I sit alone in the dark hallway at a too-small desk intended for a college classroom. I hear muffled sounds of people passing by, but all of my attention is focused on a one-way window where I watch my two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, race cars on the track in front of her. The graduate student speech therapist watches and takes notes then brings out a flippable trifold with pictures and words.
“It’s time to work now, Charlotte,” says the therapist with an overly enthusiastic voice. She sits on the floor next to Charlotte, the cards placed in front of them.
“What’s this, Charlotte?”
Charlotte stares at her.
The therapist tries again, her wide smile matching her loud voice, waiting for any response. “How about this one?” she asks. I see a car on the card and want to tell the therapist Charlotte knows what a car is, she just can’t say the word. I’d tell her anything to keep her moving along.
More staring blankly from Charlotte. She then moves into the corner to play with a toy.
“What does the cow say, Charlotte?” She’s now found the animals and plays with them but hasn’t been able to repeat any sounds or words for the therapist.
“Can you say “puh” for me?” I start to hear desperation in the therapist’s voice. Or perhaps that’s just my feeling.
Charlotte offers no words to the therapist, at least none that are anywhere close to what’s pictured. Through the window I hear her laughing and cheering as she plays with the cow.
In my head I’m screaming: “She doesn't speak any words. That’s why we’re here. It’s your job to teach her to talk.” Sitting at the seat’s edge with my hands gripping the attached desk it takes all my effort to keep from knocking on the window. Turning away for a moment, wondering why the therapist can’t move on, I see the long hallway and many doors between me and my daughter. I am not the one being evaluated and know that any attempts I make to help Charlotte will be to no avail. She has no words to speak.
I wake up before the sun rises to the sounds of sleeping bags rustling, backpacks opening and closing, tired yawns, and arms stretching. I quickly dress and pack my bag as I’ve done every night since beginning this journey on the Camino de Santiago. I am a single 25-year-old graduate student when I decide to walk 500 miles across Northern Spain one summer by myself. Each night I arrive to a different hostel as I walk the same route that pilgrims have been walking for centuries making their way to the cathedral in Santiago housing the relics of St. James. Before, during, and after I ask myself why I’m walking and the answer changes with each ask. Yet, somewhere deep down I know the answer I’m searching for is within me; the answer to finding my way in the world.
Climbing down from the top bunk I see a few empty beds already. Others have left even earlier than me and I wonder how they can walk on so little sleep. I look around to see sleeping bodies and am grateful that I’m already up. After a quick splash of water on my face, I fill my water bottles and lace my boots, and finally sling my backpack over my shoulders and head to the door.
I have anywhere between 15 and 25 kms to cover this day depending on where I want to rest for the night. I rise early and arrive at my destination early. Or more accurately, I arrive first. For much of my life, in school, music, friendships, if I wasn’t first, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know if I had any place at all.
It doesn’t dawn on me till about halfway through my month-long travels that I don’t have to be first to arrive at the hostels each night. There will be a bed for me.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I worried that something might be wrong with Charlotte’s speech.
As she approached her first birthday I kept waiting for that first word. Every day seemed like the perfect day to hear her voice. With still no first word when she turned 18 months our pediatrician recommended a speech consult.
We didn’t know which story to believe: the doctor requesting a speech consult or the myriads of well-meaning family and friends.
“Oh, she’ll talk when she’s ready.”
“Our son/daughter/grandchild didn’t talk until they were 2, give it time.”
“What do the timelines mean, anyway? Babies work on their own schedule.”
A few more months passed and still no words.
As we approached her two-year well visit we knew we had to address Charlotte’s lack of words.
On my best days I looked forward to the people who would be guiding us along this journey and on my worst days I spiraled into self-doubt and worry. The same story I placed on myself of needing to be first was being placed inadvertently on my daughter: if she can’t talk now, will she ever talk? For both of us, where would we be, who would we be, if not first? Along the Camino I learned there was always space for me; I hope there will be room for Charlotte, too. It takes effort for me to trust that just because she’s not the first to be talking doesn’t mean that she will be last.
I am 28, working as a full-time pastor, and living in my first apartment states away from my family and friends. One night, I reread journals and notes from them searching for a connection to my past so I can find my way in the future. During my last visit with my mom I took some of her journals back home with me. They’re not personal, tell-all journals but rather academic writing chronicling her graduate work enroute to teaching special education.
The pages are worn with age and a hazy yellow color. I’m one of the characters, Kimmy, age five. I carefully turn the type-written pages. I can almost hear the typewriter forming each word.
One particular note stands out to me: Kimmy is overly afraid of failure; she will not proceed in school unless certain of perfection.
At five, I already feared not being perfect.
I find retreat inside a local coffee shop to avoid the heat of the Spanish sun. I’m surrounded by buttery croissants, pictures of vineyards and red poppy flowers, and the smell of deep, rich hot chocolate. The owner, tall and tanned, greets me with the traditional, “Buen Camino!” It’s been a long day already with more miles to cover.
With my hot chocolate and bread, I find a place to sit and rest my blistered feet.
“How do you find the Camino?” I hear from the shopkeeper.
“It’s good. Tiring. Beautiful. Life-changing.” I struggle to find the words to describe my experience.
“I’ve walked the Camino multiple times myself.” Ah, I think, he knows. He’s a pilgrim, too. “You learn that you don’t need much in life, all the money and things we have are just extras. If you can live out of a bag for one month, you can do it for years.”
I think about how much I’ve been carrying in my backpack, but also about all the things I’ve been carrying in my heart, too. The fear and insecurity. The desire to be perfect.
I want to let it all go.
“Thank you for your stories,” I tell him as I pack my bag and lace my shoes.
“Thank you,” he tells me and then offers me a blessing. “Everyone finds their own way. Find yours and make it a good one.”
I peer through the upturned shades of the window while sitting at my desk in our home office. Sunlight streams in over a finished cup of chai tea, notebooks, pencils, and colored pens. With my back to the door I write the thoughts that have been swirling in my head as the sounds of Thomas the Train float in the room.
I barely notice Charlotte enter when I hear her soft voice, “I love you.” I stop typing mid-sentence as my cheeks expand and begin to hurt from being so wide.
The words, “I” and “you” are clear. The “love” a beginning attempt that sounds more like a baby’s babble, but I know what she’s saying.
I love you.
“Charlotte, did you say, “I love you?” I ask incredulously.
She puts her head down bashfully, a small smile forming.
“I love you, Mama.”
“Charlotte! You just said, “I love you!” I can barely believe it myself. How long have I waited for her to utter those words?
She’s almost four years old.
She turns away and walks back to Thomas on the TV. It’s the same room where I sit to write, but now, in that moment, the room feels full of possibility. The possibility of words, stories, and space for both of us, and the reminder that perfection was never the goal. Charlotte is making her own way in her own time.
I’m back alone in a dark room looking through a one-way mirror to Charlotte working with her speech therapist. We’ve been coming here for over a year. These are the people who have helped Charlotte find her voice and given us a name for her speech delay: Childhood Apraxia of Speech.
I watch Charlotte laugh and talk and receive high-fives from her therapist.
“Let’s do our cards, first, Charlotte, and then we can play a game.”
“Bow!” comes from Charlotte’s mouth even before the cards are flipped over.
“Puppy, Cow, Pay, Mom, Moon.”
“Good job, Charlotte!”
“Boat, Eight, Bone.”
“You know these, good working! Now, what game do you want to play?”
“Balls! Cookies! Play Doh!” There are so many options that Charlotte can’t decide.
“How about the farm animals?” asks the therapist as she pulls the barn from the cupboard.
“Yes, okay!” Charlotte enthusiastically grabs the barn.
“Open, moooo!” she yells as she opens the door and grabs the cow.
I watch in awe through the window. I see my joyful, happy, 4-year-old daughter finding and using her voice. Yet, if I look closely into the window, I also see myself.
I think back to the first time she uttered those four words: I love you, Mama. That day in our home office I was wrestling with writing and calling myself a writer. I wondered if anything would come of the words I wrote and if anyone would care. Perfection unattainable. But in that moment of doubt, Charlotte’s voice declared her love for me. Me, her mother. Me, a writer. The one who is learning to let go of perfection and trust that there are a multitude of ways to find one’s place in this world.
I move closer to the window and place my hands against the glass offering a blessing to my daughter, but also to myself. I hear her gentle voice telling me, “I love you.” I whisper them back to Charlotte, and to my reflection.
Guest essay written by Kimberly Knowle-Zeller. KIm is a writer, pastor, wife, and mother wholives with her family in Cole Camp, Missouri. When she’s not at the park with her two children, out in town, or tending to the garden, you can find her with a pen and paper, a good book, and a cup of coffee. You can read more at her website or follow her work on Facebook.
Photo by Lottie Caiella