Reflections of the World and Me

By

I have troubled history with mirrors. I believe they are dishonest. I don’t mean cosmetically, though certain lights and angles have made me think—do I really look this good? No, I tell myself, you don’t. It’s an illusion. I know it is.

And yet, I can’t stop looking.

My first memory of a mirror occurred at age eight—hair tangled, cheeks puffed. My teeth were so spaced out my older sister nicknamed me jack-o’-lantern. That year, a girl at school noticed the dirt under my fingernails. She pulled my hands close, concentrated, quiet as my mother threading a needle. The girl waved her friend over, then made my nails—usually a pale pink, but colored partially gray that day by my pencil—the centerpiece of show and tell. They all laughed, while I used the edge of my folder to wipe away the stain.

It’s true, I was disheveled. Being tender-headed led my hair to tangle, and whirlybirds covered my clothes any time I stepped outside. But I didn’t mind the ways my exterior seemed different. I believed I was just like everyone else: round belly, brown eyes, wide feet. At eight years old I stared in the mirror and willed myself to believe I was normal.

I wasn’t.

I had been born with a speech impediment, a stutter. Research shows that stuttering is genetic, entirely neurological, but when I was growing up my parents and teachers understood very little about why I had trouble communicating. As soon as I learned to speak, the repetitions started—just on certain syllables at first. But then came prolongations, the sounds of letters held, and held, and held. Suddenly, there were words I knew but could no longer say. Frantic, my mother presented me to my pediatrician—but was told nothing seemed abnormal. Kids outgrow stuttering, the doctor said.

By the time I entered first grade, the severity of my stutter had grown. My mother asked my elementary school to enroll me in speech therapy, and they did. Twice a week, I was sent to a different classroom and made to do tongue twisters and reading exercises. The homework always involved mirrors: say your name in front of the mirror, slowly; say your name in front of the mirror, quickly; repeat these five words in front of a mirror; repeat these ten words in front of a mirror. The repetition of it all was ironic.

At first the exercises made me feel self-conscious. It’s how I felt at sleepovers when all the girls would gather around the bathroom mirror, lock the door, and turn off the lights. There was a legend in my county that a spirit named the Bell Witch haunted a nearby cave—and the ghost hated young girls especially. As a test of bravery, we would lock ourselves in a dark room, hold a lit candle, and recite into the mirror, “I hate the Bell Witch, I hate the Bell Witch, I hate the Bell Witch…” ten to fifteen times. I could barely make it to ten—not out of fear, but because my stutter, inevitably, interrupted the chant. But I couldn’t stop staring at my reflection. I liked the way my lips moved in the candlelight.

I became entranced by the mirror. Even when I wasn’t executing speech exercises or summoning ghosts, I found myself gravitating towards my reflection. I asked myself questions. How are you? and how’s the weather? seemed innocent enough. I knew it was strange, talking to myself. But I never stuttered alone, so the mirror became my only chance to speak freely. I’d stare at my round jaw, my collarbones, my teeth, and say anything that came to mind. I’d say words that, only hours ago, caused me endless grief.

“The floor is sssssss… sssss… sssss… ssssssssslippery,” I told my sister, hands curled into fists, cheeks red.

“The floor is slippery,” I repeated to the mirror, smiling as if my world, the world of light beams and shadows, was where I belonged.

If a family member walked by, I’d wander off quickly—terrified they might overhear me, might catch me in the act. As time passed, I became more aware of my stutter as a difference—a disability that made others pause, that no one seemed to understand. My conversations in the mirror felt like a secret cure. Staring into my reflection, speaking to myself without hesitation, I wondered if my moments of fluency were real if no one else could hear them.

I asked a scientist at the National Stuttering Conference, Dr. Dennis Drayna, why so little is known about stuttering. He’s the chief researcher of genetics in the Laboratory of Communication Disorders in Maryland. He’s also the only researcher of genetics in the Laboratory of Communication Disorders in Maryland.

He’s studied stuttering—which affects more than one million Americans—for thirty years. But still finds himself at an impasse, trying to solve an invisible puzzle without enough pieces or researchers to help.

“Why is that?” I ask. “Why aren’t you given the rrrrresources?”

“Because you can’t die from it,” he says.

Because you can’t die from it. Because you can’t die from it. It surprised me. It sounded both cruel and obvious. Stuttering can produce chronic headaches and jaw pain, social anxiety and low self-esteem, but life is never threatened. There is a medical hierarchy. There has to be.

And yet.

And yet there is something strange and lonely about being an outcast among outcasts. During my last job interview I spoke in a nervous, torrential rush, hoping the stutter would subside, would take the day off when I really needed it gone. (It didn’t.) Meanwhile, my health insurance won’t cover speech therapy because I do not have a medical condition causing the stutter. “Ssssstuttering is a medical condition,” I tell them. “It’s a n-n-neurological and genetic cond-cond-cond-condition.” In the phone’s receiver, all I hear is static.

Eventually I hang up, realizing the argument is futile. The real problem is how misunderstood disability is. My stutter is not a death sentence nor an occasional quirk. Those of us living with everyday disabilities don’t function in these extremes.

Sometimes I seem too disabled. Other times, I’m not disabled enough.

*

We are spinning dandelion stems, watching their seeds travel.

“You blow one,” my nephew says.

Montgomery is commanding, exciting—eyes bright, pupils blue. He is two years old and strangely well spoken. I have watched his progress: the one-word stage (milk), the two-word stage (milk please), the sentence streams (give me milk). I have seen his words form fast, flowing like magic. I am fascinated. I cannot stop studying him, studying language.

I want to know why my own magic ran dry.

“What do you say, Montgomery?” I say, my intonation rising. I speak well when using baby talk.

“Please and thank you,” he says, his tone recited. It is early spring. Too early for tomatoes plants, for denim shorts or sunscreen. My family is sitting on the patio. Mom leans against her chair. “Bring on the rays, baby,” I hear her say.

“Don’t get too comfy,” my dad says. “We still got blackberry winter.”

Mom rolls her eyes.

I smile, holding a stem between my fingers, twirling it over air.

Montgomery throws his hands up. “I-I-I-I-I-I next!” he says.

My eyes narrow, examining his face. “You next,” I say, pulling another dandelion by its roots. He holds it in his hands like nothing has happened.

Over the next three years, Montgomery will acquire an unusually good memory and will direct whoever’s driving to “turn left” or “turn right,” depending on where we’re headed. After months of roundhouse kicks and forward rolls, he’ll earn his yellow belt in jiu-jitsu. He’ll be an irritatingly picky eater who can tell if you’re trying to pass off generic, oven-baked chicken nuggets for Wendy’s, thank you very much.

He will be special for many reasons and none of them will be related to his speech, because his developmental stuttering will remain there—at the toddler stage, sitting with his aunt on a hill behind his grandparents’ house. His stuttering will only be witnessed by a handful of people before vanishing fast as dandelion seeds.

And when he recovers from his speech delay, as children often do, I will be more relieved than disappointed. But still the disappointment will remain. If only I had a protégé, a pupil, I think, someone to coach and encourage—this would all be worth it. Stuttering could be more than a random neurological effect, or a genetic nuisance. It could surpass this narrow sense of otherness, this societal rift between normal and abnormal.

My stutter could become a mirror through which I might reflect a better world.

*

Jada is brave and parks in the driveway.

“What if s-s-s-someone lives here now?” I whisper.

“No one does,” she says. Later, I’ll learn that she drives to her childhood home every few weeks, parks her car, and cuts the headlights, willing nostalgia to return.

We approach the front of her old house with eyes wide, hands holding flashlights. We are on a mission to retrieve the corpse of her dead cat.

We pause at the porch steps, curious, wondering if we can enter. I try the doorknob. “Locked,” I say. We stumble over unkempt grass and fallen acorns, passing the tree where her little brother’s potbelly pig, Petunia, used to find shade. Further on, we spot remnants of the fire-pit and herb garden, both buried under wet leaves. The yard feels equally familiar and foreign. It’s been a year since the foreclosure, and it’s clear this landscape yearns to be wild.

“The shovels are in the car,” Jada remembers suddenly. I sigh, muttering about the rain. “I’ll be right back,” she says, gone before I can offer to come along. I pull my jacket closer, my flats wet and muddy. I’m eighteen and home from my out-of-state college for the weekend. I had barely eaten dinner before Jada—my hometown best friend—persuaded me to help with her latest project.

We are disturbing her cat’s grave so she can be reburied in Jada’s new backyard. Disliking cats as much as I do means this favor took some persistence. I was not swayed by the color of Milo’s coat (orange tabby) or the lengths of his love (forty miles, Jada swears, the cat once walked to find her). The only reason I agreed to disrupt a grave late at night on foreclosed property is because my friend is weird.

My friend is weird like the whole world is weird, and only a few people will let you see it. With all my starts and stops, reverberations and elongations, my weirdness can be caught in the air—audible, palpable, static like waves. Disability is, by basic definition, considered a disadvantage. And while everyone else can hide their quirks, can put them on a leash and let them out at home, those of us with disabilities are forced to put ours on display. Self-reflection isn’t optional for those of us with disabilities. It’s necessary. It’s where we find resolve. When we look into the mirror, we have nowhere else to hide.

I should’ve been thinking about this as I shoveled. Or maybe, after we unearthed the torn, plastic bag and ended up with cat bones at our feet. That would’ve been a good time for an epiphany. But I was too busy laughing, gasping, wiping the dust from my hands. And stuttering. Though neither of us seemed to notice.

***

Photographs © Kirk Jordan.


Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer and essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Salon, the Washington Post, Longreads, and many more. Lately, she’s been hard at work on her first book about disability. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at https://www.rachelbhoge.com. More from this author →