When Words Come Up Short
It is fair to say that I have been interested in language and usage from an early age. When I was two years old, I added emphasis to all of my stubborn declarations by putting “either” at the end of a sentence, even if I was not asked an either-or question. I’m told conversations proceeded like this:
Mom: Katie, it’s time to put on your coat. It’s chilly outside.
Me: I don’t want to wear that either!
Looking back on it, I can see that I was searching for a word or phrase to embody all the two-year-old angst and frustration I was feeling, so I landed at “either,” but that word just doesn’t fit. What I wanted to express and the means with which I tried to express it did not translate. Language let me down, but I stayed interested in language. As I moved through high school, I came quite close to having a certain reverence for language and literature. There was such beauty in the works of Homer and Hawthorne; they seemed to harness and express some knowledge about the world that I hoped I could just come close to understanding. This is why I became an English teacher. But in the past five years of college and teaching, some revelation has performed a dramatic coup, overthrowing the power that words, definitions, punctuation marks, structure and overall linguistic rules have had on my life. I now believe that there are times when words simply fall short.
My little friend Noah has managed to teach me about the gap between words and meaning—more so than any college class or classic author. Six years ago, I met Noah, as he is the son of my husband’s best friend. The first time I saw Noah the then eighteen-month old, he had just woken up from a nap and was thoroughly entranced by his Richard Scary video as he transitioned into wakefulness. Too young to speak, his huge eyes seemed to try and communicate to my husband, his dad, and me.
I remember that winter that Noah was such a showman, as he loved listening to music. My husband would play the guitar, and Noah danced around the room, spurred on by the chorus of, “Yay, Noah!” and the round of applause. Our friend Joel would catch the boy’s attention and sing a note. Wouldn’t you know little Noah would harmonize with him. We all couldn’t wait to hear what his tiny voice would sound like, what he would ask, what he would sing. Despite his liveliness and energy, Noah remained relatively silent. His second birthday came and went, as well as the third, but no words came. Within time, the doctors confirmed what we all suspected but never wanted to accept: Noah is autistic.
It was in the time I spent playing with Noah that I saw words breaking down and losing their significance. He showed love as he hugged us and kissed us, without having to say, “I love you.” His anguished and frustrated cries let us know he was upset. My favorite moments, however, were when he was laughing. Noah still loved to clap and dance to music with my husband and me. His giggle was so infectious that we would chuckle too, and he would only laugh harder. At these moments, his face lit up with absolute joy and happiness—a kind that seems too pure to capture in a word or description. Happiness, elation, delight, bliss: they all approach but none of those words really express what I saw sparkling in Noah’s face and in his laugh. When watching Noah laugh, he conveyed to me more than the grandest of Keats’s odes, more than Shakespeare’s finest scenes. Noah taught me that sometimes words fail in communicating real meaning, and I have come to accept that. In the end, I still believe in the power of language, but I also believe in the more dominant power of human experience. And as I think of Noah now, words just aren’t translating what he has done for me.