By Melinda Munson
I’ve never heard my 17-year-old son’s voice. Born with autism and microcephaly (a small brain), vocalizing words is something that never happened for him.
My mother-in-law used to check in every time we called or visited from out of state. Is Maruthi talking yet? No, not yet. Probably never, we said, after he reached the age of seven, which is when most health professionals stop expecting words to appear.
My husband and I adopted Maruthi when he was three years old from an orphanage in Bangalore, India. We matched with him when he was just one, which meant we spent two agonizing years wondering if he was eating enough, hoping he was being touched and socialized.
His orphanage did its best, but when we finally met Maruthi in the oppressive heat of an Indian courtyard, he sat in a stroller with shoes three sizes two large (he wouldn’t walk until he was six) with obvious signs of neglect. The back side of his head was pancake flat. He preferred to lie on his back with legs and arms waving in the air, as equally dexterous with his feet as his hands.
He couldn’t consume solid food and didn’t eat at all when he was anxious or stressed. When it was time to depart his homeland, we found ourselves at the airport forcing watered spoonfuls of baby cereal down his throat. I thought he would die.
When we arrived at our home airport, our extended family greeted us with signs and balloons. Maruthi hunched down on the ground on all fours, violently rocking the foreign smells and sounds away as he moaned and hummed, his shirt filthy from the failed feedings.
We spent most of those first months just sitting on the couch with our three-year-old “baby” in our laps. He didn’t need anything, just touch. During our comfort sessions, I looked out our farmhouse window at pine trees and wildflower gardens. Maruthi, who was born without eyeballs, looked at nothing, and was content.
Maruthi eventually got a feeding tube. He struggled through puberty and is now almost as tall as I am. He lets me shave his face every few days with an electric razor and tolerates it when we brush his teeth. He feeds himself with a spoon, will stand when asked and can undress himself for bedtime.
He loves loud music. (His favorite band right now is Skagway’s own Bad Hombres.) He often laughs for no reason and his touch is fleeting and delicate.
He doesn’t speak, but he smiles when he wants something we offer. His teacher, Heidi Fairbanks, swears she and an aide heard him say “thank you” one day. When she brings this up, I cover my ears and sing loudly, unwilling to think he offered first words to someone other than me.
People often ask if it’s hard to have a non-verbal family member. On the rare days he cries and can’t tell us what’s wrong, the answer is yes, it’s painfully difficult. But most days, when the other kids have asked me the same inane question twenty times (“Do coffee houses sell coffee?”), I sit next to Maruthi, gaze out the window at our rhododendrons, and listen to him hum. His voice is present, even if I can’t hear it.