Everyone has tells. You know, like in poker: when Lenny’s holding a trump card, his nose begins to twitch. Or when Slim’s about to bluff, he starts tapping his foot ever so slightly. When my kids are feeling things, I can tell by the signs: when one of them is hungry and doesn’t even know it, I can literally see it in her face. When one of them is worried and stressed, his voice gets quiet and his mouth tugs down at the corners when he talks. And when the complicated person who is my third child is triggered, he exemplifies a wide assortment of mannerisms and behaviors, some more telltale than others. Recently, his process of learning to read has leveled up in a significant way, and the difficulties he has with attention and focus have become exacerbated by all of the words in the world that surrounds him. During his piano lesson this week, he couldn’t listen to his teacher’s questions because he was sounding out the syllables of the words on the pages of his music book. Halfway through undressing at bedtime, he’ll get derailed for minutes on end by the spines of the books on his shelves. It’s both a beautiful thing to witness and a frustrating stage of life; on one hand, I’m amazed by his impressive language decoding skills, but on the other, it’s a struggle to summon the amounts of patience required by the constant interruptions of executive functioning presented by this process. I know it will get easier once his reading fluency increases, but this middle place is as much magical as it is exhausting.
Now that he’s begun to read, a new trigger-tell has emerged for him, and it’s one that both delights and troubles me because I recognize it in myself. Part of parenting this child that is heartbreaking is how frequently I see my genetic responsibility come to bear in how his mind works, and I know how hard that can make life feel. Our similarities are as striking as our differences, but not a day passes that I’m not taken aback by feeling the uncommon kind of kinship that can only be found in such a like mind. I can only imagine how this will develop as he ages, considering that the boy is only six, and I hope the onus of possessing this kind of hive of a mind serves to help instead of hinder him. This new trigger-tell, the one that’s mine too, is that when he’s feeling anxious or overwhelmed, he takes a word into his brain and reverses the letters. In the car on the way home from school the first day after the holiday week off, he announced, seemingly out of the blue, that “Gulotta” (his last name) spelled backwards is “Attolug”. Everyone in the car found this hilarious, myself included, but it also raised that scarlet flag to full mast for me because I do this too. When things are out of balance within, my brain will go to this same place, imposing a sense of control by creating new meaning out of what’s already there, just turning it inside out. I don’t do it purposefully, but I realize that when it happens it’s because I’m feeling disordered, and perhaps focusing on metathesizing the letters in words is a way my brain self-regulates as a kind of coping mechanism.
I’ve never shared this with anyone because it’s never seemed relevant, but when a person becomes a parent, apparently, so much becomes relevant that wasn’t before. The kids know I frequently spell words backwards, just as Arlo is beginning to do, but we haven’t discussed my suspicions about why I do this. Once in a while I’ll share with them a particularly interesting or funny backwards spelling, and the most family-famous example of this happened while we were waiting for the kids to get their first Covid vaccine last month. Arlo, being a very sensory-special kid, was extremely anxious and had been preoccupied by the anticipation of this experience for as long as he’d known it was happening. I’d managed to get him and the other two kids into the pharmacy without event, but as the minutes drew closer and closer to that needle, Arlo became more and more upset. Of course, the effect this had on his mother was an uptick in anxiety, a feeling we all know even though sometimes we don’t know we’re feeling it. There we were in Walgreen’s, waiting for the kids’ turn to head into the room while Arlo tried to tie his body in knots around the arm of the red chair he was occupying, and my brain went to the place of walking backwards through words. “Hey, guys,” I said, thinking it might lighten the mood, “You know what ‘Walgreen’s’ spelled backwards is?” They all just kind of looked at me. “What?” asked my middle child, the one who’d be least likely to play alphabet games to quell uncomfortable feelings. “S’neerglaw!” I said in my most ominously witchy voice. “Wouldn’t that make a great name for a supervillain? Like, ‘Beware the clutches of evil S’neerglaw, a threat to the universe, whose power grows with every hour!'”
All three laughed, even though one of them had both arms and legs now fully entwined in the chair. Then the pharmacist called “Gulotta”, and it was time for me to channel all the force of a supervillain to wrest my child out of that chair and into the hotseat. Now that I think about it, “Attolug” would be a great name for one of S’neerglaw’s henchman. This, no doubt, will be the topic of discussion this afternoon while they wait for their second dose of science, after which we’ll head to Wegman’s to pick up lobsters as a reward for Arlo (his interest is anatomical rather than gustatory, but it feels like the right idea for a special-occasion-such-as-this dinner). While we’re there, will I mention that “S’namgew” is the reverse of “Wegman’s? Only if no one else does first.