Perched on cinder blocks in my grade school parking lot was a beige and brown tin box known as the speech trailer.
Throughout grade school, kids would be summoned by slips of yellow paper to report to the speech trailer. If you were summoned, you hoped it was in the warm months because the speech trailer had air-conditioning and the school did not. But, as grade school lore went, the speech trailer didn’t have heat. So if you received a yellow slip in February you were encouraged to bring you coat, gloves, hat and whatever else mom forced you to wear to school.
I was summoned to the speech trailer one time in first grade when going to the speech trailer was still mysterious and cool. I identified pictures on lamented index cards: apple, tree, scissors, while a woman wearing big round glasses wrote on a yellow legal tablet.
After I identified all the index cards, big round glasses told me to go back to class. And that was the last time I was inside the speech trailer.
Despite the air-conditioning, as you got older the speech trailer became less cool. That yellow slip announced to everyone something was wrong with you.
“Mr. Armstrong, you can come back now.”
With Clark Able*, I follow the speech therapist down a hallway and into a small square room that overlooks the parking garage.
*Clark Able is my walking cane. Here’s a picture of Clark and I from July. I hope this picture warms your heart on this cold and snowy President’s Day weekend.
“Hi, I’m Jodie. It’s nice to meet you. I read your chart. You’ve a lot going on. So how did you end up in speech therapy?”
I tell Jodie the story I’ve been telling you for 5 years. About the hole in my brain, about the falls, about having to step away from teaching. Jodie writes notes on a yellow legal pad like big round glasses did in the tin speech trailer many years ago.
Jodie shakes her head. “That is some story. I need to learn more about your speech. Repeat after me…
“Good. Now, I’m going to show you a series of pictures on this flip chart and I want you to tell me what you see.”
Jodie draws a line across the yellow legal pad and begins to flip.
I lean back and smile.
“I know this is silly but there’s no adult version of speech therapy. It’s the same for kids as for adults.”
“I feel like I’m in first grade again.”
Sensing my frustration, Jodie smiles, “Just a few more.”
“And what does the duck say?”
“Good.” She writes something down. “And do you know what ducks quack?”
“Yes. Very good.”
Let me be clear, I like Jodie. She is doing a fine job. She is asking questions, taking notes, and establishing a baseline assessment for me. But the “quack” flushes me with frustration. I’m a 40 year old man identifying coloring book pictures and quaking like a duck. Throughout my journey I’ve tried hard not to feel sorry for myself but right now–I feel sorry for myself.
I feel like an 8th grader trying to sneak out the classroom before anyone notices the yellow slip in his hand. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Emasculated. A self-esteem choking on fumes.
I know I’m not the first person with a neurological disease struggling with their voice. Yet, in this swirling moment, I feel like I am. Our voice is a part of our identity. Our voice carries our story. Our voice is what makes us distinct and unique and, for better or worse, memorable.
What if I become a stranger to the people who knew me when my voice was clear and boomed like a drum? What if people avoid talking to me? What if I avoid talking to people? What if I’m only seen and no longer heard? What if I lose my ability to teach and tell stories? What if my sarcasm and wit and sincerity remain stuck and unsaid in my head? What if I lose my ability to deliver a well-timed curse word? A punch-line? What if I lose my ability to sing off-key? What if I can no longer bullshit with my friends or give a toast at the kids’ weddings or tell a story to my grandchildren about their parents? What if I forever lose my ability to quack with the people I love?
What if I lose my voice and then lose myself?
“Do you have any questions?”
I take a deep breath and look down at the parking garage iced with snow, “Given that my disease is progressive, will speech therapy really work? I’m mean, I’m not trying to…”
Jodie nods, “I know. I understand your fear and skepticism. But, we’ll never know until we try.”
Jodie’s right. We’ll never know until we try.
PS: Last week I told you about the anxiety I was having regarding my upcoming MRI. Good news: compared to my 2018 MRI, the 2021 MRI indicates my brain has remained stable. Thank you to everyone who reached out, sent prayers, and well wishes. Knowing I’m not alone is powerful medicine.
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