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My son James has moved back home, for the second time. He's 26 years old and quiet. He eats dinner without a word, then rises to put his dishes in the dishwasher.
"Don't bother putting them in there," I shout from the dining room. "The dishwasher's broken and we can't fix it."
"Well, what are we supposed to do with the dirty dishes?" he asks. As he does, I count his words; 11 in a row. That's a long sentence for him.
"We're washing them by hand, you and me," I answer.
"You've got to be kidding," he says.
"Well, until we get a new dishwasher that's what we're doing," I reply while silently praying that we get a new one as soon as possible. "I'll wash, you dry."
James rolls his eyes and shakes his head as I hand him a tea towel.
"This is stupid," he says.
I'm annoyed, too. I certainly don't want to wash dishes by hand, especially not on nights when we have a gang of people over or when dirty dishes are everywhere, as they currently are. For now, however, I pull on my gloves, scrape the plates, rinse them and put them in the sink filled with hot soapy water. I wash; James dries and wordlessly puts things away. I like the teamwork. I don't like the silence.
James has always been quiet. When he was 18 months old, he had only three words: mama, dada and ball. He has two older, chatty brothers. People used to say James just couldn't get a word in edgewise, but I always knew it was more than that.
At 10 days of age we learned something was seriously wrong with the left frontal area of his brain. He had seizures every day and a right-sided hemiparesis or weakness. At age two, he finally had an appointment with a speech pathologist at our local hospital. It didn't go well.
"I don't think James will ever be able to talk," the blunt speech pathologist said moments after testing him. She denied him services, saying that their budget was only for children who had the ability to speak.
"Trust me; he's going to talk," I said, glaring at her as I scooped my baby in my arms and fled from that hospital. I had to carry him, because at two he also couldn't walk.
Her words cut me to the core. I've always been a chatty, gregarious extrovert. How was it possible that my child would never talk? We enrolled in programs for children with language delays immediately, and for years I took James for speech and language therapy. Slowly, very slowly, he did learn to talk, but it was recommended he also be trained in sign language.
The first word he signed was "more," as in "more food please." Signing helped his speech. By the time he was four, he could say 106 words, but he had no verbs, no connecting words and no words about time. His greatest collection of words, 17, was about food – not surprising for a boy whose passion was eating.
I'm reminded of those long-ago days now as the silence extends between us in the kitchen. Unless I talk, the only sounds are running water as I rinse the dishes and clanking cupboard doors as James puts them away.
At 5 foot 11, James is now six inches taller than me. He has dark brown hair; big, expressive brown eyes, a mustache and eight tattoos – which I hate – covering his muscular arms. He's handsome, but he doesn't think so. I try to engage him in conversation by telling him I'm surprised by how many dishes we have accumulated over breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"We'll never be finished," he says.
I tell him about the summers of 1972 and 1973, when my friend Christine and I loved working as dishwashers at a girls' camp in Algonquin Park.
"You actually liked washing dishes?" James asks.
In reality, I say, we didn't like dish washing. We hated scraping dirty dishes. We hated burning our hands in hot water. We hated packing dishes in the dishwasher. What we loved, actually, was that when we were finished we could swim, sunbathe or canoe to the boys' camp nearby.
"Wait a minute," James says. "You mean even back then you had a dishwasher, and more than 40 years later we're washing dishes by hand?"
He had a point, but what really impressed me was that he'd just said 23 words in a row and asked me a question.
Dinner after dinner this became our routine; James and I washing dishes and little by little he was conversing. Nothing deep, but talking just the same.
On nights when he reverted to being quiet, I would purposely not clean a plate properly. That always got him talking.
"This is gross, Mom," he would say before taking the plate out of the rack and putting it back in the water. "Look at the guck you've left on here. And you call yourself a dishwasher?"
It is now seven months since my son came home, and seven months since the dishwasher has been broken. He isn't talking a lot, but as long as we're doing the dishes he talks more than he ever used to. I have decided I won't be buying a new dishwasher any time soon. But those are 13 words he'll never hear from my mouth.
Nancy Figueroa lives in Toronto.