For My Nonverbal Verbal Friend

[I have a friend who is partially verbal.  She can speak at certain times, on certain occasions, on certain topics, to certain people.  The rest of the time she types, or does other things.  But she is so much like me, and her speech strikes me as so disconnected from who she is, that her voice startles me every time I hear it.  I wrote this poem about my confusion, about how my instincts tell me she’s fully nonverbal and my brain goes WTF if I hear her voice.  As with other poems, even if it’s about one person, I’m sure there’s lots of others who can relate to it.]

When I hear your voice
It startles me
It’s a voice coming out of someone
Who was never meant
To communicate by speech

It’s a voice that sounds so distant
That I know you are at the back
Of a long tunnel

The machine that makes your words
Doesn’t always bother
To connect them to your thoughts

And I hear the distance
I hear the echoes made by the cave walls
At the end of the tunnel
I hear the echoes in your mind
I hear the echoes of books
The echoes of people
The echoes of echoes of echoes
That have formed the falsehood
That is your speech

Your speech is an elaborate lie
It’s a con job your brain pulled on you
When you were too young to resist
Your speech tells others,
“I am one of the worthy ones.”
Your speech rips your brain apart
But nobody notices but me

Mary Margaret would call you
One of the silent ones, now given a voice
And you are one of the silent ones, like me
It’s just nobody can see it
Because nobody understands what it means
When they hear words come out
Of a mouth that should never have been used

But I know what it means
Oh I know what it means
And my heart aches

I know it means endless hours of repetition
I know it means chewing up books
And vomiting them up
While nobody realizes
You’re not talking, you’re being sick!
The bile hurts your throat
But you do it anyway
You have no choice

I know it means a feeling in your brain
As if your brain is about to shatter
I know it means losing everything meaningful
About the way you perceive the world
As every ounce of energy
Is diverted to making mouth sounds

I know it means terrible pain
And never enough payback
To make it worth your while

I know it means fear — sometimes terror
Of what would happen to you
If you stopped talking
The way your brain aches to do
Every time you open your mouth

I know it means that you don’t type
As often as you should
For fear of social consequences
For fear of being accused of faking
For fear of being taken advantage of
For fear of getting hurt in a million ways

When I talk to you
We communicate as naturally as we can
As much like we were born to

We type, but we use the words
Like a carrier wave for something deeper
We never speak except to make emotion sounds
Our fingers flicker at each other
In our own private language
That our bodies made up between each other
On the spot
Every time

I sometimes get inside your head
See the world through your eyes
As you look out at me
And I see myself through your eyes
Looking back at me
With your eyes behind mine
And my eyes behind yours
That is how intimate we are

You can’t be verbal
It doesn’t make sense
Even when you speak
You don’t sound verbal

And you know all the secrets
That nonverbal people learn
To communicate
When we can’t speak

There’s more than one way
To be nonverbal

You strike me as nonverbal
Because your problems with speech
Prevented you from communicating well
Even when you can talk

And to me, what matters is not
What sounds you can make
Coming out of your mouth
Like a dog-and-pony show
For everyone to see

What matters is:
Can you communicate your thoughts?
Can you do so with any consistency?
Can you communicate about things
Beyond superficial descriptions of events?

If you can’t do those things
I have a hard time calling you verbal
I know I’m supposed to
I know it’s supposed to just be a word count
But a word count is just quantity
Whether you’re verbal or not
That’s quality

And
Your
Speech
Lacks
Quality

In too many ways to count:

Your voice is so distant
It sounds like you’re in a cave
Your words only attach to your thoughts
By random chance
And by three decades of nonstop effort
To mold your brain into shapes
It was never meant to take
One minor setback
Can make the whole thing collapse

And people would be so surprised
Because they don’t see
That you were never meant to be verbal
Which means they are surprised
When you don’t speak
And I am surprised — so surprised! —
When you do

You have pieces of fabric
That have been stitched together
The wrong way around
And people only see
That the fabric exists
They don’t see it going
Against the grain

But you know the things
That only nonverbal people know
You know how to communicate
Without the use of words or gestures
You know how to tell
When someone else is doing the same
Your tongue may sometimes be verbal
But your brain is not

So every time you utter words from your mouth
I am shocked and surprised
Every time
Without fail

Because everything else about you
Says this shouldn’t be possible
Everything else about you
Says your speech is a mirage
Water painted on the road
That disappears
When you get close
Or try to touch it

But you can communicate
From the depths of your soul
Without making a sound
And that is where
The real water
Can be found
Clear and deep

So I will stare into the depths
Of that clear and deep water
And I will refuse to countenance
Any mirages that come by
Claiming you are verbal —
I know you better than that

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