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More Than Words

For as long as I can remember, I've lived a life dedicated to language. I was an early talker and a bookworm: Even now I can recall the plot of the first book I ever read alone  -- Barney Beagle Plays Baseball  -- and the joy I felt when I realized I was actually deciphering it, that a door into the amazing world of storybooks had just opened before me.

So it's with some puzzlement that I regard my second son, Henry, who doesn't speak in words. He's 19 months old, an age at which most toddlers are stringing together two- and three-word sentences  -- but the only word he says is "hot."

It's true that in terms of single-word vocabularies, "hot" isn't a bad way to go  -- it's much more useful than, say, "flag," which was our older son's first word. And the kid clearly has no trouble understanding the ways of this world. He laughs at other people's jokes, sympathetically pats his weeping older brother on the back, appropriately uses a spoon to offer me a taste of his dinner, and throws an unholy fit when the answer to any request is "No."

In fact, Henry has devised an elaborate sign system for communicating with the rest of his family, we who stubbornly insist on speaking to make our meanings clear. The chief strategy of his system is to point at an object or in a direction that will lead most quickly to his meaning. He pursues this type of communication doggedly, undeterred by our efforts to teach him the corollary words involved. If he wants a toy that's out of his reach, he trots up to the nearest big person and points into the next room, which means "Follow me." By gesturing to individual items in the pantry, he tells us what he wants to eat. He's a tenacious little fellow, and he almost always gets his way.

The other day, for instance, he selected Cheerios for breakfast. My husband had already poured him some and even acquiesced to the insistent pointing at the milk, adding a splash to a bowl he knew full well was destined for the floor. But when Henry caught sight of the gleaming eggs in the refrigerator, he changed his mind and began gesturing wildly at them instead.

"No, you're having cereal for breakfast," admonished Haywood, who was already late for his shower and no doubt wondering what was taking me so long in there. The Amazing Wordless Boy pitched his spoon to the floor and again pointed to the eggs, this time with the added emphasis of a flick of his wrist.

"First eat your Cheerios, honey, and then maybe you can have an egg," sighed Haywood as he headed for the guest bathroom. Moments later, as I emerged, dripping, I heard our 6-year-old son, Sam, screaming at the top of his lungs, "Mom! Mom! Mom, I think you need to get in here!"

What I found in the kitchen was a bowl of cereal that had hit the floor moments earlier and a slime-covered toddler who was standing before the bathroom door. In his hand he held the remnants of an egg he had gotten himself, having carried it to the door he had seen his father disappear behind, and having knocked on that door with his egg-holding hand. The white of the egg had slithered down the length of his arm; the yolk was squished between his fingers. "I think he's trying to tell Dad he wants an egg for breakfast," said Sam, the one who uses words to convey his ideas.

All this nonverbal communication has made me rethink my theories about the centrality of language to the human condition. Unlike his basically even-tempered and very verbal brother, our second son is capable of body-wracking fits of fury, breathless bouts of hilarity, and  -- even at this tender age  -- the sweetest displays of cheek-patting affection I've ever seen in a tiny child. He is seemingly undaunted in these tasks by the inability to speak in words.

So I finally concede what an artist friend has been telling me for years: You really don't need to find the right words to make an idea or a feeling real and lasting. Henry has taught me what no one else could ever make me admit: Symbols and actions can work just fine for communication, and sometimes the best way to feel is simply to feel  -- to lie down on the floor and scream with laughter or with rage.

Still, I know that when this child finally does learn to talk, when he says for the first time, "I love you," I'm going to feel exactly the way I felt when the big block letters of Barney Beagle Plays Baseball first untangled themselves right before my eyes. Just as then, a door will swing open into a magical world, a world that is even more beautiful and amazing than the one I'm walking through now.

Margaret Renkl's last article for Parenting was "Teachers' Best Discipline Strategies," in the November 1999 issue.