For the last eight years, we’ve worked to help our J-Man learn to say the ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds. For most of those years, it’s sounded like this mixture of a glottal stop and a fake swallow combined, his lips and teeth open. In other words, about as opposite from an actual ‘b’ or ‘p’ sound as you can get.
A procession of speech therapists have tried a seemingly endless encyclopedia of techniques to help him with this. As he gained more and more verbal sounds, the sounds he used as his own approximations for ‘b’ and ‘p’ remained steadfast. He still has approximately the verbal speech of a two or three-year-old (he just turned nine), but the clarity of the speech he does have has improved in leaps and bounds in recent months.
It would be one thing if it were just us talking to him. We know what he means, and in that regard his glottal approximations haven’t made that much functional difference. We know, however, as he gets older and learns to express himself more and more, and the more clarity we help him achieve, the more he will be able to make his voice heard by others. Obviously when he gets older and grows toward adulthood, the more vital it is for him to be at least somewhat understood in situations anywhere from ordering lunch to advocating for himself to others.
So we kept trying. We tried every form of modeling the sound for him, but to no avail. We focused on getting him to close his lips – an essential component of bilabial sounds like ‘b’ and ‘p’ – but he would just touch his lips and then go right back to forming the sounds the way he always had.
Many years and approaches later, we noticed that the throaty, glottal noise was moving slowly forward in his mouth. We wondered if maybe he was ready and preparing himself to make a change. His speech therapist had the brilliant idea to substitute ‘b’ or ‘p’ for ‘m’ to get him to close his lips as a transitional step toward ‘b’ and ‘p’ later. So, ‘blue’ became ‘mlue’ or ‘muhlue’, ‘mink’ for ‘pink’, and so on. This finally seemed to click for him in a way nothing else had before. It got that frontal, similar, bilabial sound going and moved the sound forward in his mouth. We were getting there. We could feel it.
Then on occasion he would successfully make a ‘b’ or ‘p’ sound! It seemed rather random, but in reality it was primarily when he wasn’t thinking about it. Instead of overthinking it or remaining so invested in patterns that had built up over the years, it just popped out there.
We thought about what a Herculean step this was for him after almost eight years, how much he stuck with it and did the work and the practice. I can’t imagine something being so hard, but yet him working at it for so long. It made us even that much prouder of him.
I recently had to go back to the Head Pain clinic in Michigan, this time by myself. Mary frantically was texting me that he was repeatedly making those elusive ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds in songs and scripts at home. I asked her to make a video clip and send it to me. She did, and I sat on my hospital bed and wept, tears of joy and pride.
Tears that he had climbed to the top of this incredible mountain, and tears that I had been 700 miles away when he did. I had missed that moment. I am the primary stay-at-home parent. I have been here for just about every first of everything. A big part of me hurt. I know how hard he worked, and the time, talent, and energy a small army of people had put into helping his speech progress over the years.
I felt sorry for myself for a little while. I sobbed as I watched the video over and over again. Then I became grateful that moments like this are part of my life. I get to bear witness to my two brave, determined sons who conquer challenges great and small every day. They do not quit, ever. I am grateful that they make me a better father and a better man. Lord knows I need both of those things right now.
I am grateful for the people who work on their behalf to make these moments possible. These moments don’t appear out of thin air. They are the culmination of hundreds and thousands of hours of work by numerous saints who give their lives so that our children can have that chance to become the fullest possible expressions of themselves.
We start on the next journey now. There will always be a next journey. But now he can say words like beauty, bright, brilliant, believe, beloved, best, blessing, brilliance, bravery, possibility, potential, powerful, promise, peace, perseverance, progress, and proud.