There was a time when most words wouldn’t come to Cristina. Mild cerebral palsy had left her a little loose-lipped and drooling, so her babbles took a long while to mature past Gobbledygook—that universal kid dialect we’ve all heard preschoolers speak. Luckily, a short stint with American Sign Language got us over the hump. But through it all, Cristina did have one word mastered—and she didn’t need to pinch together her thumb, index finger and middle finger to say it. No.
Then, as now, Cristina could say “no” with a linguist’s perfection—and she used it at every turn, whether it made sense or not.
Want a cookie? No. We’re glad you’re here, Cristina. No. Look at that nice boat on the water. No.
Ah, that cute, 2-year-old curmudgeon! It all seemed so harmless and age-appropriate—until 10 years went by and I realized I was living with the ultimate downer. I longed for a verbally agreeable child, a kid who was irresistibly charming beyond her disabilities, a girl who saw the world as half-full and would fulfill her destiny as the special child sent especially to bless our family. I could live with a disability. The grouchiness was another story.
I blush even now to think of the lengths I went to in my efforts to cure her relentless negativism. I studied happy-go-lucky kids on the playground. I bought books with titles like The Difficult Child and Kids You’d Like to Drop Kick, trying to decide what was age, what was disability and what was just lousy personality. When I couldn’t find the answer in any of their pages, I settled on my own home-cooked strategy to outwit her contrary nature. I burned lavender candles and played happy music designed to mend auras.
I vowed to be easygoing (hardly my strong suit). I retrained myself to ask questions that couldn’t possibly have a “yes” or “no” answer. I never inquired whether she felt cold. Instead: “Would you like to wear a sweater or just keep your T-shirt?” It didn’t really matter. The answer was still an illogical “no.”
Slowly, though, I came to realize that, for kids like Cristina, “no” has as many subtle meanings as “snow” does to an Eskimo. The only thing left was to develop an internal dictionary of “no” interpretations and to keep adding entries as life unfolded.
“No,” accompanied by a deadpan stare: “Don’t you see? You’re not the boss of me.” “Nooo,” screamed at me through the scratched Plexiglas window of a climbing tube: “Help! I’ve gotten myself into a jam.” “No,” uttered quietly when trying to have a conversation: “I can’t find all the words for what I need to say.” “No,” shouted on receiving the news that our sweet dog died: “This can’t be happening.”
In time, the no dilemma moved to the junk heap of all the other silly things I’ve worried about through the years, all of which seemed to have worked themselves out, one way or another. Cristina is in high school now, where she has lots of friends (very optimistic ones) and a social life that a homecoming queen might envy. She boasts a pretty good vocabulary and funny expressions and is also armed with a pair of rolling eyeballs that can express “no” nonverbally just fine.
Sure, she’s still a surly teen who refuses to do stuff from time to time, but now I shrug off her willfulness as a healthy sign instead of a character flaw. “No” has kept her from certain horrors of childhood, after all, like eating peas and kissing ugly relatives.
But more important, “no” has also been Cristina’s proclamation, the spot where she draws the line in the sand and makes you work to get to know her and love her. It’s what has ensured that only the most dedicated and true friends got past that marker. The truth is … I feel lucky I made it in.
Would I change a single thing about that?