musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Boy Who Lived

One of my great joys is sharing books with my son. Sounds like a small thing, I know, but for us it truly has been life-changing. You see, J. has multiple special needs. The most obvious is verbal apraxia. He understands language but is unable to effectively use speech to communicate.
His first diagnosis, nearly thirty-three years ago, was frighteningly bleak. I remember sitting in a tiny room at Sick Kid's Hospital in Toronto, a nervous new foster parent trying to process the unfathomable: that the tiny person I'd already come to think of as 'my' child would probably not survive his first year; that if he did survive he would never walk, never talk, never feed himself. Brutal truths from a well-meaning doctor and social worker, determined to give us a way out.  You do not have to do this. Think about your family. How will your other kids cope with a dying baby? As it turned out, our other kids had the answer. It will be hard, and it will be sad, but we can love him while he's with us and we can make him happy.
It was hard sometimes, but we did love him, and feisty J. proved all the dire predictions wrong. For me, one of the best days of his young life was meeting that same, well-meaning doctor again two years later. Little J. held tight to my hand and as we walked together into the examination room he grinned up at the white-coated man and said, loud and clear, "Car outside." 
Many have called his life a miracle and it's hard not to see it that way. Helped along by surgical intervention and a lot of hard work and determination, J. has certainly been a gift to our family and friends.
We long ago abandoned thinking in terms of what J. might never do, instead allowing him opportunities to try, and the support to succeed or fail on his own terms. The child they said would never walk has grown into a man who loves bowling, fishing, and curling. He even tried downhill skiing one winter, but that's a story for another time.
One thing J. longs to do but hasn't yet been able to master is reading.  He's a pro at recognizing single words, but stringing them together into sentences is something he can't manage, not on the page and not in speech. It seems his brain just isn't wired that way. But still, books fascinate him.
Years ago, when the first Harry Potter book was newly published and absolutely everyone was talking about it, I bought a copy thinking J. and I would read it together. We were both eager to begin and after getting comfortable on the sofa, admiring the cover, and checking out the back cover blurb, we settled in to enjoy the story.  "Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived … "
We woke up about an hour later.
Our attempts to share Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became a running joke in the family. One of us would pick up the book and someone would shout, "Quiet, you guys, Mom and J. are taking another nap!"  
To be perfectly clear, it wasn't Ms. Rowling's wonderful story that put us both to sleep with unfailing regularity. No. It was yours truly, the less-than-sparkling narrator. This was particularly frustrating for me, a life-long avid reader who could sit for hours engrossed in a good book, delaying sleep for just one more chapter.  But there was something about reading aloud that made me… zzzzzzzzzzzz….
That's when we discovered audiobooks.  Specifically, Jim Dale's incredible voicing of the Harry Potter stories, and suddenly the world of books and reading opened up for J. We listened to the entire Potter series and moved on to Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who mysteries, 27 stories wonderfully narrated by George Guidall. Some of those favourites have been listened to over and over, to the point where I'm sure we both know them word-for-word.
Nowadays we're listening to a broader range of books, but our favourites are mysteries. On rare occasions I wonder if J. is losing interest or if the current story might be beyond him.  But then he'll repeat a new word or phrase, or laugh out loud at a subtle joke, and I understand just how much these books mean to him and how massively his vocabulary and understanding have improved thanks to listening: a shared pleasure and a personal triumph for my own Boy Who Lived. The boy (now man) who just wanted to read.

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At 1:20 am, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

Wow, Cheryl, I've never given audio books much thought, because I'm a better reader than listener, but the value of them to someone like J (and his loving mom) can only really be appreciated after reading J's story. I'm so glad you were able to find this story medium for him to enjoy. The world it's opened for him is universal. :)

At 7:25 am, Blogger Ostara said...

So true, Sheila. And it gives him such pleasure. I've become an audiobook evangelist!

At 10:46 pm, Blogger Tracy D said...

Love Jim Daly's Potter reading. What a wonderful experience for you and your son to share.

At 11:00 pm, Blogger Ostara said...

Thanks for visiting, Tracy. Yes, it was an amazing intro to the joy of reading for him - and turned into something we continue to share and enjoy. I agree about Jim Dale's reading - so many characters but he made each one unique.

At 9:33 am, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

Such a wonderful story Cheryl, of love and determination, and a lesson that there is more than one way to pass on a love of reading to a child. It also helps explain to me your love of audiobooks! A Happy Birthday to your son and to the family who never gave up on him.

At 1:23 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks for sharing our celebration, Susan. He's a remarkable young man in so many ways.

At 11:10 am, Blogger Heidi said...

I love this! I love that books and words have opened up his world!

At 11:16 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks, Heidi. Books are magic in many ways!


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