“Mama, Mama! Look what we got in school today!”
Katie was running toward me, cradling her prize. She held it out to me with both hands, breathlessly offering me a look at this object of wonder. Obviously, this was BIG.
“It’s a dictionary made just for students,” she said, eyes wide and expectant. “It’s FULL of WORDS!”
There’s no denying that my daughter comes by her love of language honestly. We spent a recent car trip in an animated discussion about etymology – the study of word origins and evolution – and how it can be used to decipher meaning. We talked about the common history of the romance languages and how if you know more than one, you can root out meanings in another. We talked about Greek and Latin. We had far too much fun as I gave her some examples and we puzzled through them together.
So it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise that Katie was holding onto her new student’s dictionary as though it were an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, it is.
On Monday, she brought it along on our trip to the nail salon. She spent my entire manicure searching for new words. “Mama,” she’d say again and again, “give me another one. Make it one I don’t know. I want to learn something new!”
I wracked my brain for words she would find interesting. She loved DECIPHER. She got a big kick out of FORTITUDE. She struggled with how to use NUANCE in a sentence.
But it was LEXICON that was her favorite. First, it made her laugh that she had looked up a word that essentially meant ‘dictionary’ in the dictionary. But then we dug deeper. We talked about how each of us has our own lexicon – our very own list of words always at our disposal.
We continued the conversation as we got into the car to head home. We talked about the power that comes with expanding one’s lexicon. We talked about how a wider array of words gives you a far greater likelihood of being able to accurately communicate what you see (or hear or smell or feel or want or need) with others.
My voice cracked. I hoped she didn’t hear it. This was hitting home.
“Ok,” I said, shaking it off. “Purple. How many different shades of purple can we name?”
We did our best to think of gradations of purples – lavender, lilac, periwinkle, deep purple, royal purple, violet, magenta.
We must have spent ten minutes on purple.
I was grateful for the distraction.
I explained to Katie how much power there is in the ability to communicate in vivid, living color. There’s strength, capability and security in knowing that you can share with pinpoint accuracy what’s inside your head.
I flashed to a conversation I’d had with Brooke the day before. She’d walked into the bathroom while I was showering. She was clutching Ming Ming the Duckling and looking very serious.
“Ming Ming isn’t yellow anymore,” she’d said with a furrowed brow.
“Oh no,” I’d said, “what happened to her?”
“She’s all red.”
“How did that happen, Brooke?” I’d asked.
“She isn’t yellow anymore. She’s all red now.”
“How did she get red?”
“She’s bleeding,” she’d said – her face a cartoonish exaggeration of ‘sad’.
“She is? How did she get hurt?” I’d asked.
“She got all red.”
Circles. Round and round we go without the right words.
“What happened that made her bleed, honey?” I’d asked slowly, separating each word.
“BECAUSE,” she’d said, emphasizing the ‘because’ even though it wasn’t contextually appropriate, “she needs to go to the doctor.”
“Oh. So did she get a cut?” I’d ask, trying to help a bit.
“How did she get the cut, Brooke?”
“Because she isn’t yellow anymore.”
I chided myself for focusing on such a silly conversation. Of all the difficulty that she has communicating, why hone in on a nonsense interchange? So we go in circles; so what? We’re light years from where we were when her only means of social interaction was to come to us with the first half of a word and wait for us to finish it. We’re nearly unrecognizable from the days – not so long ago – when she’d ask us our names over and over and over, followed by ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ again and again and again.
Yes, it was a silly conversation to get stuck on. But it still matters. Interaction matters to my girl. Words matter. And they don’t come easily. Understanding them, finding them, using them, stringing them together to make meaning – it’s HARD.
There is immense power in words. They have the power to create, to unite, to motivate. They have the power to soothe and to comfort. They have the power to forge and foster connection. They have the power to make us feel understood. Some even have the power to long outlive their speakers.
But sometimes, it’s their absence that is most powerful of all.
And the most heartbreaking.