On a Sunday night shortly after my son Connor turned two years old, we were sitting in the front room of our small flat when Connor pointed to someone in a book I was reading to him. He began to say, "What's he doing?" a mantra he uttered about a thousand times a day at that stage about anything he did not understand-which was just about everything. Only this time the word "what" just wouldn't come out. Only the sound of the "W" could the little guy make, and that sound prolonged itself for what felt-to my wife Peggy, myself as well as Connor-like an eternity. Finally, a look of bewilderment mostly, but also fear and frustration descended onto his little face, and he threw himself back onto the floor and started crying.
It had happened. I was going to watch my son grow up with a stuttering problem, I thought. Throwing my arms around him in the most passionate hug I had ever given him, I guess I tried to undo with one desperate embrace the pain he was feeling now and would feel in the, oh, so many trials, both great and subtle, that would undoubtedly mark his future if he continued to stutter. I did what any father would do-I tried to let my son know that, whatever happens, whatever he did or felt, that everything was going to be all right. Daddy would fix it, Connor, I wanted him to know. I must admit I was not prepared for this. I remember very distinctly being at the Dallas convention in 1991 right before Connor was due to be born. Of course, the subject came up and I talked about it bravely, but I never really took this eventuality seriously I must admit. When Connor was born and started to develop, I took it even less seriously. Genetically, he did not seem a candidate for the disorder. In my immediate family, if you were male and had dark hair. stuttering became part of your life. Connor was fair-haired and green-eyed, and half of his genes came from a family, the O'Grady's, who are blessed with a versatility in their speech as sure as the Ahlbach's is tentative.
So, when Connor began to prolong some consonants, I didn't worry. He always pushed on through them like a champ. A chip off the old block, I thought (and, no, I did not realize the pun until a very few days ago). I didn't worry until that fateful Sunday night when my image of a stutter-free future for my first born came to a crashing halt just as Connor's little bottom hit the ground and the tears splashed from his beautiful green eyes. Not only was the disfluency serious-in the days following he talked on residual air, had a frequent rise in pitch, and "exploded" many plosives, not unlike his old dad at times actually-but the fact that it was happening at 26 months added a great deal of weight to my concern. I knew from my reading and from all my years on the phone talking to parents that this was EARLY, and an early onset in stuttering was not good, not like with chicken pox or measles.
I didn't ask myself so much what I was going to do about it right then. No, what I was immediately plagued by is the question of what was I going to feel about it, what I should feel about it. In the days to follow (and as I am writing this reflection) I got in touch with a lot of mixed feelings generated from my past and the unique position I have been in as director of the NSP for 12 years. The truth is there were so many feelings inside of me competing for attention and overlapping one another that at times I kind of shut down. When the realization settled in that stuttering had been passed on to Connor, my first response was to smile a bit and admit that it was only fitting. The poor kid didn't really have a chance. Not only were his genes against him, but in his case, because it has been such a central part of my life, he probably picked stuttering up just through osmosis. He picked up stuttering the way Sandy Koufax's kids were born knowing how to throw a fastball.
And there was a poetic justice here, too. Now that I had to deal with stuttering in my own son, I would have to live up to all those things I had pontificated to parents over the phone all these years, things that I knew as I said them were more easily said than done-even for me, ha, ha! I would have to play to Connor's strengths, reinforce his successes more than the parent of a "normal" child would. I would have to manage my own speech constantly so it provided a good model for him.
But there were advantages in my unique position, too. Family and friends would not feel uncomfortable around Connor's stuttering, would not speak about the little guy's "problem" in hushed tones behind our back, would not wonder what emotional trauma we had inflicted on the child to bring about the disorder, and would not wonder out loud when the boy would "get better." No, I was luckier than most parents, and, while they usually suffered in ignorance about a proper course of action for a long time, I could count on more advice from more experts (friends, really) than I could ever use, so many that I was afraid of someone feeling slighted if I did not call on them for advice.
I had to laugh, too, about one scenario I had been envisioning since Connor's birth. For some reason I had early on focused on my son during "show and tell" explaining along with all the other kids what their parents did for a living. I imagined a dilemma opening up for Connor as his turn came. Does he go ahead and explain that his dad was the director of the National Stuttering Project, standing firm against all the giggles that would ensue from the back of the room and the inevitable jokes that would follow; or does he do what I would probably do and say I was in real estate and worked in an office?
But as you think about it, this light-hearted fantasy and many other situations take on a very serious meaning, don't they? How was his own stuttering going to affect his dilemma. On which side would he come down if his stuttering persisted? Would I be able to help him rise above the giggles at that tender age; help him to wear his stuttering upon his young sleeve, when it took me more than half my life to do so? Would my experience and what I have lived for most of my adult life become an example for Connor, or would it be a curse? How would he react if he sought, even temporarily, avoidance and pretense, and he found those havens open to all but him because his father, and many of his father's friends were undeniable reminders of what he sought to hide, and, worse, maybe constant standards he thought he had to live up to?
No, the stuttering of Connor Thomas Ahlbach was to be no simple matter. But is stuttering ever simple? And do its questions have answers? And if the answers are somewhere, wouldn't some parent, each of whom would gladly suffer just about anything to spare their child stuttering's torments, have found them?
When my little boy, so gentle that the other day, when told he would have to go into his room for "time out," calmly marched into his room and closed the door himself, a little boy with green eyes so kind and encased in lashes so long that they could stop traffic on a busy street, when this boy with a passion for infinitives and a purple dinosaur on PBS, cried that Saturday night, he was, in effect, asking me: "Daddy to make it better?"
Yes, Daddy will make it all right, Connor. But at that moment I knew what remedies I could provide would never totally satisfy him if he took his stuttering into his school years. Everything in me wanted to carry his cross for him, but I knew that this was, sadly, impossible. I started thinking a lot about a story Carl Dell told in Letting GO so long ago, a story that echoes in the heart of everybody ever associated with stuttering if anything we have ever published in Letting GO does so. He relates how his father would take them for a treasured ice cream at the end of their Sunday ride in the car. The bitterness of the experience was that Carl knew his father would make him order the ice cream he wanted himself, a tortuous experience for young Carl. Carl recognizes now the real love in his father's decision to let that weekly trial happen, and also how his father looked forward even less to the agonizing moments it took for "butter pecan" to come out of his son's mouth.
I suppose a lot of the above came to me in the days and weeks following,, but what specifically occupied my mind and caused quite a lot of immediate turmoil was what to do for Connor right then. Peggy was definitely aware of the complex emotions I was having, but, in a way, I think Connor's stuttering disturbed her more than it did me. Even in my own son, I was somewhat desensitized to the stuttering itself, if not to the anguish behind it. After all, I hear it every day in my work and in people I like very much, too. Her own anguish sought a remedy of some kind, and as Peggy read the materials for parents I brought home, she became adamant about one thing: taking Connor for a professional evaluation.
This sounds like a reasonable course of action-and certainly one I have pushed upon many other parents-but, again, Connor was not a normal case-he was mine, and I had some indefinable feelings come up that raged against formal therapy. I was definitely for just maintaining the status quo. And I felt this way, I realize now, not because Connor was the little boy he was, but because I had been the little boy I was.
As it happens, I am reading Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with my English class, and I came across a passage the other day which might explain how I felt. She writes: "Heroes, bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered in our early environment. In later years they change faces, places, and maybe races, tactics, intensities and goals, but beneath those penetrable masks they wear forever the stocking capped faces of childhood."
One "face" I brought away with me from childhood was the face of speech therapy and it was a nightmarish face in my young mind. This ancient, haunting image lurking in my subconscious had some life in it yet. As Peggy talked about speech therapy for Connor, the little boy in me answered for the little boy in him. No way! I felt violated as a child when someone brought this subject up; I felt scared, exposed, invaded. The "invaders" I knew were not conquerors but well meaning missionaries, but they wanted to open up a part of me that I was not ready to look at, at any cost. I can remember Sister Maria Ana kindly taking me out of class in seventh grade and urging me to go to a stuttering therapy program at San Francisco State University that summer, and my defiant refusal to even consider it. No matter that Connor at two years of age was not going to know a speech-language pathologist from the Man-in-the-Moon. I could not help but feel a party to what I unconsciously felt to be an invasion of his identity, and how could I betray in my son, what had been so sensitive in me.
So this is what I think was behind my hesitance to act, but I laid out another case for Peggy: "Listen," I told her, "we don't need anyone to tell us Connor is stuttering. I think I know stuttering when I hear it. And I know what to do. We'll slow down our communication with him, let him feel free to stutter, and make speech as fun as we can for him. There's nothing more we can do right now."
"It says here in this material you have to be taught how to model slow speech. We should seek professional help. Now where should we go? Still feeling defensive (and cursing the brochures, one of which I helped to write), I came out with, no kidding, "How the hell should I know where to go."
Well, that argument was over in a flash, wasn't it? While having still not sorted out all my feelings, I could not argue that a professional evaluation would do nothing but good for Connor and us. He was not going to know a speech clinic from a field of tulips, I told my unconscious demons, so any unconscious turmoil will probably be kept to a minimum.
And so, we were off to therapy at San Francisco State University, 29 years after Sister Maria Ana had talked to me outside my seventh grade classroom, only now I was taking my son.
I want to thank those of you who called or wrote in the past weeks after reading Part One. One note, from Tookie Scherder of Texas, I would like to quote from:
“You're now one of us, John, a parent who lives with a child who stutters. In the years to come when your heart breaks as you look at your child's eyes, searching yours for help; when you standby biting your tongue while your son "handles" an embarrassing experience; when you would gladly give all your worldly goods to erase the pain your son feels when he's laughed at.. . Don't feel alone. The easy part of parenting a child who stutters is the stuttering,, the hard part is that no matter how you try, you can't erase the emotional baggage that goes with it.”
This sums up very well what I felt, and anticipated feeling later on as I watched Connor stuttering. From that Sunday night when Connor brought himself to tears in his effort to speak fluently, his speech and demeanor got steadily worse. The list of sounds and words he had trouble with lengthened. Prolongations became longer and, in some cases, turned into complete blocks which would only become broken as the little guy expelled his residual air. His pitch would rise at times, and worst of all, to me, his sharp, green eyes darted downwards when he would avoid even the attempt at saying certain words which he knew to be difficult. For a time he stopped saying his name. The name Peggy and I loved so much was becoming painful for him.
Compounding the stuttering, and no doubt contributing to it, was the little matter of the arrival in early September of our second son Christy. As sibling rivalry goes, Connor reacted rather normally-he completely and absolutely ignored his young brother in the hope that not paying attention to him would make this invader disappear. As time went on and that eventuality did not happen, Connor became a lot more sensitive about things. The usual ritual of taking him across the city to a friend's house twice a week for daycare became very traumatic for' him. Our attempt to give him some time away from home to interact with other children-and give Peggy some needed, restful time with Christy-probably seemed to him a foreshadowing of his inevitable rejection in favor of the new baby. He was not a happy kid.
Advice poured in from many sources. I would mention Connor's stuttering to many of the SLP's I know if I happened to talk to them at work. They were all very concerned and very gracious about giving Peggy and me guidance about how to react to Connor. We tried our best to follow through on what they said.
As our appointment at San Francisco State University with Dr. Stan Goldberg approached, we were very conscious of our own speech, making a very real attempt to speak and read to him in a slow, prolonged, almost a sing-song manner. Luckily my speech is very fluent when I am with him. and I could make my voice do what I wanted it to do for once. We also tried to make his life easier in any way we could-short of sending Christy off to live with relations. But shielding a two-year-old in perpetual motion from pressure is a tireless task. While we did not want him to feel pressure, we did not want him to withdraw either. While we wanted him to be relaxed, we wanted him to feel free to speak as well, so we could reassure him with our attention and caring that we loved every sound that came out of him, whether it was stuttered or fluent. While we did not want him to struggle, we wanted him to try speaking a lot so we could urge him on-and admittedly measure his hoped for progress. "How was Connor today?" was the first question out of my mouth each night for weeks as I came home from the NSP office, and I was not talking about his general health.
However, the most welcomed word at that time did not come from a speech-language pathologist, but from a person with whom I have everything in common-and more so than I thought. Michael Sugarman, who was the director of the NSP before me, came by one day to visit with his wife Kim and their daughter Rebekah who is three and a half. When Connor's stuttering announced itself soon after they were seated, I said something to the effect that the little guy was following in my footsteps. Suddenly, Michael and Kim blurted out in unison: "Oh, Rebekah was stuttering like a maniac for a while when she was about Connor's age."
Boy, that felt good to hear. Right away I prayed that Michael and I would have that in common, too, a child who ran through stuttering like it was a pile of autumn leaves and did not fall victim to its frustrating torments. I did not want to watch him forever trying, like Sisyphus, to push his boulder to the top of the hill, to forever see his hopes tumble down just as he neared the top. I knew what that experience was like and I began to wonder if knowing what Connor was experiencing, being able to identify exactly with his struggle, would cause me more pain or less than the fluent parent. Are their imaginings of what is going on with their child better or worse than the realities I knew to be there?
I'll leave that question to the academics, but I'll tell you one difference between myself and a "normal" parent of a stuttering child: while they are usually hopeful their child will "outgrow" the disorder-a hope fueled by feedback from well-meaning friends and pediatricians who do not know any better-I did not allow myself much hope that Connor was going to get better. Even if it was against what my head told me about stuttering in two-year olds, I could not help but be guarded against hope that Connor would develop out of it. My work has given me the ultimate respect for the chronic, tenacious nature of stuttering. I have spent almost forty years battling it in my own life, and the major portion of my adulthood watching others doing it. If I have won victories over stuttering, they have been victories in the control I have over the fluency of my speech, but in the control stuttering has had over the quality of my life. The stuttering David might survive the battle with this Goliath, he might live to fight another day, but he doesn't slay him very often.
I feel with a potentially chronic disorder like stuttering, you must enter its world and fight it on its own terms, prepared for the possibility that your child might never return to the fluent world. Although you may certainly help it along, in the end, nature and not nurture will bring in the final verdict. While Michael and Kim's news made me feel a little better, I still found it hard to look very much beyond Connor's next attempt to say his name.
Here I am rattling on and I haven't even taken you out to S.F. State University yet. Dr. Stan Goldberg could not have been more understanding when I called him. I know he appreciated the unique circumstances I was in, and he immediately offered Peggy and me his services gratis, proposing that Connor and we could become a test case for his fluency class, a class at which I have often been a guest speaker.
We made a tape of Connor's speech at different times of the day like he asked for, and started keeping a journal about him, noting when the disfluencies occurred and when they did not. On October 13-I still remember the date-we showed up at the clinic. I felt strange personally-like I explained last month-but professionally I began to see this as a great opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience, something my work would benefit from. It struck me that in all my years directing the NSP, I could count on one hand the number of times I had been inside a speech clinic, and never as a client. Peggy felt good about being there. And Connor... well, he thought we were going to "school" and was only concerned that his favorite Cookie Monster figure was coming along, too. During this first visit, Stan talked to Peggy and me individually and then played some with Connor. I felt totally inarticulate in my session with him. I had so many mixed emotions that my communication was pretty garbled. However, I do remember insisting that I was open to the possibility that Connor would not develop out of his stuttering-I seemed determined to let everyone know this. Dr. Goldberg was very good about describing the language of toddlers and how fragile it was. He agreed with our idea to stop taking Connor to daycare. By our next meeting he would analyze Connor's speech so we would know exactly what we were dealing with. His advice, which I won't spell out here for lack of space, was good and explicit, and in line with the other guidelines we had been receiving.
On our second visit, he presented us with an impressive analysis of Connor's speech as taken from our cassette tape and the video he had made in the clinic. (A side note: Everything we did in the clinic was saved for posterity on videotape, and I was aware of the graduate students taking notes behind the one-way mirror. Peggy, on the other hand, to her chagrin, did not figure this out until one of said students appeared almost magically after being verbally prompted by Dr. Goldberg to play with Connor.) Each utterance was written out and analyzed for fluency, length, and type of communication (questions, statements, etc).. After explaining all of it, Dr. Goldberg came Out with the bottom line: "I think you were right, John, it looks like Connor has developmental stuttering."
"What's that?" asked Peggy.
"It's what John does," he responded aptly. Peggy got the picture. This didn't come as a big surprise to either of us, although I must admit I felt somewhat like the expert, like the person who can fix his or her own plumbing. ("Ha, Ha! I told you I knew stuttering when I heard it. You see how smart Daddy is, Connor?") Neither did we expect anything to change very quickly after our visits... but it did. At first, Connor's stuttering got even worse.
Told after the first visit to continue to take note of his fluency and disfluencies, there turned out to be not a heck of a lot of fluency to record that first week. Between his blockages and avoidances and the normally fractured syntax of a two-year-old, we could hardly understand what he was saying most of the time. But as his speech hit bottom, a door opened up down there somewhere through which some light shone, a light provided mostly by Mother Nature I suspect, but associated by us with a silly exercise we came to call The Pillow Game.
If Connor was not blessed with fluency, he was blessed with rather goofy parents, whose appetite for the ridiculous borders on being addictive-actually it is one of his mother's special charms and often I am just along for the ride. We had both noted that a major part of Dr. Goldberg's message was to facilitate, highlight, and reinforce fluency whenever we could, even, he said, by coming up with a silly game of some kind, where Connor would repeat what we said or learn to speak slowly. This appealed to both of us, and I don't know who thought of the pillows first; perhaps with the horde of pillows of various origins which graces our bed, which, in turn, graces our living room (Connor won the coin-toss and got the only bedroom in our flat), the game suggested itself. In any case, soon, every night after dinner without fail those pillows were strewn from the door to the bed and we were walking on them exclaiming in as slow and prolonged and gentle a manner as we could muster: "Hi, my name is Mommy. I like popsicles" before jumping onto the bed and applauding ourselves.
It took the little guy a while to get the idea of talking and not just jumping on the pillows, but soon he was doing it. By the second week, we could hear the smooth prolongations in his speech as he modeled us. And he loved it. After a time he was making up his own sentences, and he loved jumping off the bed after each round screaming, "One more time, okay."
As the game progressed, his speech during it became more and more fluent. I (and I know Peggy did, too) would almost hold my breath as Connor approached the bed praying that "popsicle" (one of his favorite things and least favorite words) or some other treasured thing would jump out of his mouth in one piece. And, God, more and more often it did... it did! Peggy and I would then look at each other with wonder: "Did you hear what I just heard?" What did this regained freedom in Connor's speech sound and feel like to me? Well, how about like hearing the theme to Phantom of the Opera inside my head, a music that filled my whole body with warmth, and, in this case, with thanks. It sounded like church bells tolling on a Russian Easter morning; like the breeze off a mountain meadow in spring bringing with it the perfume of the wild flowers; it felt like watching Shirley McLaine run back to Jack Lemmon at the end of The Apartment. It felt like watching E.T. go home.
By our third visit to State, three weeks after Connor hit "bottom," we found it very hard to find much disfluency to record in our journal. We knew things were progressing pretty well, but held ourselves back until Dr. Goldberg, after observing Connor on that third visit, proclaimed, "You know, I have never seen such a dramatic change in a child Connor's age," and told us not to come back for three months. Then we began to celebrate inwardly. That walk back to the car that day was one of the most joyous Peggy and I will ever take. I remember cautioning Peggy that we were not out of the woods yet, that the stuttering could still return, but neither of us really gave that much thought all the rest of that glorious day. As we watched Connor jump from off everything in sight while tightly clutching his Cookie Monster, we just thanked whatever forces were responsible for easing his way.
I started thinking then of this article, and as Connor continued to display fluent speech, and, I hurry to add, we continued to play The Pillow Game, often at Connor's request, a title immediately occurred to me. I was going to call it, The Best Christmas Present of All, that being Connor's freedom of speech. By Thanksgiving Day I was sitting down to write it, not sure that such a title might not be counting our chickens before they were hatched, when Connor came running up to me and took about ten tries to get the word "Daddy" out. There went that title.
As it happened, that day was just a "reminder" of his stuttering. He spoke very freely after that, right up until I sat down to write this just before and after Christmas when he displayed a little more stuttering. We are not sure if we should blame the excitement of the Holidays, or some unconscious aversion to being written about.
And so the final chapter of this story is not yet written. I don't know, Tookie, if I will share your fate or not. Maybe Connor will know the freedom of speech his father never did, and maybe not. Maybe Connor will pass that torch onto his brother Christy who looks back at me right now with the big brown eyes I had when am infant. What else of me will be deciphered in his genetic code?
But I do know that I am left with an uneasy feeling coming before you announcing my "good news," however tentative or permanent it might be. Does it sound self-serving to tell you that I feel guilty "hoping" Connor will stop stuttering because I cannot answer the question why he and I and Peggy should be so lucky when you, Tookie, and so many other parents and children I meet and talk to and read about are not? If the stuttering has to land on some doorstep, isn't it only fair that it land here at mine?
But there is no solution to the survivor's guilt equation. And as Connor takes on the everyday difficulties that life will present him, I am not going to pay much attention to the lack of one more challenge, however close it is to my heart. Whatever happens, I was lucky to have had my mother and father whose love instilled in me the definite feeling that I was a special person with much to give to others. Connor and I are just terribly lucky to have each other, to have Peggy, our families, and all of you.
I do feel sorry, however, for one thing that I said to some friends who expressed their concern. I told them, "Yes, Connor is one member the NSP can do without." I was wrong in this. Connor Thomas Ahlbach will always be part of our NSP family, whether he stutters or not.