A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 31

At first Gretchen thought that some tourist had gotten lost and wanted to use her driveway to turn around, or maybe, upon seeing her out in her garden, decided to stop and ask directions. But then she saw the Maine plates, and a moment later, her sister Madison emerged from the sleek, dark-green sedan and waved at her. The passenger side door opened and her ten-year-old niece Serena popped out. Grateful for the interruption, Gretchen put down the long-handled hoe, wiped her hands on her jeans, and went to greet them.

“Nice car,” she said, as Maddie fished the baby out of the back seat. At six months, Graham was already a bundle, with thick thighs and pudgy little arms and a solid barrel chest and a shock of curly red hair he could only have inherited from his father. Madison lifted him up to her shoulder, where he waved his arms and looked around at his new surroundings, gurgling happily.

“Thanks,” she said to her sister. “Wayne thought I should have something dependable, and comfortable for the kids. How you doing, Sis?” With her free arm, she enfolded Gretchen in a half-embrace. Madison had always been larger than her older sister, and she had not yet lost all the weight from her recent pregnancy. Graham was a big baby, but Gretchen saw that he held his head upright and his eyes were intelligent and alert, taking in his new surroundings.

“Same struggle, different day. How about you?”

Madison closed the car door with a hip check. “I’m good,” she said, hefting the child. “He’s a handful, but you know. I can’t imagine having three of ’em.”

“They’re inside, watching TV,” Gretchen said. “Calvin’s sleeping. Only time I can get anything done. Hi, Serena.”

“Hi,” the girl said. She had her father Kyle’s dark hair and olive skin, and looked more like him than her mother.

“You want something to drink?” Gretchen offered. “Calvin will be waking up from his nap soon. I’ve got juice, tea, might even have a beer if Ted didn’t drink the last one.”

She led them to the back entrance to the house, through a glass-enclosed porch with boxes of flowers set out on a wooden picnic table in the sun. From the kitchen she could see the familiar figure of Fred Flintstone on the big television screen in the living room. Ted had brought that TV home to watch the Tour de France on cable last year, though why he wanted to watch men ride bicycles on television after devoting half his free time to the real thing escaped her. But Trey had discovered the Flintstones on Nickelodeon, and anything that kept him from picking a fight with his sister for half an hour was a welcome development.

“Hey, kids, look who’s here,” she called.

It was noon on a Saturday in June 1988, not yet high summer but inching closer to the solstice, the garden mostly in but still young. Gretchen felt a little guilty for letting the kids waste the morning in front of the TV. But she had things to get done, and Ted had chosen this Saturday to go on a fifty-mile bike ride with his buddies. Right now he was somewhere out on Deer Isle, pounding up and down the small hills without stopping long enough to soak in the scenery. He could have been here, helping her with the garden, or engaging Trey and Lily in cleaning out the shed, or helping to take care of Calvin. But that was not the man she’d married.
Trey barley looked up from the beanbag chair, but Lily swiveled around on the couch and beamed. “Hi, Serena. Hi, Aunt Maddie. Can I see the baby?”

Gretchen heard a cry from upstairs. Shit. Calvin was awake early. He would be cranky and hungry. Lily bounced into the kitchen and circled Madison before she could sit down. “For heaven’s sake, Lily, let her catch her breath,” Gretchen said. “Can you get Calvin’s food out of the fridge for me? Thanks. Serena, can I get you anything to drink? Some apple juice, maybe? Or a ginger ale? Maddie, how about you?”

“I’m fine,” Madison said. “Here, Serena, take him for a minute. You can introduce him to Lily.” She handed off the rotund baby. Graham waved a chubby fist and gurgled.

“You can take out three boxes of juice while you’re in there,” she said to Lily. “Why don’t you take Graham into the other room while I talk to your Aunt Maddie?”

Another cry came from upstairs. “Mom, Calvin’s awake,” Trey called from the living room.

“My ears are just as good as yours,” she called back. “He’ll survive until I get to him.” To Madison, she said, “Can you tell he’s the third kid?”

“I don’t know how you do it,” Madison said.

“One foot in front of the other, every day,” she replied, hoping that she didn’t sound too falsely cheerful. Calvin cried out again. She knew she had better get up there before he started testing his strength against the reinforced crib. Twice in the past month she had found him on the floor after he had vaulted over the side and failed to land cat-like on his feet. Her second son did not exhibit many feline traits. He was big and clumsy and poorly balanced. He had been able to propel himself around on his feet since shortly before his first birthday, but it was less like walking than lurching; he grabbed for objects in his path and often knocked them over. They had bought the larger crib after he’d taken to walking around at night, half-asleep, and split his lip open on the edge of a bookcase.

Of more concern was his lack of verbosity. Both Trey and Lily had been little chatterboxes. But Calvin was a year and a half old now, and had not yet uttered an intelligible word – not one, unless you counted the inarticulate cry of “Maaaaaaa!” with which he summoned her. She didn’t think this was anything but a scream of need that he began with his lips closed. When her other two kids had started talking, they had proceeded from “Ma-ma” and “Da-da” to real words within weeks. Calvin hadn’t gotten beyond wailing.

“I’ll go get him up,” she said. “He’ll probably be happy to see visitors.”

None of her friends had babies this difficult. She was beginning to suspect that Calvin had issues beyond a larger-than-normal dose of early childhood orneriness. But Ted didn’t want to hear it. “He’s just a late bloomer,” he’d said, the last time she’d tried to talk with him about it. “Maybe he’s not going to be a verbal kind of kid.”

He needed to be changed, but he hadn’t made a bad mess, and after she dressed him he allowed her to lead him down the stairs in the way they had developed, with her arms under his and his feet on the stairs, not really walking but at least not requiring her to lift his full weight.

Lily had Graham on her lap in front of the TV, where he smiled happily at a cartoon about dinosaurs that she didn’t think was The Flintstones any more – the dinosaurs didn’t look like Dino and she didn’t see any people, or cars propelled by feet. Trey glanced up at his younger brother and then returned his attention to the screen. Sometimes when he was bored he liked to make Calvin scream, either by taking away a favorite toy and placing it on a visible but out-of-reach shelf, or tying the straps of his little overalls to a table so that he would knock it over when he moved, or shooting spitballs at him when he thought his mother wasn’t looking. All of this, she realized, was an attempt to capture her attention, but she sometimes succumbed to anger anyway. Lily, knowing this, often ratted her older brother out, setting in motion another round of squabbling in the three-ring circus that was her home.

Ted only saw the surface of this. The half-hour after he got home was sacred: he mixed himself a martini and sat on the porch in the warm months and at the kitchen table in the winter, and demanded that the kids stay out of his way until he’d finished his first drink. Trey and Lily had been mostly cowed into silence. If Calvin acted out during this time, he snarled at her to “shut that kid up.”

She was grateful to the television, then, for providing a few moments of household harmony, even if it was a kind of sedation. So what? She wasn’t the first parent to use the boob tube as a babysitter. If Ted didn’t like it, well, then maybe he could spend a little more time with his kids and less time gallivanting around on his thousand-dollar mountain bike.

She hoisted Calvin into his booster seat. A small grunt escaped her lips. Calvin was a sack of potatoes. He had his early teeth and was capable of chewing, but she still mashed up his food because he tended to bolt it, which had led to a couple of scary choking incidents. She placed a sippy cup in front of him and turned to the stove, where she dumped his meat-and-potato goop into a saucepan. The plastic cup hit the floor behind her. Calvin didn’t like juice. He still preferred his bottle of baby formula. Gretchen had stopped nursing him at four months, when his demands had outstripped her production.

“I’ll get it,” Serena said. She had pulled out a pad of paper and some colored pencils and had been sitting quietly at the table, drawing, uninterested in whatever her cousins were watching on television, while her mother looked over the weekend edition of the Bangor Daily News.

“Thank you, Serena.”

“He’s getting bigger,” Madison said, nodding at Calvin, who now had one index finger up his nose.

“Calvin, stop that.” Gretchen removed the offending digit and placing the cup back in front of him. The second she turned her back he threw it on the floor again. Serena, who had just sat back down, got up to get it.

“Oh, don’t bother,” Gretchen said. “He’ll keep doing that as long as you keep picking it up. It’s a game.” Serena picked up the cup anyway. Gretchen set it on the counter. She opened the refrigerator and took out a prepared bottle of formula, inserted it in the microwave, closed the door, and touched the memorized buttons. Calvin yelled something inarticulate. “Just a minute, honey,” she said. “It’s coming.”

Calvin continued mouthing nonsensical syllables, banging his fists on the table, rocking from side to side in his chair hard enough that the legs thumped on the floor. She reached out a hand to steady it. “He hasn’t tipped himself over yet,” she said to Madison, “but one of these days it’s bound to happen.”

She pulled the bottle out of the microwave, tested the temperature on her wrist, and placed it in front of him. He latched onto it with both hands and brought it to his mouth. Gretchen returned her attention to the stove.

“They’ve got hard heads for a reason,” Madison said.

“I’ll just be happy when he can feed himself like a normal kid,” Gretchen said, dishing out the mush into a small white plastic bowl. “He’s almost two years old and I’m still spoon-feeding him like a baby. The only thing he can do by himself is that bottle.”

Calvin waved his arms excitedly at the sight and smell of his food, and emitted a few nonsensical sounds. “Can I feed him?” Serena said.

Gretchen smiled at her – the earnest pre-teen whose nascent mothering urges were already beginning to kick in – and said, “Sure.” Any relief from the routine was welcome. “Just don’t give him too much in one bite, because he wants to eat faster than he can swallow.” She placed the bowl on the table, out of Calvin’s reach, and took a small spoon out of the drawer. Serena settled onto a chair next to Calvin and began talking to him. To Gretchen’s surprise, the kid stopped babbling and focused on her.

“Mmm, what have we got here, Calvin?” Serena said. She held up a spoonful of the mush and ran it under her nose. “Sure smells good.” Calvin watched her with big saucer eyes. He would be fidgeting all over the place were his mother attempting to feed him, trying to grab the spoon out of her hand or knock the bowl on the floor. But his ten-year-old cousin had his undivided attention. She raised the spoon to his mouth and he opened obediently.

“You want a job, Serena?” Gretchen said, only half in jest. She turned to Madison. “Can she come stay with me for a month or two? I’ll trade you those two in there for this one.”

Madison laughed. “Let’s go outside,” she said. “I want to see your garden.”

Gretchen took a quick, automatic inventory of the situation. Calvin seemed content with Serena, and the other children basked in the glow of the television. Everything was, for the moment, uncharacteristically under control. She nodded and said, “Sure. Such as it is.”

When the door closed behind them, Madison pulled a joint from the pocket of her work shirt. “I think you could use this,” she said. “Should we go behind the shed, in case one of the kids comes out?”

Gretchen hadn’t smoked pot in a long time – maybe once in the past year, at a Christmas party where she had run into some of her old stoner friends from high school. Ted had asked what the matter with her was on the drive home. He didn’t disapprove – they had smoked plenty of weed together in college – but now that they were young parents, they didn’t seek it out, and it had faded from their lives. It made her giggly and stupid. But maybe Madison was right. She could use a change in perspective.

“There’s a bench up there by those trees,” she said, pointing. “Ted and his father built it last summer. It’s out of the wind. We can see the house from there, but they can’t see us.”

She led her sister up a footpath between the tops of moss-covered rocks toward the edge of the woods, casting a quick glance at the square of overturned soil she had been working that morning. “Not much to see in the garden yet,” she said. “Well, you know.” Madison’s garden was likely twice the size of hers. But Gretchen liked her little piece of land. She had wild blueberries and blackberries and a couple of apple trees and a small stand of spruce that Ted and his father periodically thinned, cut, split, and stacked along the outside of the shed. When the wood had seasoned over a winter, it moved inside the shed, and then into the house and the woodstove. Ted and Theodore cut enough each year to keep the pipeline going.

A branch of a blown-down oak tree had provided the raw material for the bench. Gretchen had to admit that the men had done a superb job. She liked to come up here and sit in the evenings before the bugs got too bad. Sometimes Ted joined her, and sometimes she came out here with the kids, but mostly she liked to sit up here alone, and her family had come to recognize it as her refuge. It was the only refuge she had, and it was still within shouting distance of the house.

Madison lit the joint and passed it to her. She inhaled deeply, trying not to cough as the smoke expanded in her lungs. She felt high almost immediately. The warmth of the sun on her face intensified; the grass surrounding the garden plot shimmered. She begged off after the third hit.

“That kid’s not right,” she said, as Madison snuffed the joint on the frayed hem of her blue jeans, folded it up in a piece of paper, and put it in her pocket.

“You mean Calvin, I’m assuming,” her sister said.

“Yeah. Don’t you think so?”

“Gretchen, I haven’t been around him enough to know,” Madison said.

“He still hasn’t said a word – not one you can comprehend, anyway. And, I don’t know, you’ve seen that look of his. It’s kind of… not all there, if you know what I mean. Stuff Trey and Lily were doing at a year he still hasn’t started. He walks, but he sort of staggers, and he’s the clumsiest kid you’ve ever seen. He can’t stack one block on top of another, or hold a crayon, or even feed himself when the food’s right in front of him. I’m starting to think there’s something really wrong. Ted doesn’t want to hear it.”

“He’s big enough,” Madison offered. “Like Graham.”

“But you can see an awareness in Graham’s eyes that’s never been there in Calvin’s.” She lowered her voice and looked at the ground, where two black ants struggled over a piece of a leaf that was bigger than both of them. “To be honest, Maddie, I’ve suspected there’s something wrong with Calvin for awhile now. But every time I try to bring it up with Ted, he gets mad, or changes the subject.”

“You know, Wayne’s not the most involved father, either. Right now he’s up in Mada-fucking-waska, of all places. He’ll be there ’til next Friday. At least Serena’s old enough to help out a little.”

“Have you taken him in to see a doctor?” Madison asked.

“He’s got a pediatrician. He taps his knees and looks into his ears and all that. He says Calvin’s just slow. But he doesn’t spend time with him every day like I do. He’s more than just slow, Maddie. I’m starting to think there’s something really wrong. Everyone tells me to give it time. But the more time that goes by, the more convinced I am.”

“I had a friend, back when Serena was little, who worked at the same diner I did. She took her kid to see this guy in Ellsworth. I’m trying to remember his name. Doctor Stanley, or Sweeny maybe, something with an ‘S,’ anyway. She told me that he was able to bring her kid out of his shell. I lost track of her, but I bet that doctor is still there. You should give him a call, see if he’ll see Calvin.”

Gretchen looked over the slice of land on which she had chosen to make her stand: the snug house; the small shed, the rolling lawn interrupted by the vegetable garden; and the wooded rise, rimmed with blueberry bushes, on which they sat. Twenty years from now, what would it look like? The trees would be taller; the garden, she hoped, would be larger, and would Ted ever get around to building an enclosed extension onto the shed, like he talked about? Trey and Lily would grow up and go off into the world, but what of Calvin? What would be his future?

“What time are you coming down tomorrow?” Madison asked.

“Whenever I can get Ted and the kids out the door. Getting all five of us moving in the same direction at the same time is always a minor miracle. Ted might decide to ride down, although I hope he’s getting that all out of his system today.”

Annabelle had invited them all to the point for what she would come to call her annual “polka dot” party. It was a celebration of the summer and near-summer family birthdays, marked by polka dots on their mother’s wall calendar. The family had been fruitful and multiplied; the birthdays had become too numerous to observe individually. Annabelle was now up to six grandchildren, though only five would be in attendance; Jeremy, still trying to work out his troubled marriage, had sent his regrets from the west coast. They had brought Andromeda east when she was a baby, but Gretchen had been up to her eyeballs in diapers and had spent little time with his brother’s new family. And nobody knew where Pilar was at the moment, but she wasn’t in Maine, so the second generation would be down two members.

Gretchen didn’t entirely want to go. She was sure her mother would find something in her maternal style to criticize, or something cruel to say about Calvin. Why did she feel inferior whenever her mother and her children were near one another? Ted would be clueless, as always.

But daughterly duty prevailed. She could scarcely boycott a family gathering when she lived closer to her mother than any of her sisters. They could make an early exit, before Ted started drinking with Paul and Paul provoked an argument. She wished Wayne would be there. Ted could hold his own in a confrontation, but he didn’t have the imposing presence of Madison’s six-foot-five husband.

The back door slammed open, and she heard Trey’s voice. “Mom! Calvin pooped his pants again,” he shouted.

She sighed, and stood up. “I’ll be right there,” she called down to him. To Madison, she said, “And that’s about the longest break I get these days. Then it’s back, literally, to the shit. I guess we better go in. Thanks for sharing the... you know.”

“Never a problem,” Madison said. “I’ve got plenty more at home, if you ever want some.”

“That could be dangerous. I’ve got to be a responsible mother.”

No, that came out wrong. Madison was a mother, too, and she smoked pot, likely on a daily basis. Was Serena scarred? Was the baby? Maybe it mellowed her out, made it easier to deal with the screams and the constant crises.

But Madison showed no affront as they walked down to the house. “Our lives are an endless cycle of meals and bowel movements,” she said.

Gretchen laughed, and opened the screen door into a world of chaos. Trey and Lily were squabbling in the living room. Calvin wailed in his chair while Serena tried to comfort him. She smelled poop, and saw by the pool on the floor that he had peed himself, too. Serena looked at her with a mixture of helplessness and relief.

“It’s all right, honey, I’ll take it from here.” Gretchen swooped Calvin up and carried him at arm’s length into the bathroom behind the stairs, because she could no longer comfortably cart his growing bulk upstairs to the full bath. This took her through the living room in time to see Trey throw Lily’s little stuffed giraffe, which she was rarely without, toward the bookcase, trying to land it on a high shelf out of her reach. She screamed; he missed, and they raced for the bouncing toy.

“Both of you. Outside. Now,” she barked.

“But Mom…”

“Out. It’s a beautiful day. You’re gonna grow mold.”

“Come on, you guys,” Madison said from the kitchen. “Leave your mother alone. We’ll all go out. Serena, bring the baby.”

Gretchen ducked into the bathroom. She heard the door slam, and a moment later, the kids’ voices outside. They were no longer fighting. She heard Trey tell his aunt about the three deer they had seen on the ledge a week ago, and Lily chimed in with the story of the baby birds that had hatched in the woodshed. As she knelt to change Calvin, like a thousand times before, she silently thanked her sister for making this one time just a little bit easier.

The next day at the point, she spent most of her time tending to Calvin while Ted tossed back beers with Paul and Annabelle, and Trey and Lily dug up clams and threw seaweed at each other. Joanie arrived alone in a teardrop-shaped Saab that had seen better days and at least one accident -- the passenger-side door was a deep green against the orange of the rest of the car. She had landed a seasonal job at Acadia National Park and was living with three other girls in an apartment above a restaurant in Bar Harbor. Everett showed his sisters the guitar he had received for his sixteenth birthday, but he still didn’t have his driver’s license, having failed his second test when he rolled through a stop sign somewhere on the back streets of Ellsworth. “That’s all I did wrong,” he complained. “Failed to come to a complete stop, when there was no other car anywhere in sight. The guy was a dick. If I was a girl I would’ve passed.”

There was some speculation about Pilar’s current whereabouts, and much talk of Jeremy, who was still working for the space program but had not been in touch for several months. Gretchen tried to talk to her mother about Calvin, and maybe get the name of the doctor in Ellsworth Madison had told her about, but her mother’s attitude echoed her husband’s: Calvin was just a late bloomer whose verbal and motor skills were sure to blossom soon.

Gretchen didn’t press the issue. She hadn’t expected Annabelle to be any real help. But it would have been nice to talk to her mother about her concerns, without the breezy platitudes that everything would be all right. Calvin was far from all right.

Though Ted got tipsy and she had to drive home, there were no major incidents. She caught Everett sneaking a beer out of the cooler, and though he swore her to secrecy Gretchen didn’t care, and she doubted that Paul and Annabelle cared, either. They had all started drinking well before eighteen. She wondered if Everett had discovered drugs yet. Her own high school days were blur of mangled mescaline memories; her little brother now walked the same hallways and snoozed in the same classrooms. Had the culture changed? She didn’t know. She was too busy cleaning up after three messy preschoolers. High school seemed a world away.

Madison called her the following Monday, in the middle of a Calvin crying fit, to say that she had remembered the name of the doctor: Strickland. Gretchen looked him up in the phone book and made the call. She was dismayed to discover that the doctor worked out of the hospital in Ellsworth, but she made an appointment to bring Calvin in that Friday. She asked Ted if he could take a few hours off from work to stay with Trey and Lily, but he told her they had a sales rep from one of the kayak companies coming in that day and he couldn’t afford to miss his presentation.

So she sucked it up and called Annabelle, and after a small discussion in which Gretchen explained that she didn’t want to drive the kids down to the point and pick them up afterwards, her mother agreed to come stay with Trey and Lily while she took Calvin to Ellsworth.

Dr. Strickland’s office was in the new wing, the subject of her final story for the Ellsworth American, a lifetime ago. The new wing leaped from the old hospital like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, larger and more menacing than she remembered. She had been a teenager then; next winter she would be thirty. As she hefted her not-normal son from his car seat and shut the door with her hip, she envisioned her future: Calvin at six with behavioral problems at school; Calvin as a teenager with acne and learning disabilities; Calvin lurching forward into an adult world of doctors offices and medical bills. After settling her heavy, squirming son into his stroller, she paused for moment and gazed at the façade of the hospital. Seventeen years – the equivalent of an entire childhood and adolescence – had gone by since her father had fallen to his death, somewhere inside that building. An eternity. She felt old already, and Calvin was not yet two. A wave of despair washed over her.

“None of that,” she said, sucking in a large breath and wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Come on, Calvin. You ready?”

“Mwaugh,” the kid replied.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” She didn’t bother to lock the car – this was Maine, after all – and pushed the stroller toward the hospital entrance. She was surprised when the door opened automatically. Jeremy would say it was just like in Star Trek.

The foyer was cavernous and clean, empty save for two middle-aged women behind a curved reception desk. She asked for directions to Dr. Strickland’s office, and the thinner of the two, neither of whom appeared to have missed too many baked-bean suppers, told her it was on the second floor. “Just take the elevator and follow the signs to the pharmacy. It’s on the same side of the hall. You’ll see his name on the door. Walk right in.”

Gretchen thanked her, and Calvin made an unintelligible noise. The second woman looked down at him and smiled. “Cute baby,” she said.

“Thanks.” Calvin was now drooling from one side of his mouth. She turned the stroller away and pulled a tissue from her pocket to wipe his chin. The elevator was across the foyer. She pushed the button; the door opened, and she wheeled Calvin in. She pressed the button for the second floor and up they went.

The door didn’t open right away when they stopped, though, and after a moment, Gretchen pressed the “2” button again. Nothing. She frowned, and looked down at her son in the stroller. His little lips were pressed together, and he had what she would later characterize as a serious expression on his face, which threw her, because she had never seen it before. Usually his features were soft and, well, she had to admit, a bit blank. But not now. His eyes seemed to be focused on something in the middle distance, something she could not see. He looked, if it were possible, like he was deep in concentration.

“Calvin?” she said. “Are you all right?”

His eyes found hers, and the sudden sharpness in them took her aback. “I missed you,” he said.

What?” But she had heard him quite clearly. Three words, pronounced individually, his first three coherent words in the world. A whole sentence, cast in past tense: “I missed you,” not “I miss you.”

She stared at him, and he held her eyes. “Say that again,” she whispered.

But at that moment, the elevator door opened, and Calvin’s face softened. She found herself looking at a frowning man, not much taller than she was, in a porkpie hat and in need of a shave, next to a curly-haired woman a couple of inches taller in a red and white polka dot dress. “About time,” the woman said. “That’s got to be the slowest elevator in the whole state.”

“Excuse me,” she said, and wheeled Calvin out into the corridor.

When the couple disappeared into the elevator, she stopped, and took a deep breath. And stared hard at her son.

But his face had reverted to its usual blank, not-quite-there expression, and his eyes did not meet hers.

In Dr. Strickland’s office, she introduced herself to the woman behind the window, who handed her a sheaf of forms on a clipboard. Gretchen took a seat and wheeled Calvin’s stroller up next to her. A young mother and a boy of about six were the only other people in the waiting room. A television in the corner showed some soap opera – they all seemed interchangeable to Gretchen, who didn’t watch them. The child alternately stared at her and bugged his mother; Gretchen tried her best to ignore them as she ran down the list of Calvin’s symptoms. Periodically she stole glances at her son. His mouth had gone slack again, and his dark eyes were distant, as they usually were. But he had said it, hadn’t he? He had uttered one whole, complete, grammatically intact sentence: “I missed you.” She had heard it, as clearly as she now heard the young nurse who opened a door and called her name: “Mrs. Addington? Right this way, please.”

The thin, blonde nurse was near her own age, and perky to the point of annoyance. Gretchen thought it a safe bet that she didn’t have kids. The woman showed them into a generic examining room. “And this must be Calvin,” the nurse said, leaning down into the stroller. “Hi, Calvin. My name is Louise. Can you say hi to me?”

Calvin waved a chubby hand in front of her face and gurgled.

“Close enough,” Louise said, and laughed. Gretchen didn’t know whether she wanted to smack her, or her son. Was it so hard for him to say “Hi” back? It was a simple word, one easy syllable, more an exhalation of breath than a real word, and hadn’t she just heard him speak an entire sentence?

“Dr. Strickland will be with you shortly,” Louise said, as she took something out of a drawer and removed its plastic wrapper. “In the meantime, let’s take some vitals and have a look. Can you get him up on the table for me, please?”

Gretchen hauled Calvin out of his stroller and helped him up. Louise had the thingy with the light to look into Calvin’s ears and eyes out already. Calvin squirmed and fidgeted – but what kid wouldn’t? Louise poked and prodded and listened and felt, stopping periodically to make a note. She asked Gretchen a couple of questions about his diet and sleeping habits. She also talked to Calvin, in the way that caregivers talk to very young children. Calvin gave no indication that he understood a thing she said. His only replies were unintelligible.

Finally Louise left the room, taking her paperwork with her. There was no place to sit save the one chair, and a round stool on wheels best kept away from Calvin. He began to fuss a few seconds after the nurse’s exit. Rather than lift him down off the table – for she would just have to lift him up again – Gretchen decided to sit up there with him. She put an arm around him and he leaned into her and relaxed. She looked searchingly into his uncomprehending face.

“Calvin,” she said. She thought his eyes focused on hers for a second; he knew his name, at least, though he did not always respond to it – not like Trey and Lily had at a similar age. “What did you mean when you said you missed me? I’m right here. I’ve always been here.”

Calvin looked past her and said nothing.

“I heard you say it,” she insisted. Still he showed no reaction.

She took one of his shoulders in each hand and turned him toward her. “Why won’t you talk?” she pleaded.

He screwed up his face like he was about to cry, and immediately she held him close against her chest. “Oh, it’s okay, sweetheart,” she said, feeling a bit like crying herself. “That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? To find out what’s wrong?” She held him for several minutes. Was she comforting him, or the other way around?

Doctor Stephen Strickland turned out to be a tall, easygoing man of about sixty who seemed to have a way with kids. Calvin didn’t fuss, but he didn’t exactly come out of his shell, either, and by the end of the appointment, Gretchen had no better idea of what was wrong and what course of action she should take than she had when they arrived. He asked her a lot of questions. She answered as well as she could.

When the doctor spoke directly to Calvin, he made a few facial expressions and sounds, but nothing resembling words. His eyes roamed the room, drawn by movement but not lingering long on anything.

“He doesn’t talk,” Gretchen said. “Not even Mama or Da-da. He’s twenty months old. That’s not normal, is it?”

“It’s late,” the doctor acknowledged. “But kids develop at different rates. There are walkers and there are talkers.”

“He’s not really walking, either,” Gretchen said. “He sort of stumbles around. And potty training – total failure.”

“There is no such thing as failure,” the doctor said – and he said it with such confidence that it cheered her up a little bit. But he wanted to see Calvin in another three months, to monitor his progress. He turned to go.

“Doctor,” she said, as he was about to exit, his hand on the doorknob. He turned back, and focused his kind blue eyes on her.

“I said he didn’t talk, but…”

“Yes?” the doctor said. He had other patients to see, she thought; surely this was foolishness. The whole appointment had been a waste of time. Calvin had done better than she had expected, but he was starting to fidget.

“Well, it’s just… When we were coming in here today – in the elevator, actually – I thought I heard him say something to me. I thought he said ‘I missed you’.”

The doctor frowned. “I missed you?”

“That’s what it sounded like.”

“But you said he doesn’t talk.”

“He doesn’t. He didn’t. It’s the first time I’ve heard him utter a word. I tried to get him to repeat it, but he won’t.”

“I missed you? Are you sure you heard it right?”

“Clear as a bell,” she said. “I know it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sometimes a kid’s first words don’t,” he said gently. “What starts out as a trickle turns into a torrent. I’ll see you in three months. Maybe he’ll be talking up a storm by then.”

She took heart at his words as she pushed Calvin’s stroller down the hall. He hadn’t disbelieved her. She wondered if she should tell Ted. He would probably take it as proof that he had been right all along, that Calvin was perfectly normal.

When she wheeled Calvin into the elevator, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he began screaming as soon as the door closed. Nothing she could do would shut him up. She flashed an apologetic look at the two women behind the reception desk on the first floor as she hustled him out of the building. He didn’t stop crying until she got him out the door and into his car seat.

He fell silent as she drove off the hospital grounds. By the time they were a mile out of Ellsworth, he was fast asleep.

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