A while back our household sat down to watch an episode of Monk. We like Monk because not only is it funny, itâ€™s also sad and tender and offers good â€“ sometimes very good â€“ cultural satire. As I fed M she kept turning her head to look at the TV, watching whatever it is she sees when sheâ€™s watching something. Weâ€™re not sure what that is because doctors have sent mixed messages about her eyesight. But she does see.
One scene ended in Monk launching into his trademark freak-out. During freak-outs, Monk utters exaggerated grunts of fear and revulsion and flails his arms and legs, knocking things down in a cacophony of rattles and bangs, bringing upon himself even greater chaos. The rest of us have watched many episodes of Monk. We anticipate the freak-out and smiled when this one arrived. But M laughed.
She laughed! Not at a family joke, and not because she was excited. She laughed because she thought the scene funny, which it was meant to be. This is the first time she laughed as part of an audience made up of more sophisticated viewers than the Blueâ€™s Clues or Elmoâ€™s World crowd. Itâ€™s the first time she laughed at something upon seeing (or hearing) it for the first time rather than something she has watched repeatedly and whose funniness has been enhanced through family performance art. This is the first time M got the joke.
Part of my motherly duty includes coaxing a belly laugh from her at least once a day. Often it erupts when I push her around the house in her wheelchair, prelude to feeding her. Like cats excited by a trailing string, my other two children jump in, attacking their poor mother. Play screams and laughter ring out in concert with noisy bumps and rattles. Because M rides in her wheelchair, she leads these riotous parades, wheezing in spasms of whole-body laughter.
But bringing M to a rolling belly laugh is not the same as telling her a joke that she gets. Sparking a belly laugh is a matter of involving her in group joie de vivre. Her getting a joke is a solo aha reaction.
She began smiling when she was two months old. Back then her smile was a blessing, a sign life could get better. Because Iâ€™m interested in effects of language, I found even more intriguing the fact that the act of language she responded vocally to with the greatest consistency was the question. Nearly any question I asked, including questions not addressed to her, elicited a soft hoot of response, where flat declarative statements or exclamations â€“ eh, not much.
Funny thing, she had some wherewithal to respond to questions but she couldnâ€™t lift her head. When she was nine months old, a physical therapist placed M on her belly across a rolled up towel that rested snugly against her chest and under her armpits. He said, â€œSheâ€™ll begin lifting her head within two weeks,â€ and she did. Being placed on her belly with a tucked-under towel triggered the reflexive behavior of head lifting, an old, inherited response to being in the world, whose live coals still glowed beneath ashes of the brain injury sheâ€™d suffered. Building upon such reflexive behaviors, we helped her accomplish other goals of physical development.
But her seemingly automatic response to questions made me wonder: Is there something about the form and tonal quality of the question to which the human brain responds reflexively? Questions often take striking forms, with some coming off musically, having rhythm and melodic tonal phrasing â€“ part of their â€œhook.â€ Could it be that questions tripped some innate answer-response in the brains of hearers? If so, then maybe asking M questions could trigger development of her cognitive powers the way therapies like laying her across a rolled up towel triggered development of her physical abilities.
So I began asking her questions. All kinds of questions, all the time. She answered them all the same way, whether the expected answer was yes or no: â€œHoot.â€ Some thought my asking her questions delusional. Yet over the years she began differentiating â€œnoâ€ answers and â€œyesâ€ answers. No = grunt of irritation, unmistakable in meaning. Yes = soft hoot, excited hoot, soft â€œyah,â€ â€œAh!â€ (my favorite) and some words I havenâ€™t worked out the spelling for but tonally are affirmative. Given she has retained variations of the â€œhootâ€ answer for â€œyes,â€ one wonders what she might have been saying â€œyesâ€ to all those years. Perhaps to the essential act of being addressed: â€œYes, yes, yes, Iâ€™m here, Iâ€™m here!â€
Eventually, we moved to questions requiring one or two word responses.
â€œWhat do you want?â€ â€œOw-eye.â€ â€œYou want to go outside?â€ â€œAh!â€ â€œOkay, letâ€™s go outside.â€ Smiles and giggles of excitement.
â€œWhat do you want?â€ â€œWun uhp.â€ â€œYou want up?â€ â€œYah.â€ â€œOkay, letâ€™s go for a little walk.â€
No answer = â€œI donâ€™t understand the question.â€ Nowadays, sheâ€™s able to express many of her needs and wishes through longer and shorter Q&A sessions.
Where human intelligence is concerned, language â€“ specifically, language that opens up prospects for oneself and others â€“ is native ground for the flowering of human agency. But because of this experience and others, Iâ€™ve come to think that the question is one of the best kinds of language we have for mental transport and the quickening of cognitive development, right up there with metaphor in importance to the life and liveliness of human expression. Through its powers of engagement, a good question, like a fast pony, moves us from Point A to a superior-in-circumstances point B, or sometimes to a surprising (but even better) Point C. Thereâ€™s just something about a question we find stimulating, perhaps even irresistible, perhaps even animating on our deepest levels of awareness, where we most essentially are what we are.
Recently a LDS brother asked my husband the following question: â€œDo you think that you might be holding M back from going home to God?â€ This query provoked my husbandâ€™s wrath, and rightly so, because it wasnâ€™t a question, though it pretended it needed only a simple yes or no answer. It was an argument making several assertions, wearing only the wool and ears of a question. At its heart lay a sleeping threat.
M has an overall appreciation for life, punctuated though it be with periods of hardship, pain, and suffering. She eats when we feed her, cries or calls out when she needs or wants something, recovers when she falls ill, rises to the occasion when we strive to work out her difficulties, laughs when we tickle her. She goes to sleep at night and wakes up, cheerful or not, the next day. So the only way I see that we might be keeping her from â€œgoing home to Godâ€ is by not starving her and not denying her of safety and shelter and meaningful human relationships. The only way I can imagine that weâ€™re preventing her from going home to God is by not sending her to her Maker â€“ id est, by not killing her.
I donâ€™t believe the brother meant we ought to kill our daughter. But the language he used is the language of abandonment. The rhetoric is the rhetoric of stealing God. Packaging such language in a question â€“ â€œDo you think you might beâ€ â€“ instead of a statement â€“ â€œI think you might beâ€ â€“ shifts the burden of proof onto the other conversant the way the opening shot of an ambush shifts the responsibility for being shot at onto its intended target. Such a question belongs to the â€œHave you stopped beating your wifeâ€ class of pseudo-questions. But more importantly, since the question â€“ any question â€“ may pack a special punch where human consciousness is concerned, cramming hidden assumptions and accusations into its already spring-loaded form changes a vehicle of transport into a cattle chute. That is, once it “hooked” him, this particular question tried to drive my husband in a certain direction through narrowed options. So while I donâ€™t believe the brother meant we ought to kill our daughter, I do think he tried to line up my husband in the crosshairs of one set of intentions or another.
The only religious environment I have ever known is the Mormon church, which aligns its purposes with Godâ€™s: Bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Simply making such a statement opens up prospects, though the view goes so far itâ€™s like looking into thick bands of the Milky Way and not knowing what to make of it all, thereâ€™s so much present, even more possible, and itâ€™s all so stunning and deeply interrogatory. Somehow, we sense that part of this expansion of life includes language, since we place so much significance upon scripture.
The New Testament displays Christâ€™s quick and quickening responses to â€œHave you stopped beating your wifeâ€ questions: â€œArt thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? And the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?â€ â€œWhy walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands.â€ â€œMaster, which is the greatest commandment in the law?â€ â€œIs it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?â€
Christâ€™s answers, as well as his many questions, demonstrate the need for opening up such language to the air, where it either falls silent and dies or starts breathing and takes life in spasms of inspiration. Yet most of the talk about language that I hear in the LDS culture resigns it to the realm of afflicted things, bits and pieces of Creation that canâ€™t be made right until they â€œgo home to God.â€ Christ redeemed poor language with teeming language at every turn, multiplying its few fishes and loaves into more than enough to feed the multitude. His language turned the seeming inevitability of blindness into sight and impairments of lameness into free movement.
For M, language and the deep relationships that live through language have enabled life. Had she been surrounded with more and better language, she would have come even farther than she has. She would have gotten the joke earlier. She might even be telling jokes. Knock, knock. Whoâ€™s there? Unite. Unite who? Unite someone, you should call him â€œSir.â€ Humor laced with questions, since she has always found questions so fetching.