class. Bullies. Girls. Farts.
Earlier in the day, Chase, a middle schooler himself, had his braces removed only to be sentenced to wear a retainer, at all times, except eating food and brushing his teeth, for the next 12 weeks.
“Shhhdad,” removing his retainer, “do I have to wear this thing while I read?”
“That sounds like a mom question buddy.”
A few seconds Chase returns to the couch, opens his mouth, and slides in his retainer, “She shed NO.”
(If you don’t have a retainer handy and want the full retainer experience–press your tongue to the roof of your mouth and read this post out loud. And also, make sure you slurp at the end of each paragraph.)
“Sorry, buddy. It’s probably good practice anyway.”
Chase lowers his eyes, shakes his head, and begins reading:
I sthought I could jus crank ow my shank you cars in a half our but whiting is har work.
(Translation: I thought I could just crank out my thank-you cards in a half hour but writing is hard work.)
Halfway down the page Chase sucks down the saliva pooled in his mouth. I stare at him and scrunch my nose as if smelling month old milk.
So I wote up a genroll shank you foarm…
(Translation: So I wrote a general thank your form…)
Only 19 more pages to go.
For 17 years I taught high school English and reading was, as you could imagine, a big part of my daily work. Over my career I engaged in various reading strategies with students: silent sustained reading, partner reading, group readings, popcorn readings (when a student reads out loud for a time then they select another student to continue reading where they stopped) and sometimes if the text was difficult or needed proper infliction to be fully understood or if I had too much coffee I would stand on my desk* and read out loud to the class like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.
*This was early in my teaching career when my brain was healthy and when I was trying really hard to earn tenure.
Dysarthia (a weakness in speech muscles) is a common problem with people with neurological disorders. Now reading out loud is sloppy. My pace is too quick between words as I disregard punctuation and paragraph breaks and the words jamb and twist and stretch to make one long, strange sound until I gasp like someone just popped my lungs with a pin.
Chase looks at me with 1/3 parts concern, 1/3 parts empathy, and 1/3 parts “my dad is sooooo weird.”
I take a deep breath, like I’m diving in the deep end of the pool with the cool kids, and by the end of the page I’m pushing out the last words with all the air and effort in my lungs until I begin to cough.
The visual of a father and son sharing shoulders on the couch reading together on a cold January night is a scene cut from a scrapbook. But the audio of us two, slurping and coughing, are the sound of nightmares.
Between you and I, this attack on my voice is hard to accept. I mean, it’s fairly easy to hide a physical weakness. (For one thing, I’m a man. Hiding weaknesses is what we do.) I can lean against a wall or a counter and smile like the almost-handsome middle aged man I am. But there is no hiding my voice. The slurs. The gasps. The inability to articulate words. The unplanned changes in pitch. Even if I hide the back corner of the classroom, I’m bound to be called upon.
Like when a good friend of mine, who I haven’t talked to in a few months, called the other day.
After we talked family and holidays and politics, he asks, “How are you doing?” 7 years of living with a hole in my brain and I know he really means, “How’s your health?
“Physically I feel strong. I’m walking and lifting weights. Getting that beach bod. You know. But it’s my voice. It’s getting harder for me to speak. Sometimes I sound drunk.”
“I wish. Let me ask you–does my voice sound different?”
In this present moment I’m struggling with this new symptom. Over the years I’ve accepted the loss of my physical ability. But this one hurts. Like it’s personal. Like my disease crossed a line and had the middle school chutzpah to “go there.”
Our unhappiness comes from our unwillingness to accept and adapt to our problems. You can not blame your parents, the president (even though as I write this on January 6, 2021 blaming my problems on the president is tempting), or your orthodontist. You must realize you are responsible for your own life. And we are responsible for how we adapt to change. Because in the end, our willingness or failure to adapt will define us.
Chase slurps through the next page and I think how earlier today I had to call the electric company and how the nice woman on the phone asked me three times to repeat myself.
And how a friend asked if I’d be interested in doing a guest poetry lesson with some students and I had to explain, via text, “My voice is not up for teaching right now.”
Chase reads. It’s hard for him. I can hear it and see the strain on his face. Making him read out loud feels like cruel punishment for both of us. Yet he doesn’t complain. A 10 year old middle school becoming aware of his image, feeling the first tugs of shame and embarrassment. But to live your best life, in middle school and in the years beyond, you have to accept your imperfections. And though accepting yourself might be the hardest thing you ever do it is the only thing that will bring you lasting happiness.
I must understand the change to my voice is not a punishment. It’s simply another symptom that requires adaptation. Like when an orthodontist sticks a wire and rubber contraption in your mouth and says I’ll see you in twelve weeks.
Chase smiles and slurps at me.
“Shdad, it’s you tun to wead.”
(Translation: Dad, it’s your turn to read.)
PS: We could use a good quote this week. Here’s one from one of my favorite books:
“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
If you like this post, you may also like:
Need some encouragement? Some perspective? This hardworking, almost-handsome, suburban soccer dad can help. Subscribe and, like a pizza, get my posts delivered to your door (your email inbox). No spam. Just posts.