My Daughter Doesn't Need To Talk For Me To Know Her
I will never know what her voice sounds like, but I know her deeply.
When I was pregnant with my first child, a much-wanted daughter, I loved stopping to speak with strangers who had questions about my growing belly. “She is due in July,” I repeated often, “We are naming her after my Grandmother Claire.” Sometimes these strangers, in a supermarket or coffee shop, wanted to talk more. The parents among them would often respond by telling me how much I would love Claire, how my heart would melt the first time she called me Mommy or told me she loved me.
I looked forward to snuggling my newborn, but more often daydreamed about getting to know the little girl growing inside of me. I imagined the conversations we would have as she grew. Silly talks at first while she was a toddler still learning to speak, gradually growing into heart-to-heart conversations about the best, and hardest, parts of life. This, of course, is how I would get to truly know and understand my daughter, and how I would help her navigate life.
Then Claire was born, beautiful and perfect, and with multiple disabilities and complex medical needs. Her heart is in the middle of her chest, part of her brain is missing, and her muscle tone is very low, making it hard for her to walk. She has epilepsy and asthma. We also knew, very early on, that Claire would not be verbal, that she would never be able to use her voice to speak.
I grieved this loss, wondering how I would ever get to know my child. Would my firstborn always remain a mystery to me? Would she remain locked, forever, in her own brain unable to tell me what she needed, who she was?
Since she was a newborn, I’ve watched Claire react, over and over again, to the world around her. Even as a toddler, Claire responded frequently and forcefully — she was a complete part of the world, not a mere bystander. She laughed at cartoons with dogs, she cried when someone wore a hat she didn’t like. She reached for bread and cookies with fierce determination. When she was a preschooler, she studied books with pictures of Barbies and drawings of trees with serious concentration. She smiled at people she liked and blew them kisses.
Claire may not speak, but I’ve realized that doesn’t matter. I know her anyway — I’ve always known her. I knew from her earliest days what she liked and what she hated. I knew her favorite clothes, the ones she always reaches for in her closet. As she has grown, we have cobbled together a communication system that works for us.
Claire is now 17 and confidently points to things she wants. She opens the freezer door when she is in the mood for ice cream, which is often. Now a teenager with just as many opinions as any kid, Claire will point at my shoes and grumble if she disapproves of my choice of footwear. We have developed a complex communication system using basic sign language, pictures, pointing, and noises. I can read Claire’s expressions effortlessly.
A small upturn of her lips shows me she understood a joke. The slight tilt of her head to one side, almost imperceptible to anyone else, means she is tired. When she sticks her arms out to the side, an imitation of putting on a coat, I know she is getting bored and wants to leave the house. This happens often. She shares her mother’s love of being around people and having new experiences, as often as possible. When Claire reaches for me, to pull me in for a hug, in her gesture, I hear her saying “I love you, Mom. I know you and I know you love me too.”
I will never know what her voice sounds like, but I know her deeply. A person with thoughts and desires they cannot express with words is no less of a complex, lovable being. I can tell you Claire’s favorite foods, the television shows she likes the most, her favorite color, and that she will never willingly see a superhero movie. I know the friends she prefers at school, the amusement park rides she finds most thrilling, and her favorite places to go on walks around the neighborhood. I know what she finds distressing and when she needs time to be alone, just as we all do from time to time.
Sometimes, I think, talking is overrated. There are so many other, wonderful, ways to communicate if you just look for them.
Because of Claire, I am better able to read the emotions of her younger siblings. I can read my eight-year-old son’s emotions by the strength of the sparkle in his eye, a skill I fine-tuned with Claire. When others complain about a child who is acting out in a classroom at school, I patiently explain that the child is having a hard time and probably doesn’t have the words to explain what they need.
Because of Claire, I understand the importance of smiling at others when it looks like they are having a bad day, how this smile can convey, wordlessly, I see you and I want you to know I care.
Because of Claire, I know that the often-repeated phrase “use your words,” isn’t necessary, that there are so many other ways to know a person. Claire has taught me to be kind always, to be patient, that everyone has a story. She taught me that everyone is capable of love, and is worthy of love, even if they don’t (or can’t) use words to tell you who they are, how they feel, or what they are thinking.
Jamie Davis Smith is a mother of four in Washington, DC. She is an attorney and explorer who always has a bag packed. Jamie has written for Travel & Leisure, USA Today, the Washington Post, Fodor's Travel, Viator, Yahoo, the Huffington Post, Romper, Tinybeans, Insider, The Expedition, and Reviewed among many other publications.