Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath & Shadow
Summer 2012Volume 9 Issue 3
Our Secret Language
By Stephanie Wilson
She squeezes my hand, her fingers lightly damp from sweat. I squeeze back in reply,
my hands cold and chapped. I think the way our hands physically react to stress tells
a lot about us. As we sit in the overly white room, we ignore the discarded bag and
wrappers of the Big Macs we just ingested as the nameless doctor with ridiculously
wavy dark hair walks in. I swallow thickly as he sits down on the leather-covered stool. I
squeeze her hand and she squeezes back.
Five hours ago I woke up on the floor of my 8th grade algebra classroom, with the
school principal leaning over me asking if I remembered what I had for breakfast. From
the look on the doctor’s face – solemn eyes poorly hidden by a wanna-be carefree smile
– I am about to find out why the principal had asked such an inane question.
“You have epilepsy.”
I stare at him. Obviously this doctor is a firm believer in keeping things short and sweet.
I clasp my mom’s hand tight and don’t loosen my hold. I can’t hear over the roaring
in my ears. I feel like that Big Mac is about to come back up to greet me. I don’t know
where to look – the clinically depressing white walls of the hospital room, the doctor’s
pretentiously pressed pin- striped pants, I finally focus onto where my hands are tightly
enfolded in my mom’s. Only then do I realize that her knuckles are white; that she has
been holding on to me just as tightly as I have her.
“The nurse will give you a list of neurologists you can contact. I’m sorry.”
The doctor then stood, fixed his pristine smock coat and headed out the door.
“I’m not dying, right?” From the way he apologized, I felt like I had to make sure.
“No.” My mom answered, clutching my hand once more.
It’s dark. The last month has been dark. It has to be. It’s the only way to prevent the
pounding in my head from drowning out the rest of the world. Though sometimes I wish
that would quiet down a bit, too. As I lay in the hospital bed, the lights turned off, I curl
around my mother’s hand, clasping hers atop my own hand. I lay my head against her
cool skin. It’s a welcome relief to the heat of my own. I awkwardly fling my other arm out
behind me. The nurse sighs, accepting that this is the only way I’m going to let her pluck
I don’t even adhere to the hospital’s social norm of looking at her before she stabs a
hole in me. I feel the pinch of the needle, then the cool stream of painkillers shoot up
my arm. It’s a feeling I’ve grown quite used to over the last several months. I easily
ignore it in favor of my mother’s soft ivory skin against my cheek. I focus on the sweet
smell of home and safety that is purely my mother. Her hand is my only anchor in the
pain-induced delirium that tends to make the rest of the world a haze right around day
thirteen of a migraine.
As we sit in the dark hospital room, it doesn’t take much for the rest of the world to fade
away; just my mother’s left hand clasped in mine, and her right massaging my scalp. I
soon fall into the first restful sleep I’ve had in a month, lulled by my mother’s hands.
A year and countless doctor and hospital visits later, my mom and I try for an hour
of normal domesticity. The game of Rummiküb – a tile game where you use simple
mathematics and matching skills in order to be the first player to get rid of all your tiles –
has been on hold for the last three minutes as my mom and I argue. I firmly believe that
three blue tiles with the numbers 11, 12, and 13 do not equal 36, but are only 19.
The realization that I am not joking causes such a look of abject fear to cross my
mother’s face that she whispers from across the dining room table, “What’s wrong with
“Hello, I’m Dr. Valerno. It’s good to meet you ladies.”
We mumble our replies as we sit in the surprisingly cozy seats in the neurologist’s
office. It could be called quaint if it weren’t for the array of diplomas, awards and framed
newspaper articles littering what could possibly have been a bookcase at one time.
“Well I have looked over your file briefly. Tell me, how are you feeling?”
He does have a really nice smile, for an old bald guy. As he looks at me, he folds
his meaty hands over his desk. I choose not to answer. It is day three of the newest
migraine and I’m not feeling too happy with the world at the moment.
“How long has it been since your last seizure?” He doggedly continues the
questioning, unfazed by my non-response.
“She just had one three days ago, she’s had a migraine since.
It happens every time. She has a seizure and it causes her to get terrible
migraines that last for months at a time.” My mother answers, her voice quavering with
Mom reaches across the void between our couches and wraps her fingers around my
“I believe you told my nurse that she is failing school…”
“Well, yes. She’s been so sick.”
“No doubt, but I don’t think that’s the only cause.”
At this point he looks over at me, a small frown on his face.
“Well, your previous neurologist had you so overdosed on medication that I’m
surprised you’ve still got enough brain function to be sitting there, lucid.”
It’s the first time in the hospital all over again – the noise rushing in my ears, my heart
hammering. I open my fist and latch onto my mom’s hand. I concentrate on her, dig my
nails into her skin, clawing at reality. Anger at the other neurologist’s carelessness and
happiness play tug-of-war with my insides. Eventually elation wins as realization dawns.
“So it’s not the seizures? They haven’t… altered my brain somehow?”
I finally express my biggest fear, that the damage was irreparable. I had always been
an all A’s student. Feeling my intelligence slowly slip away to a point where I couldn’t do
simple addition had been a pain worse than any debilitating migraine.
“Goodness no, we’ll have you good as new in no time.”
My mom mumbles, “Thank God” breathlessly.
I look at our conjoined hands and our knuckles have gone white again. But it’s a
beautiful white, the white of a blank page and a new slate. I smile up at her, the artificial
red-haired and big glasses beauty that is my mother. Her smile is as big as I’ve ever
seen it. And as she looks at me, she squeezes my hand, her eyes brimming with tears. I
It’s now been three years since my last seizure. During that time I have been trying to
build my life back up, piece by piece, like a LEGO tower. The small fear that it could all
come tumbling down with one seizure has slowly diminished. As the years go by, my
mother’s hands look more and more like my grandmother’s. Her knuckles are gnarling
with the façade of arthritis, littered by shades of brown sunspots. They look feeble, but
as we walk through the mall, our fingers intertwined, she squeezes my hand – just as
strong and knuckle cracking as always – and I squeeze back, our secret language. She
will always be there, and I will always need her.
‘Our Secret Language’ was previously published in Seton Hill's Art and Literature
magazine "Eye Contact" Fall, 2011.
Stephanie Wilson is currently a 21 year old creative writing major at Seton Hill
University in Western Pa. She is currently the "Pittsburgh Book Examiner," at
Examiner.com. You may contact Stephanie at email@example.com