Kelly Rimmer, the USA TODAY bestselling author of Before I Let You Go, returns with a powerful and life-affirming novel about the legacy of war and its impact on one memorable family. Told through alternating voices in present day and Nazi-occupied Poland, The Things We Cannot Say unearths a tragic love story and a family secret whose far-reaching effects will alter lives forever.
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|Publisher:||Graydon House Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.30(d)|
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I'm having a very bad day, but however bad I feel right now, I know my son is feeling worse. We're at the grocery store a few blocks away from our house in Winter Park, Florida. Eddie is on the floor, his legs flailing as he screams at the top of his lungs. He's pinching his upper arms compulsively; ugly purple and red bruises are already starting to form. Eddie is also covered in yogurt, because when all of this started twenty minutes ago, he emptied the refrigerator shelves onto the floor and there are now packages of various shapes and sizes on the tiles around him — an increasingly messy landing pad for his limbs as they thrash. The skin on his face has mottled from the exertion, and there are beads of sweat on his forehead.
Eddie's medication has made him gain a lot of weight in the last few years, and now he weighs sixty-eight pounds — that's more than half my body weight. I can't pick him up and carry him out to the car as I would have done in his early years. It didn't feel easy at the time, but back then, this kind of public breakdown was much simpler because we could just evacuate.
Today's disaster happened twenty minutes ago when Eddie reached the yogurt aisle. He has a relatively broad palate for yogurt compared to his peers at the special school he attends — Eddie will at least eat strawberry and vanilla GoGurt. There can be no substitutions on brand or container — and no point trying to refill old tubes, either, because Eddie sees right through it.
It has to be Go-Gurt. It has to be strawberry or vanilla. It has to be in the tube.
At some point recently, someone at Go-Gurt decided to improve the design of the graphics on the tubes — the logo has shifted and the colors are more vibrant. I'm sure no one at Go-Gurt realized that such a tiny change would one day lead to a seven-year-old boy smashing up a supermarket aisle in a bewildered rage.
To Eddie, Go-Gurt has the old-style label, and this new label only means that Eddie no longer recognizes Go-Gurt as food he can tolerate. He knew we were going to the store to get yogurt, then we came to the store, and Eddie looked at the long yogurt aisle, and he saw a lot of things, all of which he now identifies as "not yogurt."
I try to avoid this kind of incident, so we always have a whole shelfful of Go-Gurt in the fridge at home. If not for my grandmother's recent hospitalization, I'd have done this trip alone yesterday when Eddie was at school, before he ate the last two tubes and "we are running a little low on yogurt and soup" became "holy crap, the only thing we have left in the house that Eddie can eat is a single tin of soup and he won't eat soup for breakfast."
I don't actually know what I'm going to do about that now. All I know is that if Campbell's ever changes the label of their pumpkin soup tins, I'm going to curl up into a little ball and give up on life.
Maybe I'm more like Eddie than I know, because this one small thing today has me feeling like I might melt down too. Besides Eddie and his sister, Pascale, my grandmother Hanna is the most important person in my world. My husband, Wade, and mother, Julita, would probably take exception to that statement, but I'm frustrated with them both, so right now that's just how I feel. My grandmother, or Babcia as I've always called her, is currently in the hospital, because two days ago she was sitting at the dining table at her retirement home when she had what we now know was a minor stroke. And today, I spent the entire morning rushing — rushing around the house, rushing in the car, rushing to the yogurt aisle — all so Eddie and I could get to Babcia to spend time with her. I don't even want to acknowledge to myself that maybe I'm rushing even more than usual because I'm trying to make the most of the time we have left with her. In the background to all of this hurriedness, I'm increasingly aware that her time is running out.
Eddie has virtually no expressive language — basically he can't speak. He can hear just fine, but his receptive language skills are weak too, so to warn him that today instead of going to the train station to watch trains as we usually do on a Thursday, I had to come up with a visual symbol he'd understand. I got up at 5 a.m. I printed out some photos I took yesterday at the hospital, then trimmed them and I stuck them onto his timetable, right after the symbol for eat and the symbol for Publix and yogurt. I wrote a social script that explained that today we had to go to the hospital and we would see Babcia, but that she would be in bed and she would not be able to talk with us, and that Babcia was okay and Eddie is okay and everything is going to be okay.
I'm aware that much of the reassurance in that script is a lie. I'm not naive — Babcia is ninety-five years old, the chances of her walking out of the hospital this time are slim — she's probably not okay at all. But that's what Eddie needed to hear, so that's what I told him. I sat him down with the schedule and the script and I ran through both until Eddie opened his iPad and the communications program he uses — an Augmentative and Alternative Communication app, AAC for short. It's a simple but life-changing concept — each screen displays a series of images that represent the words Eddie can't say. By pressing on those images, Eddie is able to find a voice. This morning, he looked down at the screen for a moment, then he pressed on the Yes button, so I knew he understood what he'd read, at least to some degree.
Everything was fine until we arrived here, and the packaging had changed. In the time that's passed since, concerned staff and shoppers have come and gone.
"Can we help, ma'am?" they asked at first, and I shook my head, explained his autism diagnosis and let them go on their merry way. Then the offers of help became more insistent. "Can we carry him out to your car for you, ma'am?" So then I explained that he doesn't really like to be touched at the best of times, but if a bunch of strangers touched him, the situation would get worse. I could see from the expression on their faces that they doubted things could get any worse, but not so much that they dared risk it.
Then a woman came past with an identically dressed set of perfectly behaved, no doubt neurotypical children sitting up high in her cart. As she navigated her cart around my out-of-control son, I heard one of the children ask her what was wrong with him, and she muttered, "he just needs a good spankin', darlin'."
Sure, I thought. He just needs a spankin'. That'll teach him how to deal with sensory overload and learn to speak. Maybe if I spank him, he'll use the toilet spontaneously and I can ditch the obsessively regimented routine I use to prevent his incontinence. Such an easy solution ... Why didn't I think of spanking him seven years ago? But just as my temper started to simmer she glanced at me, and I met her gaze before she looked away. I caught a hint of pity in her eyes, and there was no mistaking the fear. The woman blushed, averted her gaze, and that leisurely journey with her children in the cart became a veritable sprint to the next aisle.
People say things like that because it makes them feel better in what is undoubtedly a very awkward situation. I don't blame her — I kind of envy her. I wish I could be that self-righteous, but seven years of parenting Edison Michaels has taught me nothing if not humility. I'm doing the best I can, it's usually not good enough and that's just the way it is.
The manager came by a few minutes ago.
"Ma'am, we have to do something. He's done hundreds of dollars' worth of damage to my stock and now the other shoppers are getting upset."
"I'm all ears," I said, and I shrugged. "What do you propose?"
"Can we call the paramedics? It's a medical crisis, right?"
"What do you think they're going to do? Sedate him?"
His eyes brightened.
"Can they do that?"
I scowled at him, and his face fell again. We sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment, then I sighed as if he'd convinced me.
"You call the paramedics, then," I said, but the knowing smile I gave him must have scared him just a bit, because he stepped away from me. "Let's just see how Eddie copes with a paramedic visit. I'm sure the blaring sirens and the uniforms and more strangers can't make things much worse." I paused, then I looked at him innocently. "Right?"
The manager walked away muttering to himself, but he must have thought twice about the paramedics because I've yet to hear sirens. Instead, there are visibly uncomfortable store assistants standing at either end of the aisle quietly explaining the situation to shoppers and offering to pick out any products they require to save them walking near my noisy, awkward son.
As for me, I'm sitting on the floor beside him now. I want to be stoic and I want to be calm, but I'm sobbing intermittently, because no matter how many times this happens, it's utterly humiliating. I've tried everything I can to defuse this situation and my every attempt has failed. This will only end when Eddie tires himself out.
Really, I should have known better than to risk bringing him into a grocery store today. I don't think he fully understands what this hospital visit means, but he knows something is off. Not for the first time, I wish he could handle a full-time school placement, instead of the two-day-a-week schedule we've had to settle for. If only I could have dropped him off at school today and come here alone, or even if I could have convinced my husband, Wade, to stay home from work with Eddie.
Wade had meetings. He always has meetings, especially when not having meetings would mean he would have to be alone with Edison.
I look up wearily, expecting to find another staff member has come to offer "assistance." Instead, it is an elderly woman — a frail woman, with kind gray eyes and a startling blue hue to her hair. Blue rinse aside, she looks a lot like my Babcia — short and skinny, but purposefully styled. This woman is carrying a flashy handbag and she's dressed from head to toe in explosive floral prints, all the way down to her fabric Mary Janes, which are patterned with gerberas. Babcia would wear those shoes too. Even now, well into her nineties, Babcia is still generally dressed in clothes featuring crazy flowers or outlandish lace. I have a feeling if the two women met, they'd be instant friends. I feel a pinch in my chest at the recognition, and impatience sweeps over me.
Hurry up, Eddie. We have to hurry. Babcia is sick and we need to get to the hospital.
The woman offers me a gentle smile and opens her handbag conspiratorially.
"Do you think something in here could help?" She withdraws from her bag a collection of little trinkets — a red balloon, a blue lollipop, a tiny wooden doll and a small wooden dreidel. The woman crouches beside me, then drops them all onto the floor.
I've already tried distraction so I know this isn't going to work, but the kindness in the woman's gaze almost brings me to tears anyway. When I look into her eyes, I see empathy and understanding — but not a hint of pity. It's a beautiful and unfortunately rare thing to have someone understand my situation instead of judging it.
I murmur false appreciation and I glance between the woman and Edison while I try to figure out if this is going to make the situation worse. He has at least turned the volume down a little, and out of his puffy, tear-filled eyes, he's watching the woman warily. He does so love Babcia. Perhaps he sees the likeness too.
I nod toward the woman, and she lifts the balloon. Eddie doesn't react. She lifts the doll, and again, his expression remains pinched. Then the lollipop, with the same result. I've completely lost hope when she picks up the dreidel, so I'm surprised when Eddie's wailing falters just a little.
Colorful Hebrew characters are etched into each side, and the woman runs her finger over one of them, then sets the dreidel onto the floor and gives an elegant flick of her wrist. As the dreidel spins, the colors hypnotically blend into a brilliant blur. "My grandson is on the spectrum too," she tells me quietly. "I have at least an inkling of how difficult your situation is. The dreidels are Braden's favorite too ..."
Eddie is staring intently at the dreidel as it spins. His wailing has stopped. All that's left behind now are soft, shuddering sobs.
"Do you know what the Hebrew means?" the woman asks me quietly. I shake my head, and she reads softly, "It's an acronym — it stands for a great miracle happened there."
I want to tell the woman that I don't believe in miracles anymore, but I'm not sure that's true, because one seems to be unfolding right before me. Eddie is now almost silent but for the occasional sniffle or echoed sob. The dreidel's spin fades until it wobbles, then it topples onto its side. I hear the sharp intake of his breath.
"Darling boy, do you know what this is?" the woman asks quietly.
"He doesn't speak," I try to explain, but Eddie chooses that exact moment to dig deep into his bag of embarrassing autism tricks as he turns his gaze to me and says hoarsely, "I love you Eddie."
The woman glances at me, and I try to explain,
"That's just ... it's called echolalia ... he can say words, but there's no meaning behind them. He's just parroting what he hears me say to him — he doesn't know what it means. It's kind his way of saying Mommy."
The woman offers me another gentle smile now and she sets the dreidel down right near Eddie, starts it spinning again and waits. He stares in silent wonder, and by the time the dreidel falls onto its side for a second time, he's completely calm. I fumble for his iPad, load the AAC, then hit the finish and the car buttons before I turn the screen toward Eddie. He sits up, drags himself to his feet and looks at me expectantly.
"That's it, sweetheart," the woman says softly. She bends and picks up the dreidel, and she passes it to Eddie as she murmurs, "What a clever boy, calming yourself down like that. Your mommy must be so proud of you."
"Thank you," I say to the woman.
She nods, and she touches my forearm briefly as she murmurs, "You're doing a good job, Momma. Don't you ever forget that."
Her words feel like platitudes at first. I lead Edison from the store, empty-handed but for the unexpected treasure from the stranger. I clip him into his special-order car seat, a necessity despite his size because he won't sit still enough for a regular seat belt. I slide into my own seat, and I glance at him in the rearview mirror. He's staring at the dreidel, calm and still, but he's a million miles away like he always is, and I'm tired. I'm always tired.
You're doing a good job, Momma. Don't you ever forget that.
I don't cry much over Eddie. I love him. I care for him. I don't ever let myself feel self-pity. I'm like an alcoholic who won't take even a drop of drink. I know once I open the floodgates to feeling sorry for myself, I'll get a taste for it, and it will destroy me.
But today my grandmother is in hospital, and the kind woman with the gerbera shoes felt like an angel visiting me in my hour of need, and what if Babcia sent her, and what if this is my grandmother's last gift to me because she's about to slip away?
It's my turn for a meltdown. Eddie plays with his dreidel, holding it right in front of his face and rotating it very slowly in the air as if he's trying to figure out how it works. I sob. I give myself eight luxurious minutes of weeping, because that brings us to 10 a.m., and we're now exactly an hour later than I hoped to be.
When the car clock ticks over the hour, I decide to stop wallowing — and then I do: just like that I turn the pity off. I wipe my nose with a Kleenex, clear my throat and start the car. As soon as I press the ignition, my phone connects to the car and on the touch screen by the steering wheel, the missed messages from my mom appear.
Where are you?
You said you'd be here by 9.00. Are you still coming?
Alice. Call me please, what's going on?
Babcia is awake, but come quickly because I don't know how long it will be until she needs another nap.
And then finally, one from Wade.
Sorry I couldn't take today off, honey. Are you mad?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Things We Cannot Say"
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