ACCESSIBLE Joe Milazzo
Although it used to be that I would hardly know where to begin, this time I wish to tell you something more about my condition. For, in looking back, it seems to me there has never been a time before which I must make a necessity of reciting my ABCs. Or, rather, there seems never to have been a time before this time now: time during which every choice for which I opt, every initiative I undertake, every host to which I yearn to belong is determined in some way by what I learned when, then a late bloomer, I learned the alphabet. I was nine years old and my parents would take me to Deacon Meadows hospital for rehabilitation exercises three times a week. The room itself was unlike any hospital room I have since visited. At the time, this hospital room was unlike any compound or hyphenated room -- not that I apprehended any room as such, not back then -- class-, bath-, bed-, in which I had ever spent time. This hospital room had no beds in it, no screens, no sterilized fixtures on squeaky or rattling wheeled carts, and in fact no real machines or apparatuses of assistance. This hospital room in which I learned the alphabet, snout to tail, was primarily some sort of linoleum floor -- it was spangled with brown and green and a sort of lavender-ish gray that made me think of the smell of the beach to which my grandparents would take us -- my brothers and sister and I -- every pre-adolescent summer that our parents sent "the children" (for we were the only grandchildren in the family) away. And, as I learned some time later, once my manners were in order and I could be trusted not to upset the precarious balance of certain public settings, most often those involving being seated for long stretches of time spent, watching, or listening, or both, much like a room for the training of dancers, this hospital room at Deacon Meadows hospital consisted primarily of a track, running the entire length of the far wall and bordered with a low railing or set of linked bars (the joints were iron balls, as dull and round, I thought at that time, as gumballs) such as gymnasts balance on, and mirrors where normally there would be walls, even in place of windows. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, my mother -- she still wore her hair nearly to her shoulders then, not exactly at all in braids but parted and brushed into two long tresses, one tucked behind each ear, making twin brown half-moons on her forehead, each tress then terminating in a half-flip, half-twist that would fracture into a soft snarl of individually unwound strands by the time supper was served -- and my father would leave me in the care of the therapists at Deacon Meadows. The therapists at Deacon Meadows, the ones to whom my parents would listen with such careful nods, moved with such brisk and gliding purpose and wore such crisp, white smocks that I recall believing some time during my initial visit to Deacon Meadows that they could be nothing other than angels.
Those were such memorable times. Do you remember certain times during your own youth when your parents would buy certain canned items for your rainy day lunches? Oily beef broth or orange tomato sauce with noodles molded into the rounded-corner forms of uppercase letters? At the time, when I was a child, better for you to have set before me a bowl of tripe, or congealed blood, or spinach, peas and lima beans than "bafflepet" -- in the years before I turned nine, I pronounced the word "alphabet" as "bafflepet" -- soup. So you see, there was a time in my life when I was peculiarly a child. Peculiar because not innocent -- my voice had a deep, authoritative quality, and my unanswerable questions about the color of the sky or the problems of evil and suffering in the world were more in the line of challenges than they were the sincere wonderings they resembled in tone -- but illiterate, moreover left waiting, as in some interminable hide-and-go-seek prank, outside both the space and time in which terms such as "innocence" and "experience" are even legible. You see, I learned the alphabet in a room the size and temperature of a sea-shore. There was a room at Deacon Meadows that only I could enter; my parents had to stand outside that room at Deacon Meadows. I distinctly remember one morning, a time I pushed open the door to the strange, seaside room in which I learned to read and to converse -- as I am doing so, here with you now -- and I could see the reflection -- not silvery, but not gray; actually, more like a tracing, faces and figures nothing more than continents, countries, seas and islands yet to be explored by color -- of my mother and father, my father crouching as if he has just let me run away from him into the room, standing on the fat green stripe that led to, and only to end at, the thinner, perpendicular line of the brass doorstop, a line he could not cross. Or was it that I was running out of the other room the mirror was showing me, running not head down but with blown-up exertions, as if playing to my father's idea of a joke, across the room towards my father, bent in preparation for an embrace that would climax in a great sweep up towards his squared shoulders? The time of such confusion has, of course, long since passed. The green line at Deacon Meadows hospital ended there, at that door into which I was always leaning every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I was in the second grade yet I could not write my alphabet, nor could I recite it even most of the way through. Even at nine my voice had a timbre and resonance more adult and baritone (if a bit pinched) than boyish and soprano and it took only a day or two before my second-grade teacher was able to single out my silence in the stumbling unison of the ABC song. Even now, many times I still must hum the melody to myself, to combat the dyslexia with which I was diagnosed when I was nine and had to go to the hospital multiple times every week, for treatment and to learn the alphabet. LMNOP, fleet and enjambed, always caused my tongue to trip. I tried to feign indifference to R. R had been tripped by some bully and was laid out flat on its back, and it was waving its legs in the air, cockroach-like. Though I had experienced something like it in my own time, still I couldn't help but laugh at R's plight. So "red" was "wed", and a hoop of gold with a sparkling cherry on top had feathers and, like myself, no need to remain on the ground. At that time, at least, and for who knows -- I do not -- how many years prior to this time of which I am speaking, that time, Deacon Meadows hospital housed a special room off the main corridors where they taught me how to crawl all over again, crawling all these times never toward anything but against or away from something. The Deacon Meadows specialists tried to make it a game by telling me, with exaggerated cheerfulness, to walk like a crab, and, against my better judgment, I complied, thinking at least of the blueish crabs I had seen scuttling up and down the sand, teasing (I thought at the time) the foam leading the tide evermore ashore. (And yet we -- Marty, Mickey, Max and I -- would run so carefree, so blithe in the face of warnings about the cutting edges of broken, half-buried sea-shells or the still-potent sting of jellyfish carcasses, across the beach -- diamond-white at noon, like pewter as soon as the sun had set -- when we visited my grandparents every summer; this would have been at that rare time when we were all still little.) Three times a week at Deacon Meadows, I, a second grader by then, would cross the room with my rear end raised in a waggle above my head. As if I were bearing the very torch of remediation. So I think of it now. But at that time, I was merely nine years old and I was alone without my mother and father in the vaulting, reflecting confines of Deacon Meadows hospital and the adults I had to trust made me, a second-grader by then, crawl across the cold, unforgiving and slick floor of an unfamiliar hospital room.
In time, I served my time at Deacon Meadows. Three days a week for a full year and a half, beginning when I was nine years old, had a rat's nest of hair and yet undiscovered ringworm between my toes, and I lived in terror of my ABCs. (Unhappily for me, my parents were not able to react in time and consequently offered little in the way of protection.) Each session, once my essential motor and directional skill exercises were complete -- I am talking about the time that I was in the second grade, and my teacher had discovered that I did not know my ABCs and suddenly -- or so it seemed even to me, as perverse (that being the word my mother would habitually resort to when she wanted me to see that, standing behind her large and inflamed hand, there was a shrunken, disappointed woman) as I was, at that time -- my mother and father were concerned, now that I was dyslexic -- the therapists brought what looked like a fancy shoebox, one large enough originally to have held boots, and set up a table and two chairs in the center of the hospital room. Only it was not like any hospital or physical therapy room you've seen. It was much larger, and the floor looked as if it were covered with long, long slabs of Formica whose pattern looked pre-distressed. And there were no toys inside this toy box the starched, bleached, pinned and close-cropped therapists would bring to me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday that I was handed over to their care at Deacon Meadows hospital, in a chilly room with poor air-flow. All the time, as they were bringing this box forward, the therapists were smiling as if they were carrying to me some uncommonly wonderful treat that would be mine alone, and that my time of enjoyment of would not be ruined by the injustice of having to share. (In recalling these times, I always imagine that what is hidden within the box is the wind-up toy with the visible moving parts that I would have loved for that box to have held.) Instead of toys inside, however, there were pieces of sand-paper and interlocked pipe-cleaners in the shape of "A", "B", "C," "LMNOP", "R" and the rest. I was told to feel the shapes of the letters, their wholeness, and repeat the sound "made" by each letter -- or, as they said, I helped each letter to make -- as I adjusted first my right (dominant) then my left hand to the angles of each bafflepet character. I cannot quite describe my time in therapy holding in reluctant handfuls the gravel and prickle of solid letters as a time of grasping or harnessing, for my contact with these objects was not static. What I was asked to do was more akin to what one would voluntarily do when holding hands with one's sweetheart: a sort of running the soft parts of ones own hand over, around, through the soft parts of another's hand. Sometimes, in those late mornings at Deacon Meadows hospital, under the watch not of my parents, who were not allowed to audit my therapy sessions, no matter how many times I asked for my Mam and my Appa, but the white-clad "crippled children" specialists, I had to hold a letter, especially if it had a stem or a crossbar, for a very long time and my fingertips would begin to ache, then burn. At these times, my palms irritated if not raw, I might look back to the mirror-wall to see if my mother and father were just outside the door (at least they would bring me to Deacon Meadows those three days each week I had to go), ready to say to hello -- a sound whose complicated force I understood -- with policy and come in and take me away. Because, when I was nine, I learned the alphabet in this way: not in an all-too easily imagined second grade classroom, with blackboards and corkboards and with slanting autumn sunlight suffused with the pink and white and grey of dust from the recess grounds and erasers but in a hospital, because I came to letters, then words, then the parts of speech, then sentences, then paragraphs and so on only after some trauma, when I sit down to write even a simple email, I have to rummage through the old tactile reinforcements that litter that hemisphere -- the left, or the right, or both -- of my brain. "P" in my mind is still a light bulb after its filament has burst, blackening the center, and the sizzling glass has been unscrewed from the mogul-base lamp that stood just over the card table, draped with a thick vinyl orange tablecloth and on which my grandfather sprinkled talcum powder and taught Mickey, Marty and Max (I was still too young, or too much of a cheater, to be trusted with the rules, and so only watched) to play chicken-foot, in the front room of our grandparents' cabin; my mother and father would up pack the four of us -- my two brothers and my sister and I -- and send us to stay near the beach with our grandparents every summer of our (my brothers Max's and Marty's and my sister Mickey's) growing-up. For instance, "E" is a fork lying across a cleaned plate, even a plate cleaned, as my grandmother would insist, of the tomato slices I hated. "H" I still, even after all the time that has passed between that time and this, visualize as the stacking of the bunk-beds in my grandparents' seaside cabin stacked one on top of one another. (In my family, there was never any competition for the top bunk.) Or "L" is the following viewed from the side: the unlatched halves which form dual compartments out of a hard and ripened dark green American Tourister suitcase being filled for a summer vacation, in the time before I was expected to occupy my time by reading, or was held accountable for speaking more intelligibly than an over-energetic child in need of a good deal of individual supervision, with my grandparents by the sea. My mother's sweetly convoluted handwriting on a piece of strong grocery sack paper is pasted in ragged manila masking tape streaks to the once-plush interior of the suitcase's upper interior. Read or not (I am a recovering dyslexic; when I was nine, I underwent intensive rehabilitation to address this disorder), the nasal lilt of womanly cursive delivers a litany of what, as a child, I needed to have packed for my annual summer visit to the beach with my grandparents: how many pairs of tube socks and briefs, the numerals parenthesized; what medications (Triple Antibiotic Magic Creme, even though there was a bottle of Mercurochrome, "Monkey Blood" in the medicine chest in my grandparents' cabin); and brown swimming trunks whose cold, water-logged bagginess I would, after summer lunches of ham and white mush-bread sandwiches and Fritos, delight in slapping, slamming, in yanked-off descent over my knees and calves, ankles, arches, toes down to the roughly-sanded bedroom baseboards of my grandparents' summer cabin far from home, near the sea, disturbing my brother Max, every time making him look up from his "Giant Size" 75 cent comic book annual and pay attention to me. (At that time, I thought of his frown as a shape full of fraternal affection.) I am dyslexic. Despite my difficulties following the progress of words on the page, I remember believing that I was a good swimmer, or could breast-stroke very effectively by the time I was eleven or twelve. I have yet to corroborate this observation with creditable research, but perhaps it is because swimming is cousin to crawling, and, when I was nine, I entered a program of rehabilitation at Deacon Meadows hospital and learned to crawl all over again. Otherwise I could not even tell this much.
My condition was uncovered in time, if not in a timely fashion, in the second grade and when I was nine, I was driven by my mother and father every other morning and taken by my parents to "get help" -- as my father shakily intoned, or so it occurs to me now, in the time you and I are now occupying together, and it was the only time I had heard his voice tremble -- at Deacon Meadows. My parents each would take one of my hands and lead me into Deacon Meadows hospital, following a wide green stripe -- following it north, south, east or west I could never nose out at the time; and in all this time, I have never been tempted to return to Deacon Meadows with a compass to establish the orientation -- on the hospital floor to a large room, one much more empty and less cozy even than my second grade homeroom, full as the latter was with anxieties. I can recall that the large room was behind a heavy door. Each morning after that first morning of the year I turned nine and my parents began to make appointments for me at Deacon Meadows on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we approached the room from such an angle, veering away from the green line at the very last of our walk down the hospital hall so that before I ever saw how vault-like the room at Deacon Meadows was I noticed that the patterning of room's floor was of brown agates with dendrites of fern and amethyst gray banded through the brown. A pattern of a time beyond my own time, and beyond any nine year-old's recall. And at that time my mind was fresh. For instance, I remember recalling the afternoon my teacher had kept me after school one day and forced me to sing, which is when she heard my stuttering confusion at LMNOP, ("Lemon Pole") that was the start of it all; otherwise I would have been in my second grade home-room classroom, hands sticky from handling modeling clay. Those late mornings at Deacon Meadows, over time, I re-learned to crawl, all the time understanding "reading disability" -- for this is all that the child, shy without my parents present (they were not admitted to this special room), I was felt I was, a mistake, an utterance the retraction of which is immediately wished for even before its most utmost syllables have been exhaled, an impairment -- as a symptom of always falling down at LMNOP because I could not decide between left and right, backwards and forwards, past tense and future tension. All that time I also overheard without fully ingesting the theories that did not leave me any less embarrassed, especially as I was walking on my hands, in retrospect I guess I intuited that I was growing up all backwards or at least redundant, my palms and fingertips sore from handling sand-paper letters -- this is how I learned the alphabet, by holding the experience of the letters' swoops and angles like tiny hatchet strokes in my letter-scrubbed hands -- and knees with my buttocks jutting out over my head. "Your dyslexia is because you took a two-handed grapple on the stroke that you used to paddle yourself out of the womb." "You have a non-assimilated mass of ectopic cells just below the front of your brain-pan." "No doubt yours are phonemic firings nomadic in their clustering; inconsistent." "After Geschwind, superabundance of fetal testosterone offers explanation of your anomalous susceptibilities to the common cold, influenza-type symptoms, asthmatic trauma, left-handedness, and food aversions." "There is a belated myelination to your nerve endings." (This last is a bodily circumstance so fine in its tuning I hardly feel responsible for but still, at this moment in time, feel I must be.) Did I even correctly hear the doctors accurately? Sometimes I am confident I have, that I did, and other times I am not so certain I am convinced I understood the experts who crouched down to ask me questions, the answers to which were already known by their colleagues and interns. Perhaps if I were to consult a medical dictionary for the words for which I listened for, each one pronounced, I still remember after all this time, with a "re" that was no "we", a stabbing "ab" or a "dis" like a "tsk-tsk", I could make peace with that time when I was so disgraceful a learner. I was a inducement for speculations every one of these times; I was carried by my mother and father to a linoleum-ed and mirrored room at Deacon Meadows hospital -- it smelled like salt and sweat and disinfectant sprayed, like insecticide, from tall, slender steel canisters -- where my parents, three mornings a week, left me susceptible to being fashioned, like some mythical animal cobbled together from several beasts either extinct or scarcely ever seen, thus partial, to being explained. It was quite a time, as they say. I hated every step I took.
When the time comes I will be able to tell you about the time I was told I suffered from a condition uncommon in an intensity that afflicts only a very few individual sufferers so severely each generation at a time. I can tell you about this time but it takes some time for that time, like missiles into silos, to slip into place with the sustained swish of car tires revolving fast over a wet Monday morning road, or the sound of a chain being let from a spool, my nine year-old deaf and bawling dyslexic self an anchor falling, falling unsure of how to remain plumb or hit bottom. When the time comes it will be time and, time detonating, there will be more time to come for me to tell you, face to face, about when the time came that my parents, always respectful and demure in the face of any authority other than their own parents, especially my father's, the grandparents who would drive the four of us (Mickey, Marty, Max and myself) to the beach each summer, would take me to Deacon Meadows and the times my parents drove me to leave me -- not quite as they would leave me and my brothers and sister and I in the summer; instead, Max and Mickey and Marty and I left my mother and father, with many a "Hoo-ray!" for my grandparents, or, really, my grandparents' cabin by the sea, never mind how much they indulged our play -- to regularly repeated times during which I suffered things done to me -- they made me crawl, and scraped my fingers over and over across the facings and sides of toys that, the reassurances, ghastly eggshell smiles and all, of the doctors and nurses and clipboard-carrying specialists aside, were not really toys but unpalatable, indigestible medications -- time and time again that they did things to me. I am waiting just a little bit longer, for the right time, just as, then sick with dread (now, I am empty from recollection) I used to wait early on those odd-numbered mornings when I was nine for my parents to guide me. I was lost in any space back then, when I was nine, never quite sure where to proceed or articulate where I wanted to go, a sightless but vigorous swimmer and thus unconcerned with ingress and egress. Even at Deacon Meadows hospital, where my parents walked with me trailing behind on a carefully outlined swath of green that led to the big, shiny and echoing room into which they were asked not to dip their toes. In this room the doctors and nurses, white as the Kleenex ghosts we had made in kindergarten, ordered me here and then there with my rear end as high as I could lift it and I began to get a notion of where to lead myself even as, all the while, I was longing for summertime and real seaweed and the rock-a-bye sighing of the tides and both the therapists and I watched with differently timed breaths for the time to come when my mother, her long brown hair curving around my mother's shoulders, and my father, rising and peering up at the spots on my father's glasses, would retract the last time they had abandoned me and take me back to the warmth and baby powder dryness of our -- Appa's and Mam's and Max's and Marty's and Mickey's -- house. Those Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in Deacon Meadows' fishbowl, I was nine and I longed all that time on those days for those times when, no questions breaking the bloodless lines of their pursed lips, my parents would drive me home on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays afternoons, rain or shine, to peanut-butter and jelly sandwich lunches and sore palms I would not complain of except in much later summertime stories I would tell my grandparents by the light of a beach fire about the calluses. And, in those Monday, Wednesday and Fridays evenings when I did not have to worry about going to Deacon Meadows the next morning, my parents would humor me by whispering "OK?", "OK" back and forth and allow me to perch for a time in the corner of our cluttered dining room and so I could watch my father and older brothers and older sister wheeling their arms excitedly and shouting at each other their latest arguments in favor of reversing -- or not reversing but revising -- last week's or just this past Sunday's decisions regarding the rules of circulation and debt and lead-footed leaping forming the whole of the perimeter of the MONOPOLY game's desirable and undesirable coastal lots as long as the board lay unfolded until 10:30 bedtime before them.