Breaking Silence

Grace Alyea '18

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One word could change everything. One word could keep it all the same. But which word was the right word?

They sat in front of the doctor. With the right word, he could change Tom’s life.

Is that what I want?

Change is something feared, wanted, and needed — for some more than others. But did Tom want the kind of change he was offered?

“Here are the forms. Fill them out; and, if you still want to go through with it, call my office.”

“Thank you very much,” said Abby, Tom’s favorite (and only) little sister. They stood up and Tom inclined his head to say thank you as they went out the door. Tom opened the passenger side of the car for Abby.

“You’re gonna drive? K, but I’m warning you, traffic is going to be awful.”

Tom made a sweeping gesture with his hand toward the passenger seat.

In a British accent, Abby said,“Thank you my kind sir.” She slid into the car, and Tom slammed the door.

“Hey,” came a muffled yell. “This is my car– be careful!”

Tom smiled. He got in on his own side and started the engine. Abby was right. The traffic was awful, but it gave Tom time to think.

Again the question came: Is this what I want?

Tom Burrows was born without a sound.  Well, he made no sound. He came out peaceful as a still lake on a summer day. Not a single tear appeared on his newborn face. Doctors were baffled. They checked the baby again and again. He was a perfectly healthy baby boy, just peaceful and silent. Tom grew up loving his little sister and parents, showing love through actions but never words. The parents thought words would come with age, but they never did.

At the appointment today, Tom had been offered a chance for a voice.

Would it work?

Tom sat behind a line of cars watching the gray clouds move in, thinking about the choice in front of him. He thought back to a sunny day in 4th grade. When Tom was in elementary school, his one friend was Jack. Jack loved to talk so he didn’t mind Tom’s eerie silence. But when Tom needed to say something, Jack found a way to listen. Jack was a wonderful friend. But Abby was his sister, and she understood him like no one else.

It was a beautiful, warm early fall day, and Tom sat alone on a bench during recess.

“Heyyy Tom!” It was Gabe.

Here comes another one of his Tom-tauntings.

“You’re such a freak,” yelled Frank, a friend of Gabe’s.

Gabe and his buddies circled Tom’s bench blocking out the sun.

Why did Jack have to place a tack on Mr. Lenard’s chair. He would have loved to hit these guys.

“Hey,” said Gabe. “I heard he was born mute. More like mutated!”

They jostled and lightly punched him. Mocking Tom’s silence,  they jeered: “Nice comeback!” and “Oh so tough!”

A sliver of light hit Tom’s face as Abby somehow slipped between him and the bullies.

“Hey boys,  I don’t really think you want to bother him,” said Abby in a confident tone.

“Why not freak- of-a-sister,” sneered Gabe.

“Becaaaause,” she drawled, just before she punched Gabe squarely in the face.  Abby hit Gabe so hard, he fell to the ground.

Now this was elementary school. So, if a girl punched a guy, you were going to respect her in the only way kids can: by avoiding her. The punched is automatically dumped to the bottom of the food chain. Everyone backed off, and Gabe practically ran away.

“You’re welcome,” Abby said in response to Tom’s silent thank you. Tom crossed his arms and Abby replied, “I know you could have taken them — I was just getting my punch in first.”

“See you,” she added as she walked back to her friends, laughing at a disgraced Gabe.

The memory faded and the question came rushing into Tom’s mind again.

Is this what I want?

He remembered all the tauntings, but also the successes. The feeling of accomplishment when he went off to college. And when he graduated college, the knowledge that he had shown everybody that he could do it. He remembers his parents clapping, their smiles glowing, and his sister beaming beside them — so proud of her older brother. Tom also remembered when he landed the job as a pediatrician at Mass General Hospital with a wonderful interpreter.

What could I do with a voice?

Tom made his decision. They reached Tom’s small home where Abby was staying for the weekend. Tom had to stoop low to get out of Abby’s bright blue Bug. Tom opened her car door and let her enter the house first. Hunter, the English Bulldog, trotted around the corner begging for a belly rub. Abby happily complied. Tom laughed silently.

“I am always so surprised by how much of a gentleman you are,” said Abby as Tom took her coat. Then Tom suddenly dropped her coat on the ground and moved into the living room with Hunter at his heels.

“Then I remember why,” she grumbled and bent to pick her coat off the ground. Tom smiled and patted Hunter. They moved into the kitchen, and Tom began to make some tea.

“So,” Abby started as she sat at the small table. “What do you think? On the form it talked about a fantastic financial plan.” She rambled on, talking about how they could afford it and how everyone would be so surprised when he could talk. Tom set the cup of tea before her and got his white board. He sat at the table and looked Abby directly in the eyes. Her voice faltered, knowing something was off.

I’m not going to do it, he wrote on the board.

“What? What do you mean you’re not going to do it? Tom you could be able to talk!”

Abby was starting to sound a little hysterical. She held back her raging thoughts.

Why won’t he do it.  He-he could talk!

Maybe he doesn’t want to.

Of course he wants to. Who wouldn’t want to talk.

Be supportive, it’s his life.

I have been supportive — supportive of him my whole life!

Abby grew angry. Whether at Tom or herself, she couldn’t tell.

She leaped out of her chair and began to pace the length of the small kitchen.

“Tom, I — I don’t understand. Why would you not take this chance!?”

Why is it so important to you? wrote Tom, piercing through Abby’s hysteria.

“Because I want to stop protecting you and for you to stand on your own two feet!”

The words were harsh. Built from many years of responsibility laying heavy on her shoulders. Abby sat down at the kitchen table and began to cry. Tears of shame and frustration.

Abby, my dear sister, just because I don’t have a voice doesn’t mean I need to hide from the world. Look at me. I have a job doing something I love. It makes me happy. I have a best friend and the best sister. I have a roof over my head and food to eat. I am standing on my own two feet.

Tom slid the board over to Abby. As she read the words, Tom got up and poured her more tea. Abby looked up at him. Tom held his sisters gaze. His eyes said it all.

I love myself for who I am, and I don’t need a new voice box to yell that to the world.

And Abby heard him. She hugged her brother. Tight. Hunter came into the kitchen and plopped right at Tom’s feet.

Abby laughed and blinked back brimming tears. She bent down and picked up Hunter.

“Ugh, you’re getting heavy. What are you feeding this dog?”

They walked into the living room, and Abby plopped on the couch with Hunter content on her lap.

“Besides,” she said in a sniffly voice, “going on 50, what are you gonna do with a voice? Yell at kids to get off your lawn?”

Tom gave her a “haha, very funny — I’m not that old” kind of look.

“Yes, you are and thank you, I know,” she responded smugly.

Tom sat down in a chair next to the couch cupping his tea. He glanced to the folder sitting on the table and made a mental note to to put the forms in the stack of firewood for the winter and to email the doctor.

Tom smiled to himself as it began to rain.

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