It wasn’t that long ago that he turned fifteen. We sat on the cold concrete of his front porch, watching the iffy clouds discuss a storm. I always sat downwind from him ’cause he didn’t like my smoke. That day, a brisk and cool crosswind hinted at summer’s end, and the sailing cloudbank made me think of angry giants.
When I first met Tommy, he was about nine years old. He’d been a handful for his parents ’cause in those days there were no “programs” or government assistance for kids with “developmental challenges”. Tommy was okay physically, but seemed muffled from what we think of as the real world. His folks had advertised for a caregiver, to be “available once or twice a week” so that they could at least have a little respite from that daunting task. I don’t see them as bad or lazy people, and I too would have needed some time away if he were mine. Anyway, there must not have been very many responses. They took me on, even though my sole qualification was that I had spent a couple of summers as a camp counsellor.
It was not without emotion that Jan and Barry Morgan left their son in the care of someone else for the first time, and I am sure they had their misgivings. I had brought two baseball mitts with me in case Tommy didn’t have one, and we were playing catch when they made ready to go. He dropped his mitt and ran to them crying. I came over and put my arm around his waist, while Jan tried to explain to him that they were going into town and would be back by four o’clock. Still he clung, so I took off my wristwatch and strapped it onto his skinny arm. “Hey, Tommy. That means we have lots of time to play catch. See the short hand on the watch? When it gets all the way around to the 4, Mom and Dad will be back. And if you get tired of catch, we’ll fly your kite.” I give the kid credit, for he let them go without too much more of a fuss, and we spent a pretty good afternoon.
You know, it shames me to say this. Whenever I have come across a person who was known as a “deaf mute”, I’ve been afraid. Afraid of not knowing how to communicate with them, or even whether or not I should try. I felt them to be unreachable or, worse, unreasonably aggressive because they were different. Maybe I even thought that they knew something that no one else did. Maybe I even thought that they needed something that I couldn’t give.
And I did think that Tommy was all of these things, for he was uncommunicative, if not plain stubborn. And yes, he was aggressive at times, punching me with his small fists when I tried to shake him out of a funk. But, gradually, I began to learn the language of his world. He did make sounds, and could call his Mom and Dad. The most curious thing was that he did not call them Mom or Dad. He called them Jan and Barry.
As my time with him grew longer, his parents came to put trust in me, and they made me feel as if I were part of their family. And, you see where this is going. I came to love Tommy as a son. Although he did not, or could not, respond to being addressed in an everyday manner, he knew how to tell you what he wanted or needed. He could even play us off against one another in order to get it. Yes, there were the times when he scared me and showed me my inadequacies. Times of long silences and of unexplainable aggression. Times that I thought he was grieving for someone or something that I knew nothing of.
On that cold fall day, just after his 15th birthday, with the looming of those colossal clouds, and my behind getting cold from the concrete steps, I said “Well, Tommy, let’s go in and make some tea”. Expecting no response, I gently took his hand to get him up. He pulled back, wanting me to stay with him. “Mike”, he said, with a long “M”. The first time in those six years. He then pointed to the blackening clouds and brought his index fingers to his eyebrows. He looked at me full in the face and smiled. Once more he pointed to the clouds and then, unmistakably, he traced the initials “T.M.” in the air.
Smiling even more broadly, he touched his temples and tapped them several times.
Excitedly now, it was he that pulled me by the hand, urgently wanting me to follow him. Follow him to the big old maple tree on the edge of their property. There had long been a hive there, and it was active with the bees wintering down. He ran ahead, even against my call, and started to climb. Fearing the worst, I yelled after him..”Tom! Tom! Stop!”
He straddled the limb just below the buzzing nest, laughing and tapping his forehead. I felt as if he was “seeing” things for the first time, and I couldn’t help feeling happy and a little proud. I called for him to come down and hugged him tightly, as he said my name one last time.