I stood out of the way in the tack room as Grandpa raised two fingers to his mouth and forced air through the small crack between them. I winced at the volume of his whistle and then watched the horses come running in, the rumbling of their hooves shaking the ground. These were two of the loudest noises I had ever heard.
Then Grandpa had a stroke that paralyzed his left side. Months of therapy brought some movement back to his arm and leg. The physical therapist told him to talk to his limbs when they weren’t cooperating. He’d command, “Move, foot! Move!” but it fought him for every step.
Then he got cancer. After several months in the hospital Grandpa’s body betrayed him completely. He couldn’t get out of bed, and the tumors were causing him to lose his voice. It took all his strength to speak a few words. I held his hand, put my face close to his, and told him that I loved him and would see him the next time I visited.
“Love you too,” he whispered. I had never heard him speak so quietly. Three hours later he died.
As I was approaching my thirteenth birthday and bat mitzvah, I began whispering my most private feelings into a tape recorder.
I would slide aside one of the doors to my bedroom closet, push my shoes out of the way, and sit on the floor. Then I’d press the RECORD button and quietly unleash all my anguish.
“I hate U.J.,” I’d hiss. “It is so gross the way he talks while he eats. Food-spit gets everywhere! Why does he have to be here all the time?”
“U.J.” stood for Uncle Jerry, who was not my uncle at all. Before my parents’ divorce he’d been my father’s best friend. That’s how I’d come to call him “Uncle.” His wife, “Aunt Diane,” was now his ex. I never saw her anymore. For the past two years Jerry had been my mother’s boyfriend. They never came right out and said they were a couple. Jerry was just at our house all the time, and my mother glowed in a way I’d never seen.
He didn’t sleep over, but when we rode in his brown Datsun hatchback, my mother caressed Jerry’s stick-shift hand and ran her fingers through his hair. And she whispered to him on the phone at night while she twirled her hair absentmindedly in the kitchen — a sexy whispering that made me want to run to my closet to quietly document this injustice.
Then one day I had to out myself: I had accidentally recorded over the tape of my father chanting my bat mitzvah Torah portion. A cantor, he’d made the tape for me to study from, as he did for all the thirteen-year-olds. I didn’t have my part memorized yet. I’d have to tell him what had happened.
In hindsight I suppose I could have just said that I’d recorded over it and refrained from mentioning with what. But I came clean. All those hours of whispering in my closet weren’t really helping anyway.
Rosendale, New York
“What’s up, baby girl?”
My hands are sweating, and my eyes water, but not because I’m crying. My muscles ache. My nose is running. Everything is very loud, very bright.
“Hold on,” I say into the phone, my voice low. I make this call every day, to this man or another just like him.
I peek into the bedroom and see my husband’s feet hanging off the edge of our bed. His breathing is steady. I slip smoothly out the back door.
“Hello? You there? I ain’t got all day.”
“Sorry, yeah.” I stand in our tiny backyard, in the corner farthest from the house, barefoot in knee-high weeds and grass. Scrap metal. Banana trees. Cat’s-claw vines. I’m scared of stepping on fire ants.
“Are you around?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m around. What you need? You want me to come by?”
“No!” I look anxiously at the back door, then bite my nail. I’m like a nervous rodent. “No,” I say, softer now. “Not today. He’s home today.”
We arrange to meet around the corner in five minutes.
“Hey, look,” I say before hanging up. “I need you to front me a twenty bag. Just for an hour. I just need to go grab my money from work.” A lie. “I’m too sick to go anywhere.” This last part is true.
Silence. Then, “Psshh. Girl, you killing me. OK, just a twenty. You pay me back today.”
“Thanks. Thank you so much.” I’ve fallen in love with this man. I go back inside to put some shoes on.
It’s heroin. Again. Friends, parents, the love of my life — they all think it’s a part of my past. They applaud my strength, my courage. I was clean for about a year and a half. Long enough to meet a kind, good man. Long enough to earn his trust. Now it’s been two years of hiding places, excuses, whispering, and lies, so many lies, most of them to myself.
“Where are you going?”
It’s my husband, angel faced and sleepy eyed. The jingle of my keys has woken him. I’m still in pajama pants and a tank top with no bra, but I’ve pulled on a pair of cowboy boots and hidden my eyes behind dark sunglasses.
“Breakfast,” I say. “Shhh. I’ll be back in a sec.”
“OK, babe. Gimme a kiss.”
I cringe inwardly. I am a rat in a bassinet. I lean over and give him a peck on the cheek.
He wraps his arm around me playfully, drawing me back into bed. For a second I almost give in. Then my insides cramp, and I pull away.
“I won’t be gone long.”
And I leave him again for the man on the corner.
My sister recently came for a visit before leaving on a two-month trip to Israel and France. On the morning of her departure my husband, my daughter, and I listened to her talk about her plans over breakfast. She said that Israel had some of the leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
My daughter whispered something to my husband, who smiled.
My sister went silent. Then she said that it really bothered her when people whispered. It made her think they were talking about her. And she’d noticed that my daughter did it a lot. “It’s really upsetting to me,” she said.
My daughter looked from her father to me for a clue as to what was wrong. Finally my husband revealed what our daughter had whispered: “Dad, what are sea squirrels?”
I grew up in San José, Costa Rica, and when I was nine, I went to an English-speaking school for the first time. One day at recess, while the other children were playing volleyball and Red Rover, Mary, Linda, and I squatted in the bushes at the side of the large schoolyard. We waited for Annie, who had promised to teach us a new English word. We weren’t sure what word it would be, only that it had something to do with sex, which we were just on the brink of understanding.
Annie scurried over, and the rest of us made room for her in the bushes. “I have the word!” she whispered. “I got it from my brother.”
We asked what it was.
“Fuck!” she whispered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” We all tried it out, rolling the syllable around on our tongues, saying it in different ways, not knowing what to do with it exactly but thrilled to possess a word that held so much power. We didn’t even have to say it. When we saw each other in class or in the halls, our eyes would twinkle, and we would smile.
When I was a little girl, I would crouch at the top of the stairs and eavesdrop on my parents’ hushed arguments. Every time I heard the word she, I was positive they were talking about me, their only child.
At school, when the other students whispered behind their hands, I jumped to the conclusion that they, too, were talking about me. If they glanced in my direction, I would hurriedly look down.
Later in life I began hearing people whispering about me even when I was alone. I swore I heard distant voices criticizing my every move, and another voice that told me it was all a hoax and not to believe what the “others” were saying.
I still hear them. It’s a full-time job trying to distinguish among three separate voices: my own inner thoughts, the real speech of other people, and the voices of the hallucinations. I cannot tell you how I keep them all straight, but most of the time I can.
At first the medications gave me a reprieve for months at a time. But now the meds are ineffective, and the voices have returned, more insistent. Overwhelmed, I ask my doctor, “How bad is it going to get?” He tells me he doesn’t know, that schizophrenia varies from individual to individual.
I hang on tight and pray that the voices will go away, that the meds will help me function. I savor each symptom-free day as if it were my last.
It was mid-January, and I was narrowly avoiding hypothermia as I waited at the end of my driveway for the bus to take me to sixth grade. When it pulled up, I climbed the steps and made my way to the back.
“His mom is a lesbo,” someone whispered.
What? Whose mom was? Lesbians were not a common topic of conversation in sixth grade. I saw Craig huddled up close to Jenny, whispering into her ear. They giggled as I passed.
I took a seat, and as I was regaining feeling in my fingers and toes, I heard a girl whisper about someone’s mom being gay. I peeked over the seat to see Becky and Stephanie, who were always gossiping. Who was their target today? I wished I knew what a lesbian was exactly. Just a girl who liked another girl, right?
That afternoon on the bus ride home, my best friend, Brian, told me: they were talking about my mom.
I explained that she wasn’t a lesbian. Her friend Angie lived with us, but they didn’t like each other that way.
“Don’t they share a bedroom?” Brian asked.
“Well, yeah, but —”
And they both had those rainbow stickers on their cars, he pointed out. Those were “gay-pride stickers.”
So. I was being raised by lesbians — and everyone knew it but me. But Mom and Angie both loved me and took good care of me. They helped me with my schoolwork and encouraged me in sports.
Brian told me not to worry about what other people said. Their parents weren’t perfect: Mike’s mom was a total bitch. Becky’s mom was sleeping with Mr. Thompson. Craig’s dad spanked him all the time. “I’d rather have a lesbian mom,” he said.
“But why didn’t they tell me?” I asked.
For years I was angry at my mother — not for being gay but for making me have to learn about it on the bus. It took my having my own child and making a few mistakes myself to help me realize that my mother may not have been perfect, but her love for me was never in question.
I awoke to broad daylight, an odd sensation in Sierra Leone, where our days began at dawn. I had been there for months as a Peace Corps volunteer, but then I’d fallen ill. The mosquito net over my bed swayed gently in a breeze coming through the window. I turned my head to look at the straight-backed wooden chair. The last time I’d been awake, a thin old woman I didn’t recognize had sat there. Each time I had come to, convinced I was dying, she’d leaned over to spoon a foul-tasting brown liquid into my mouth and whispered into my ear something that sounded like “Ta dahi bahn.” I couldn’t translate, because I did not speak Limba. Today she was gone, and my fever had broken.
Malaria takes its time ravaging the body while toying with the patient’s sanity. I remembered watching the ceiling tear open during an earthquake, but now there wasn’t even a crack, just two geckos copulating directly above my head.
I sat up, wiggled my feet into flip-flops, and slowly walked out of my mud-and-cement house into the afternoon light. My Sierra Leonean friend Wenday sat in one of the sling chairs by the door. She smiled. “We were worried about you,” she said in Krio. I sat down in the other chair and asked her how long I had been sick. A long time, she said.
Then she said that the mosquitoes would come soon. She placed a shawl over my chest and belly, tucking it in for me. “I have to go home.”
“Wenday, who was that woman by my bed all the time?” I asked. “And what was she giving me to drink?”
Wenday gave me a blank look. “There has been no one but me and Sorie,” she said, referring to my friend and local counterpart in the agriculture project I was supporting. She touched my hand and left.
I sat on the porch drinking in the air as the sun went down.
Then Sorie came to visit. He leapt onto the porch and gave me a hug.
“Thank you for coming to see me when I was out of it,” I told him. “But, Sorie, every time I woke up there was an old woman — a really old woman — sitting in my room.” I explained how she would spoon something into my mouth whenever I woke up. “Do you know who it was?”
“I don’t know,” Sorie said. “Your mind can play tricks when you are suffering from malaria. You can imagine things.”
“I wasn’t imagining it.”
The top of the moon appeared from behind the hill. We watched in silence as it rose, and then we heard drums in the distance. “She would lean over close,” I said, “and whisper something like ‘Ta dahi bahn.’ ”
Sorie visibly tensed, and his eyes locked on mine. “She is a witch. She told you, ‘I am making you well.’ And she did. You, my friend, are a very lucky woman.”
If I report for a nursing shift at the birthing center and find a small black circle next to my patient’s name, I know it’s going to be a hard night. The black circle denotes “fetal demise,” meaning the laboring woman is going to give birth to a baby who has already died.
A stillbirth is not something people want to talk about, ever. When they must speak of it, they do so in whispers.
I’ve attended many such deliveries. As I receive the tiny, limp, delicate infant, my mind goes numb. I carefully follow the prescribed routine: weigh, measure, make footprints, bathe the body as best I can. The silence is eerie, since newborns cry loudly. Whispering words of reassurance to the lifeless infant, I try my best to be gentle. Still the macerated skin often comes apart as I dress and wrap her in a blanket and dutifully photograph her and snip a lock of hair for the keepsake kit.
Finally I relinquish the bundle to the tearful parents. “Take all the time you need,” I say.
More than once, as I’ve turned to leave, I’ve heard a whisper behind me: “My baby . . .”
On July 20, 1969, while the rest of the country sat transfixed by the fuzzy image of men walking on the moon, I woke to my sister’s screams: “They’re taking Mother to jail!”
People screaming and going to jail were hardly unusual events in our family. Still, my six-year-old mind struggled to understand what had happened: There had been a fight with the neighbors across the street. The racial tensions that had been mounting for years between our two families had finally erupted into violence. My mother had shot three of the neighbors.
Thankfully no one had been killed, but the incident changed our family forever. Even after my mother had served her sentence, there was a long civil suit that cost my parents everything, including our home. The news was in the papers for months, including a photo of me in my mother’s lap in the courtroom. I endured cruel taunts on the playground from my classmates: “Don’t play with her, or her mom will shoot you!” The first-grade teachers merely whispered and exchanged glances, assuming I wouldn’t notice.
But I took solace in a secret friendship I shared with the “enemy” family’s youngest son. He and I were in the same class, and whenever we found ourselves alone in the coat room, we had whispered conversations. We both sensed that our friendship was taboo because our families were at war. I relished those private moments. They made me feel powerful at a time when my life seemed to be coming apart.
In 1936 my Jewish family moved to a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, and my mother enrolled me in kindergarten. I was one of three Jewish children at the school; the other two were boys.
All went well for me that first year until the questions began: “What church do you go to?” “What is ‘Jewish’?”
My classmates must have gone home to tell their parents, because soon after began the whispering, the finger-pointing, the snickering, and that wonderful query “Where are your horns?” No one was ever allowed to play with me after school.
After Christmas the other children talked about what presents they’d gotten. Some of them pointed at me and whispered, “Jesus killer.” The teacher finally put a stop to it when she saw me crying, and we all went back to our desks.
Our assignment was to cut snowflakes out of colored paper. I was busy making mine when the girl in front of me turned around and said, “You’re going to hell!” I just smiled at her, but when she turned back to her own work, I took my scissors and snipped off her long blond braid. Then I dipped it into my glue pot and tossed it over her shoulder, whispering, “Don’t say that to me ever again.”
My parents were called in, and we had a long talk with the principal. But the whispering stopped.
Mount Prospect, Illinois
I grip the bar of the weight machine in the gym, elbows braced against my waist. I flex my biceps slowly, inhaling through my nostrils, then let the weight down gradually, exhaling through my mouth.
I work out in the gym for an hour and a half three times a week. I have done this for all seven months of my son’s deployment in Afghanistan. It helps relieve my tension.
I work out to store up calm for the wee hours of the night, when I lie awake and picture my son flying in a helicopter over barren deserts. Sometimes I reach under my pillow for my dad’s black rosary beads and roll them between my thumb and index finger, whispering over and over the Catholic prayer ingrained in me since childhood: “Hail Mary, full of grace. . . .”
It’s not that I believe Mary can keep my son safe, but if she had the strength to stand at the feet of her son while he was nailed to the cross, then I’m strong enough to hold up under the burden of being a marine’s mom.
I’m sitting in the shade of a tree that sprinkles small white petals. My mom pokes her head over the gate and says, “Why do you like to sit alone in your garden so much?” It’s more accusation than question. “It’s like you don’t want to be around me or something.”
My mother doesn’t have conversations; she dominates them. She wrings them by the neck until I am too tired to sort through her reasoning. She must have the first and the last word. Sometimes she tries to get others to participate in conversations, but her tone is that of an interrogation room, not a living room. Her voice is always several decibels above anyone else’s. She hurts my ears, and I have to tell her to speak softer. I would say that she “struggles” with this, but that would imply a desire to change.
She doesn’t seem to understand that there are times that require silence. When she asks why I spend so much time alone in my garden, I want to tell her about the clarity I feel among the hawk’s call and the honeysuckle. I want her to understand that plants and animals do speak, if you’re quiet enough to hear. I want to answer truthfully her question about why I spend time in my garden, but the truth would only hurt her feelings. The truth is that she has already answered it herself: I don’t want to be around her.
At 3 AM I drove through the little Indiana town where we lived, looking for his truck. I knew all along where it would be, though I’d been avoiding the truth for months. Our baby was asleep in his car seat in the back. He was three months old, the youngest of three children we had together. I couldn’t leave him at home with our teenage son and six-year-old daughter while I made my predawn trip through the streets: if he woke alone in his crib, he would cry, and my other children would run through the house looking for me and find no one.
I found his Ford pickup in front of some apartments one block from our restaurant at the northern edge of town. I parked across the street and checked to be sure the baby was still asleep. Then I walked to the front door of the building. I felt nothing when I looked at the mailboxes in the entry hall and saw the name I expected to see. I felt nothing as I walked slowly to her door and knocked. When I heard my husband’s familiar cough and his heavy footsteps on the floorboards, I couldn’t breathe.
The door swung open, and my startled husband pulled me inside. I broke away and ran into the bedroom.
She was sitting on a mattress on the floor with the moonlight pouring in on her. She covered herself with the sheets and looked away. Record albums and books were stacked on the floor beside the mattress.
“She has more records than we do,” I mumbled. A strange thing to say, I know, but that’s all I could think: we couldn’t afford to buy the music I wanted, and here was this young barmaid, sleeping with my husband, surrounded by what I couldn’t have.
My husband pulled on his pants and guided me out into the hall, then led me to the car, where he saw the baby in back.
I asked if he loved her. He sighed deeply. “Go home,” he said. Then he turned and walked back to her apartment.
He didn’t come home. In the morning, after the kids had gone to school, I called my friend Ruth and whispered into the receiver, “I found him with her.”
Ruth was a no-nonsense farm woman. “Get over here right now,” she said.
All that morning and into the afternoon I rocked in a wicker chair on her porch, facing a field of corn. I breast-fed the baby and held him while he dozed off. Ruth said nothing, just listened as I went on and on, quietly telling her everything I knew — had known throughout twenty years of marriage.
When I finished, I realized I’d been speaking in hushed tones. I remember wondering why I was whispering. Because that’s what you do when you have a secret, I answered. Later, after it all ended — the deception, the lies, the need to live my life through someone else, a need so desperate that I’d compromised who I was — there were no secrets. There was no more whispering.
My father quit drinking when I was four years old, but he remained a dry drunk in a perpetual state of rage. He could explode without warning in response to an innocent act or word from me or one of my two sisters. Our mother was no help. She endured his fury and even wielded it against us as if he were a monster she could trot out of the closet: “Wait until your father comes home.” We didn’t so much grow up in that immaculate, beautifully decorated house as we were allowed to inhabit it, as long as we gave no visible or audible signs of our existence.
Sometimes a beating would come for no reason. Once, at the age of five, I was sitting quietly in a corner of the living room, making a potholder, when I became aware that my father was looking at me. I kept my eyes fixed on the potholder, heart pounding. Without warning he tossed me over his lap, pulled down my pants, and started beating me while my mother sat placidly in the chair opposite, a strange expression on her face. He said in an odd voice, “See, it doesn’t hurt her. She’s tough. No matter how hard I hit her, she just laughs.”
And I did laugh, hard, to stop the tears.
I wouldn’t reveal that he was hurting me, because that would have threatened his illusion of himself as the perfect father, and challenging that self-image was the worst crime of all. My father was a lawyer. He was always right. I was not allowed to feel what I felt, see what I saw, or say what I knew to be the truth. I had no defense against his crippling distortion of reality, except one: alone in my room at night, with my face buried in my pillow, I would whisper, “He really hurt me.”
Those whispered words confirmed that my pain was real. To be able to heal, I first had to acknowledge to myself that I’d been hurt.
For years I met one-on-one with inmates in a county jail as a volunteer chaplain. We would sit across a table upon which these tattooed young men would lay their heads and weep. Some would open their hands on the table, waiting for mine. I was often surprised at how reluctant they were to let go. I remember one young Latino gangster’s fists gripping my hands after a prayer. He maintained his sweaty grip for thirty minutes. When he finally released his hold, I missed the physical contact.
I still miss it. Now there’s a new policy: No visitor may touch an inmate. The prisoners and I sit with a pane of thick glass between us and speak through heavy black receivers. Often we cannot hear each other. Phone’s not working, we’ll mime. Even when the phones do work, everything we say is taped and made available to their prosecutors. The confessional is tapped. Now these men have to insist on their innocence even when they want to confess their crimes to me. When hearts can’t break, they become harder.
There are no more tears during these visits. Goodbyes come quickly, usually with a knuckle bump against the bulletproof glass. Their faces turn stony as the guard ushers them out.
Lately I’ve begun to take one inmate’s youngest daughter to see him. She kneels on the chair next to me to reach the black receiver. She holds it to her ear and smiles at her father’s face through the glass. Tattoos cover his cheeks, neck, and forehead, but she is not afraid of him. She sings to him through the phone, holding it like a microphone. I teach her new songs on the long drives to the prison, and I whisper the lyrics in her ear when she forgets. Her voice travels through the intercom: “You are my sunshine, . . . my only sunshine. You make me happy . . . when skies are gray.”
Her father puts a hand to the glass, his fingers wet with tears.
Megan was the girl with curly brown hair who sat next to me in American History. Most of what I remember from that class is about her. Bits of information about the Continental Congress and Thomas Jefferson are jumbled up with the quiet exchanges Megan and I had while Mrs. Cook’s back was turned.
We were quiet, too, when we made out in Megan’s basement. Basement couches are great places when you’re sixteen: private, but not so secluded that parents feel uneasy about leaving their daughter alone there with her boyfriend, especially if they think you’re watching a movie.
Megan and I quietly maneuvered to where our lips could meet and whispered as our hands explored each other’s bodies.
We relished these moments, but afterward we hated ourselves for giving in to what our youth pastors called “Satan’s temptation.” We’d been warned that teenage sexuality led only to dysfunctional relationships, broken hearts, and alienation. Our parents agreed. So, rather than face their disapproval, we wrestled quietly with our sins.
Megan and I prayed together almost daily, hoping that the previous weekend would be the last time we succumbed to temptation on the couch. But nearly every Friday night we found ourselves back there, making out.
Nothing we’d been warned about ever happened. We dated throughout high school. We never became dysfunctional. If we felt shame, it was only because our youth pastors said we should.
Megan and I are married now, our wedding a loud declaration of our love. But sometimes we go home to our little one-bedroom apartment and whisper to each other, because whispering is when we are the most intimate.
Zachary J. Martinez
It was the spring of 1962, and love bloomed between my mother and the only man to have attracted her attention since my father had died six years earlier. At the age of twelve I was oblivious to the needs of women and men. I cut the grass, helped clean the house, and even washed my mother’s car: why did she need him?
After months of dating, the two of them seemed marriage-bound, and I was sick about it. He was a career army officer with no children and, according to my mother, no experience being around kids.
One Saturday afternoon my mother announced that he would be picking her up to take her to see a matinee of Gone with the Wind. I was desperate to prevent them from going. Somehow I had to divert my mother’s attention away from this man.
As soon as they drove off for the theater, I went into my mother’s bedroom. On her old, treadle-powered sewing machine was a pincushion that looked like a tomato. I pulled a one-inch-long straight pin from the cushion and put it in my mouth, then spit it back into my hand. I had decided to swallow the pin but was having second thoughts. (My intent was to attract my mother’s attention, not harm myself.) Our dog had eaten objects that we’d later found in her stool. I figured the pin was small enough to make the same journey through me. I bent it into a U shape so it could move more easily through my digestive system. Then I placed it in my mouth and swallowed.
Immediately I ran to the toilet and tried to cough it up. After a bout of gagging, I gazed in the bowl and saw no pin. Good God, I thought. I swallowed a pin.
I headed out the door for a brisk ten-minute walk to the movie theater, where I explained to the uniformed usher that I had to find my mother in the audience: it was a medical emergency. When my mother saw me in the aisle, her expression was something between What’s wrong? and This had better be good!
“I swallowed a pin,” I whispered.
“What?” my mother mouthed.
“I swallowed a pin,” I announced a little louder, “and it’s stuck in my throat.”
She still couldn’t hear me and began gathering her purse to stand when a man seated nearby said, “He swallowed a pin, and it’s in his throat.”
At the emergency room I told the doctor about my “accident.” To my surprise an X-ray revealed nothing.
Back home my mother inspected the bathroom and discovered the saliva-and-blood-covered straight pin on the floor near the toilet. I had evidently coughed it up without knowing.
That man did marry my mother and helped create many years of happiness in our family. I’m glad he didn’t scare easily.
Marriage brought me two daughters. When they were little, I often whispered stories to them. It created drama when I lowered my voice and said, “Goldilocks knocked on the door, but no one answered, so the snoopy little girl walked right in.”
Later, as a preschool teacher, I learned that rowdy children would pay better attention to me if I whispered than if I raised my voice.
Whispering can command attention from adults too. Once, on a blind date, my back was to my companion when he whispered, “I love you.”
I quickly turned around and asked, “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” he replied.
Two years later I married him.
As a retired pianist in my eighties, I volunteered to play in nursing homes. At least my audience would recognize my repertoire, I thought. I had one-hour engagements at more than twenty homes a month, and I got back much more than I gave — until my attitude began to change.
After several years I began to feel unappreciated. I was paying almost four dollars a gallon for gas to drive to these gigs, which took up the middle of my day. And most of the pianos were out of tune.
I was in a miserable, poor-me mood as I finished playing for a group of Alzheimer’s and stroke patients. I was gathering up my gear to depart when an aide attending a frail woman in a wheelchair motioned for me to come over. The woman had something to tell me, but, the attendant explained, she’d had a stroke and could barely speak. “You’ll need to put your head down close to her mouth.”
I bent over, and she whispered so softly that only I could hear, “Ted, I wanted you to know that, if I could raise my hands, I would still be clapping for you.”
Throughout my two sons’ early years, I would often draw them close and, with our three heads together, convey a message that only they could hear. Anything said in a whisper made them feel special, even “Let’s rake the leaves before Daddy gets home.”
In the late sixties my husband and I became foster parents to mentally and physically challenged children. We found ourselves caring for a three-year-old autistic girl who grew terrified if anyone tried to get close to her. She was very observant and learned by watching others, but if you tried to speak to her, she would scream and cover her ears.
One day, while taking a break in a rocking chair, I began humming softly. When she looked in my direction, I whispered her name. Holding her hands in front of her face as if for protection, she leaned close and looked at my mouth. I whispered, “I love you,” and she sat down in front of me and quietly put her finger on my lips.
After that I started to whisper to her all the time, and she responded readily and even looked forward to our hushed games. I taught her many things using my “secret voice”: the days of the week, our phone number, how to count. It was like finding the key to a locked door.
Later, when she was in her teens and couldn’t cope with something, she’d throw violent tantrums. But whispering or humming calmed her and got her back on track. She was echolalic, which means she often repeated the same short phrase over and over. When this habit became too much for me to bear, I’d simply whisper, “No more talking.” She would put her hands in her lap and smile mischievously.
I still find whispering a good way to get attention and settle nerves. When my family gets together, everyone raises his or her voice to try to be heard over the others. To quiet them down, all I have to do is sit deep in my chair and softly say, “Did you hear . . . ?”
Seven years ago the right side of my body began to go numb. I got tested for all kinds of diseases and conditions, underwent two MRIs, and saw chiropractors and massage therapists, but no one could figure out what was wrong. As a single parent I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on healthcare, so I decided just to limp around and learn to live with whatever was wrong with me.
A few months after the problem began, I started dating a woman who’d recently been through a difficult divorce. Why she decided to go out with a man whose foot flopped about and whose arm dropped off the chair, I’ll never know.
Despite my growing affection for her, I hesitated to tell her how I felt. She had two kids, who were struggling with their new living arrangements, and a small business that kept her at work sixty-plus hours a week. She didn’t need to deal with my problems too.
One night we were lying in bed together, and I was in worse shape than usual. I had to tuck my hand underneath me just to keep my arm from falling over the side. Sensing that I was hurting, she took my head in her hands and said, “You know I love you, right?”
My body suddenly went stiff, my right leg seized up, and the back of my skull radiated with pain. Then, without thinking, I whispered, “I love you too.” And, just as quickly, all the pain disappeared.
The symptoms have never come back.