Woman Not Coming Back
He’s sitting in the little red wagon, legs splayed out on the cushions, gripping his mantra tighter than the wagon’s peeling sides.
“Id okay,” my son whispers, more to himself than to me. “Id okay.”
Normally, this springtime walk home from preschool is filled with happy, half-intelligible chatter about Eli’s friends, his teachers, the songs they sang that day. But today, his voice is quavering, and I turn around to see the familiar neon green of the recycling truck. It grumbles in our direction, stops, and there is the loud clatter-crash of glass and metal—beer and wine bottles, cat food cans, pasta sauce jars tumbling into the truck’s open mouth. The noise makes Eli jump and grip the sides even tighter.
“Id okay id okay id okay,” he whispers like an incantation, his voice on the edge of breaking.
The truck starts up again, its air brakes emitting a half squeal, half belch, and this time Eli lets out a full-throated whimper.
Trucks identical to this one have appeared hundreds of times on these city blocks since Eli was born three years ago. But today, it’s as if a neon-green monster has invaded our neighborhood of century-old homes.
“Me cay-wee you! Me cay-wee you!”
Before I have time to stop the wagon, he is swinging his legs over the side.
“Eli, please don’t climb out.”
Another clatter-clash of breakables. Another blast of air brakes. Eli flinches.
“Me cay-wee you!” His voice is louder now, and quavering. He’s out of the wagon, his arms wrapped around my legs as if hugging me will save him. He refuses to walk on his own.
The recycling truck continues to shadow us, and I feel an irrational urge to throw something at it. Eli hugs my leg so hard it hurts. His brown eyes well up with tears. He will not go back in the wagon, so I hoist him on my hip, all thirty-two trembling pounds. I wrap one arm around his waist, pull the wagon with the other and hope my back will hold up for the next three blocks.
How do you move through life with a child who fears so much?
When he was not quite two, I enrolled my son in a tiny tot art class that lasted until the day he shrieked at the sight of modeling clay. It was muddy brown, the color of springtime puddles. But while the other toddlers happily poked and prodded their clay with sticks and fingers, Eli touched it once and decided that was enough. Was it the texture? The way it stuck, cold and clammy, to his little fingers? I could only guess, because he had no words to tell me, only shrieks that drew puzzled looks and lasted until I scooped him up and fled.
A few months later, Eli came to fear plants, indoor plants mostly, plants that sprawled out of large pots and lurked in dark corners. Big, bushy plants were the worst, making him cower or even shove me in front of him as a shield. He often refused to enter a room that harbored an especially large plant. And it seemed, for a while, that potted plants lurked everywhere. Coffeehouses. Atriums. Restaurants. The den of my parents’ home.
My husband, Andy, and I tried to humanize the plants, giving them easy-to-pronounce names like “Ben” or “Dan.” “Hi Dan,” we would say, waving, as we scurried by. “Leave us alone, Dan. Don’t bother us.” Eli would eye the plants warily, but usually followed our cue. Their hold over him shrank. Naming them somehow drained them of their power.
This most recent terror feels different. It feels grounded in something primal, rooted deep underground. I suspect that it’s less about the noise itself than the lingering threat of it, the chance of a sudden eruption coming from anywhere at any time—familiar sounds, but out of context. They are fire trucks emitting staccato siren bursts in the Grand Old Day parade, followed by revving motorcycles, a combination that made him shake and wail. They are dogs of any size with loud, yappy barks. They are neon-green recycling trucks. What he fears most is the possibility: the barking, the crashing, the not knowing. It’s the paranoia of tiptoeing through the haunted house at the fair, worried that any moment, a bloody ghoul could jump out of the shadows and grab you.
Eli’s ghouls are inside him, too. They choke off the words poised on his lips and twist them into odd, alien forms. “Two” becomes “koo.” “Read” becomes “weeg.” The sounds are foreign, untamable.
The official diagnosis is apraxia, and the problem lies somewhere in the signals zooming between the brain and mouth. Along the way, something misfires; the sounds get stuck. The boy knows the words he wants to say, but his tongue and lips can’t do the intricate dance required to say them. It will take years for him to learn the right steps.
“He has so much locked inside,” his speech therapist tells us. “So much he would say if only he could.”
It’s really no wonder Eli feels threatened by the objects and animals surrounding him. They, too, make sounds he can’t harness or tame.
When I was little, I had a similar, if not quite so wide-ranging, fear of loud noises. I hated fireworks and cap guns. I especially hated balloons. Those feather-light sound bombs struck me nearly speechless with fear, their skin stretched so taut it squeaked, as if aching to explode. It was not the balloon’s destruction that bothered me, but rather its potential for destruction, the hollow, unstable state that made it so ripe to explode. It would take so little—one ragged fingernail, the swipe of a cat’s paw, a clenching fist. I could not relax with a balloon in the room; I still can’t. It makes me itchy and short of breath, as if I have ants crawling up my arms.
One of my earliest memories is of a party I attended with my little sister—we must have been around 5 and 3—whose main attraction was a game of sitting on oversized balloons and popping them. How could anyone have conceived of something so sadistic, at a child’s birthday party, no less? Why not just invite us all to Superglu our mouths shut, or walk on a floor littered with thumb tacks?
That day, as my playmates gleefully began chasing down and smashing a colorful array of balloons, I ran. I fled to the far end of the house, red-faced with fear, fingers jammed in my ears, trying to put as much distance as I could between myself and the volley of explosions.
One day, our son began to fear sleep itself. How was this even possible? If Eli rolled over late, crawled late, walked late, potty trained late and had trouble getting words out, at least we were secure in the knowledge that our little boy would always sleep like a superhero. As a baby, we would place him in his bassinet, switch off the light, and turn on the monitor, knowing that we wouldn’t hear another peep until he woke up hungry in the early morning. Once he stopped nursing, he could easily sleep for ten, eleven, sometimes twelve hours at a stretch. He looked forward to his daily naptimes as much as I did, perhaps more, and always woke up happy.
He loved being in bed, loved sleeping, and we loved that he loved it. Until the day he hated it.
One afternoon shortly after Eli turned three, I closed the book we were reading and stood up to leave. He climbed out of bed after me. “No nap,” he said. “Nah wite now.” Not right now.
“Time for your nap,” I warbled sweetly as I closed his door. “I love you!”
The doorknob jiggled soon after that; then came his wails of protest. His crying had a different sound, urgent and fearful. But I convinced myself that he was simply over-tired and would soon cry himself to sleep.
He didn’t sleep, though—that day or the days that followed. He cried until I retrieved him. This went on until I finally gave up, figuring that if he no longer slept during the day at least he would be exhausted by evening. But soon he began to fight bedtime as well.
“Weed anudah book!” he would cry, bolting up anxiously after I had already spent twenty minutes reading nursery rhymes to him. “Weed a BIG one!”
He stalled. He dragged out his bedtime routine as long as possible. Like a drug addict desperate for his next fix, he would say anything to get me to stay. He used to let me stroke his cheek through the bed rails as I sang Doe a Deer to him, before curling up happily and watching me go; now, as soon as I stopped singing, his eyes grew round as lanterns. “Ing Go a Ghee AGAIN!” he would cry. I would gently decline and close the door. Then came the wails.
Downstairs, I sat stiffly beside Andy and gritted my teeth. I punched the pillows of the couch. We knew that if one of us went upstairs, Eli would beg for another song. He would always want more.
After a minute or so of quiet, the wails started up again, as we knew they would. I swore. Then I announced that I was heading back up.
Andy grabbed my wrist. “Don’t,” he said. “He’ll stop when he knows we’re staying put.”
We thought he would snap out of it. We were wrong. Night after night, Eli begged us to stay. Sometimes we left the door open. Sometimes I sat out in the hallway. He still cried. Even after he cried himself to sleep, he woke up screaming three or four times a night. Sometimes Andy or I brought a pillow and sheet in and slept beside him. Other nights, one of us sat in the rocking chair and waited for his steady breathing. Our son became so sleep-deprived he began stumbling over his own feet. He became a constant whining machine. I was so tired I constantly fought the urge to yell.
We no longer recognized ourselves.
It was bedtime again, and this night Andy was in charge. When he stood up to leave, Eli pointed to his bedroom window and whimpered slightly. “Who-man in win-goh.”
“Did you see a woman?” Andy asked.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“Bad dweam.” Another nod.
When Andy later relayed the exchange to me, my initial thought was, who? Who did Eli see, or imagine? But then it hit me: Eli had words! He finally had the power to name his monsters, the things he feared most.
“We need to tell that woman to stay away,” I said the next afternoon, sitting beside Eli in bed. I squinched up my eyes, jabbed my finger at the window, and shouted: “WOMAN STAY AWAY!”
Eli giggled. “Who-man KAY a-WAY!!” he parroted, thinking out each sound. Then we chanted the words together, slowly, one final time.
“Well, that took care of it,” I told him. “She’s not coming back now.”
“Who-man NAH coming back!” Eli said, smiling.
Eli still woke up crying for the next few weeks, but usually calmed down after a quick song and pat on the head. And soon enough, he resumed his nap routine, putting his head down provided I left his door wide open. His desperate pleas to keep us in the room receded, as long as we kept telling the scary woman to stay away.
The woman has mostly kept her distance since then, although she does haunt Eli’s thoughts occasionally. Those are the times he will declare, mostly to himself: “Who-man NAH coming back!”
Words as incantation, as encasement.
“Who-man NAH coming back!”
They spill hard from his lips. He reaches out, fingers them like pearls.