Jeremy finally speaks*

The house seemed unusually quiet. The grandchildren were napping in the other room, and Rosiella, 61, sat motionless in her chair by the open window, too hot and weary even to fan herself with the junk mail envelope lying on the small table beside her. Her hands ached. She stared down at them and realized she’d been clutching the arms of the chair in anticipation. Helen and Martha, her two adult daughters, had left the house earlier that day to walk the two miles to the food pantry they’d heard about, the one run by the Sacred Heart Southern Missions. Neither woman could find work, and they were the only means of support for the family.

Rosiella released her viselike grip on the chair and found that her hands still ached. Darned arthritis. Her hands curled slightly, as though remembering in perpetuity the sturdy hold on the hoe, or the way to pluck fluffy, white cotton from the boll. Having spent all her life on a cotton plantation here in the Mississippi Delta, she could have measured out her years by her hands — how in the plump, small hands of a child the tools first felt strange and heavy, then, as she grew into a strong woman, how they felt as fitted to her palms as a pair of long-worn shoes to familiar feet. Since the plantation had been sold, and all the workers turned off the land on which they had first learned to walk, what remained now was an empty purse — she had never been paid Social Security while she worked, so there was none to receive now — along with limbs that seemed eternally trapped in the ache of exertion, and the memory of the hot breath of afternoon sun bearing down on her bent back.

Rosiella’s eyes flicked open as a board creaked in the abandoned sharecropper’s home that had become the family’s own. Standing in the doorway were Jeremy, 4, and his younger cousin Jesse. The boys’ shirts were wrinkled from napping and their faces flushed from the heat. Jeremy, who since birth had not been able to speak an intelligible word, a condition the family had been able neither to understand nor remedy, mimed reeling in a catch with a fishing rod.

“Not now, Honey,” Rosiella said. “Your mother and Aunt Martha will be back soon.” Jeremy frowned, but only for a moment. There would be time for fishing later.

“Let’s play outside,” Jesse said. Jeremy voiced a garbled assent and the boys walked out into the sunshine.

Rosiella’s eyes followed them out the door. Something had to be done about Jeremy; signs were his only means of communication. Something was definitely wrong. Rosiella wiped sweat wearily from her forehead. Maybe the girls would come back with some good news. Maybe someone at the center could help them support themselves, and then maybe something could be done to help Jeremy. Dear Lord, she prayed, your hands are much stronger than mine. Please use them to help my family.

Today was another hot one, like that first day Helen and Martha had come to see the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Southern Missions. Helen was walking with Jeremy, now 6, and their shirts were already patched in sweat by the time they were halfway to the office. For two years Helen had been meeting with Sister Janice, the social service minister who had rolled up her sleeves to battle bureaucracy for Helen’s family to win disability for Rosiella. It was not an easy fight, and each time Helen went to the office, her heart gave a little hesitant leap at the thought that maybe this time, maybe today, with God’s grace working through Sister Janice, a check would come. A check would mean they would have enough money to buy a car, allowing Helen and her sister to get jobs. It also would mean they could drive Jeremy to a speech therapist in Horn Lake. That had been arranged by Sister Janice, too, who had dealt successfully with the state offices to get Jeremy on Medicaid. Helen looked down as her son slipped his hand in hers. Helen smiled down at him, but when he looked away, her smile dissolved. Jeremy’s speech still had not improved. The public school, assuming he had Down syndrome, had put him in special education. Still, Jeremy was failing miserably. Something else must be wrong, and it weighed heavily on Helen that she didn’t know what to do to help. She wanted so much to have a regular conversation with her child. There must be so much he wanted to say.
These dispirited thoughts carried Helen all the way to the door of the office. When she stepped inside, Helen expected Sister Janice to greet her with a smile and then a sad little shake of the head, the usual indication that the fight was still ongoing. But this time, Sister Janice rushed to her side, holding up a rectangular piece of paper with both hands in flushed pleasure.

“It came today!” she said. Her voice trembled with excitement.

It only took a moment for Helen to register that the paper Sister Janice held before her was a disability check made out to Rosiella. The next moment, the two women were hugging and laughing, delirious with delight. Jeremy laughed too. Something was about to change.

It was the first morning of summer vacation, and Jeremy, now 8, and his younger cousin Jesse were fishing to their heart’s content. Rosiella sat nearby, watching the two boys with a sense of peace she hadn’t felt in years.

“Got one!” Jesse reeled in his line and displayed the gleaming fish on the end.

“Told you I would be first,” he grinned superiorly.

Jeremy, who was feeling mischievous, gave the catch an appraising look.

“Looks more like bait,” he sniffed. “Let me know when you catch a real fish.”

Jesse scowled. “You sure should be president, like you’re always talking about,” he said. “You’re sure bossy enough.”

Jeremy gave his cousin a light, good-natured shove. “You can be V.P.,” he said. “I’ll need a righthand man.”

Rosiella smiled in bemusement. “Looks like you boys have your work cut out for you.”

“Oh, Jeremy can do it,” Jesse piped up admiringly. “He’s smart. He got on the honor roll this year.”

Rosiella stared. “Are you telling me the truth, Jesse?” she said suspiciously. She knew Jeremy’s performance in school had improved dramatically since the therapist had worked wonders on what was discovered to be a speech impediment, but honor roll?

“The report card should be showing up sometime soon,” Jeremy said shyly, half turning to her from his fishing perch, “along with a letter.”

Next thing he knew, Rosiella was planting a big kiss on his cheek. “Hey!” he cried. But he was grinning.

“Come sit here, Grandma,” he said, patting the spot next to him. “Just you wait and see. We’re going to catch us a big one.” CD

Love Your Neighbor
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