Here’s a reader challenge for you: this week, spend a few hours in a social setting, with people you know and like, but don’t utter a word.
Notice how quickly some comments you want to make will lose their importance, and pay attention to the ideas that won’t go away.
It’s an exercise I’ve been trying and failing miserably at for over a week now, as my voice seems to have taken an indefinite hiatus.
I never realized how many unnecessary things I say until speaking became a laborious task. That doesn’t stop me from voicing every half-baked insight I deem worthy of projection, but it does make me appreciate this ability so much more.
It’s also gotten me thinking about my little brother, Kevin.
My name was the first word he ever spoke. Kevin was a few months old, wearing a onesie with space ships on it and sitting in a bouncy baby seat. Five-year-old Blair was lounging on the carpet of the living room, trying to will this bubble-gum-cheeked, wispy-blonde-haired mess to reach outside his comfort zone of drool and snot.Then it happened:
A few misused consonants and extra syllables, but it was there. To this day, nobody in my family believes me on this fact, as I served as sole witness, but that never mattered much to me. My brother had spoken, and he had chosen me, not his mama or his dada or his other sister DeDe (Ellie) to be his first message to the adult world.
Retrospectively, I wonder how much meaning this event actually had for me at the time, versus how much I infuse into the memory 15 years later. I like to think I knew, even at the kindergarten stage, that this was a major bonding moment.
Five years later, we were an odd pair of best friends, and the extra syllables and misused consonants were still there — not just when he said my name, but any other word as well.
Kevin had a speech impediment, meaning that his name was “Kebin Stenbick,” and his birthday was on “Novembuh thuhhd.”
Hearing my skinny, bespectacled brother say these things is, perhaps, the most adorable thing I will ever encounter. It was also one of the most hilarious, as Ellie and I were sure to exploit frequently. Against my parents’ stern warnings, we’d often do dramatic impressions that would send Kevin running to his room, sobbing.
As much as we got a kick out of teasing him, Ellie and I also had to serve as translators, explaining to friends that for Kev, “L” and “R” were tricky, and “V” sometimes came out as “B.”
What finally compelled me to quit making fun of Kevin for good was when he came home from school one day complaining that none of his classmates could understand what he wanted to do at recess.
“What did you tell them?” I asked.
He answered, but for the first time since he’d spoken my name years ago, even I couldn’t comprehend what my brother was trying to tell me. I asked him to repeat himself a few times, but when it became clear that I had no idea what he was saying, he sank into the couch, a defeated old man at the age of seven.
After a few bouts with speech therapy, Kevin developed speech as clear as a newscaster’s, and is now a perhaps overly-confident 15 year old. But I’ll never forget the frustration on his face, or my own frustration this past week.
Back to the exercise — remember those ideas that wouldn’t go away? These ideas are why you have a voice, so after your period of silence is up, please, use it. Whisper to a close companion, shout across Quarry Plaza, exclaim into a webcam.
As much as I loathe clichés, sometimes they lend a wisdom nothing else can match: the words we regret most are the ones we never say — or the ones nobody else can truly hear.
So, talk. Pontificate. Make a ruckus. Please, do it for Kebin.