The Sound of Silence
Ezriel is missing.
It’s time for me to serve supper, and though I’ve called his name what feels like a million times, he and his rosy cheeks have yet to make an appearance.
My house is not that big, and I don’t have any crawl spaces or deep closets in which a five-year-old can find haven from green beans he refuses to eat. Plus, it’s freezing cold outside and his coat is still on its hook, so I’m pretty sure he didn’t make a fast break into the great outdoors to escape those vexing vegetables.
My level of frustration is rising like the tide. Where on earth is he?
“Ezriel Berkovic, your supper is getting cold. You have five seconds to get to the table before I –“
Wait a second.
I’m pretty sure the couch pillow just hiccupped.
I need to handle this carefully.
I tiptoe toward the couch.
“Ezriel, is that you?” I whisper.
This time, I see the pillow jump a little, as if there’s a frog buried beneath it.
A frog – or a little boy who doesn’t want to be found.
Trying to mask my impatience, I lift up the pillow and find Ezriel, and though I’m relieved there is no frog (I don’t put anything past my kids), I’m concerned to see that Ezriel is looking a little worse for wear.
He is curled up into a ball, and his eyes and fists are squeezed shut. He’s doing everything in his little body’s power to keep from crying, but every now and then, a sneaky hiccup escapes his pursed white lips.
“Ez! Are you okay?”
He shakes his head no, but he won’t open his eyes. His body remains as taut as a bowstring, and I can see he’s struggling to swallow his sobs.
“I banged my knee against the glass table,” he manages to hiccup, and my heart breaks into a million little pieces.
He’s hurt himself badly, but he refuses to cry – and I know exactly why.
I forget about the supper growing cold in the kitchen. Instead, I scoot Ezriel a little further down the couch so there’s room for me to squeeze in next to him, and I hold him tightly against me. With his head safely cushioned, he begins to bawl, the sounds mercifully muffled in my shoulder.
He can cry now – because he knows no one can hear him.
He can cry now – because he knows Naftali can’t hear him.
There are certain things about living with a child with special needs that many people don’t realize. Ezriel, though only five years-old, is a veteran sibling of an autistic older brother, and he’s learned what many adults don’t even know. This little guy – too short to reach most microphones – can give a course on sensory integration disorder to a room of seasoned professionals. And even Ezriel could tell you Naftali is sensory to the extreme.
He can only wear certain clothing.
He can only eat certain foods.
He hates when he is dirty and washes his hands constantly.
But he is most sensory when it comes to sounds.
Very often, if you see Naftali in public, he’ll have his hands pressed up against his ears, doing his best to silence the world around him, his only defense against the cacophony of sounds that torture him.
He hates the sound of someone chewing.
He hates the sound of someone snoring.
He hates the sound of my singing voice (can’t really blame him for that one), and he begs me to stop when I sing along with music in the car. He begs like his life depends on it – which is great for my self-esteem – and so I’ve learned to just mouth the words. My kids have learned the same.
You know how you cringe when someone runs his nails against a blackboard? For Naftali, that discomfort is amplified by a thousand, and it’s for sounds that are common and expected, the soundtrack of everyday life.
Can you guess the hardest sound for him to take?
It’s the sound of another child crying.
It sounds sweet. It sounds compassionate. It sounds like he can’t tolerate seeing another child in pain. But crying is the background music of a busy and, yes, happy home, and Naftali is unable to deal with it. As soon as he hears someone crying, he lashes out. Sometimes he hits himself. Sometimes he punches a wall (we have a few holes to show for it). Sometimes he’ll throw things and break them (even things he loves), and sometimes he’ll try to hit the crying child (even a child he loves).
It’s a compulsive reaction – one he seems to have no control over – and he always feels terrible once his rage subsides. He’ll apologize profusely and hug the terrified child, but it’s usually too little, too late. The damage is done.
It’s tough for my kids. It’s tough for me. No matter how uncomfortable for Naftali, I can’t silence the inevitable. Kids are going to fight, kids are going to be overtired, kids are going to trip and fall, and kids are going to cry for no good reason.
That’s just life.
And no matter how uncomfortable for the rest of my kids, I can’t change the child Naftali is. Even with years of therapy and behavioral plans, there are certain behaviors he struggles to control, and there is always the risk that he’ll respond in a way we wish he wouldn’t.
That’s just life. And life can be painful.
Like every mother, I wish there was a way I could make everything perfect for all my children. I wish there was a way they could cry at the top of their lungs whenever they hurt themselves, whenever they feel hurt, or whenever they just need to blow off steam. But Hashem chose for Naftali to be their brother, and though it presents certain challenges, it also presents remarkable opportunities for growth.
Ezriel, at age five, has taught himself the lengths of self-control that I as an adult have yet to master. That breaks my heart, but it also makes me incredibly proud. No one goes through life without challenges, challenges designed for us by Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and it is up to us to respond with grace, with strength, and with growth.
We can learn from the littlest people in our life, and tonight, I learned from my five-year-old son that it’s okay to cry – but sometimes we need to quiet our sobs to avoid causing someone else pain.
That’s a powerful lesson of growth to learn from a kid who still thinks green beans are “totally gross,” but believe me, I’ll take it.