At first I couldn’t believe it. Yes I knew there was some risk. The doctor said, The lump in your throat has enlarged. Your thyroid will have to come out. I don’t think it’s malignant, but we can’t take a chance. I was scared, but I kept repeating to myself, “It’s not cancer and 90% of the patients are fine.”
I have always been an optimist. Celebrated rainbows, snowflakes, the Spring, sounds of tree frogs. As a child my favorite book was The Little Engine That Could. I wanted to read again and again how against all odds, the little train would chant, I think I can… I think I can, and climb the mountain to get to the other side.
When the dreaded day came and the operation was over, the lump WAS benign. I knew it! I crowed. I had a hoarse and raspy voice like a person making an obscene phone call, but the doctor assured me, my voice would come back.
At home I was glad to snuggle down beneath the patchwork quilt, push back the January gloom with bright blooms, cheerful cards, phone calls, handmade books from children at school, food, wine, and good cheer supplied by close friends who came to support Earl and me. Each morning I would wake and say hello, hello, hoping to hear my voice. Only a sliver of sound came out.
After a month with no improvement, I went back to the doctor. He looked down my throat with a mirror, and shook his head. The nerves are damaged. You have a paralyzed vocal chord. I’m sorry but there’s nothing to be done. You have all the voice you’re going to get.
Earl had to push me out the door. The thought of going back to my job as elementary supervisor in four schools with only a whisper, was mind boggling. I knew my days as a part time college instructor and consultant for the American International Schools had ended.
I tried to be cheerful and brave and have those attributes sunny handicapped people have in movies. On the outside, I smiled, but inside I felt my world had collapsed. Communication was who I was. Now at the store, saying “three pounds of seafood salad” so it could be heard, was almost impossible.
At home, Earl helped me locate a portable microphone, and set it up for me to carry around. At school, staff members reached out in loving ways. Notes in my box, a squeeze on my arm, hugs in the hall, a pot of tulips for my office and the secretary who always said…Oh you sound so much better today. I didn’t. But she helped me to think… maybe…
Nine months passed. No change. Then I met a kindergarten teacher from another district. She also whispered. She had had the same operation. But her whisper was louder and stronger than mine. We compared notes. “Go see Renee Blaker, a speech pathologist from Doylestown. If anyone can help you…she’s the one.” I called Renee the next morning. “I’ll need a doctor’s prescription,” she said. We made an appointment.
The doctor snorted at the idea of speech therapy. It won’t do any good. Waste of time. he said. Teflon surgery would be a better bet. “I want to try,” I insisted. He sighed, and signed the paper reluctantly.
Renee was kind, compassionate, and competent. She heard me whisper, read the doctor’s report, smiled at his negative assessment and said “I have a little magic in my pocket.” She was my kind of person! For the first time I felt a stirring of hope. “I can help you, if you work,” she said. “You need to practice five times a day for 15 minute periods. I’ll see you twice a week.”
It was December. As I drove home, the first snowflakes whirled on the windshield and I thought I heard a little voice in my head say… I think I can… I think I can. I started with hard vowels; any, every, each, out, and moved on to phrases; alter the arbor, etch a sketch. Five times a day for 15 minutes I said them week after week. My voice still whispered. However, being able to take some action felt like partial control. I’ve always believed in the power of visualization. Every day while pushing out those phrases, I imagined standing in front of the school auditorium packed with parents, speaking loudly and clearly.
January, February, March… Now I was up to sentences; It’s odd that Arthur’s not at Eileen’s tea. I said so often Earl would sometimes get into bed saying… “It is odd about Arthur.” April, May June… No change. Sentences turned into paragraphs. Still, I practiced. When we sailed on the Chesapeake or Lake Nockamixon, my words wouldn’t carry. The wind would whip my whisper away. Some days, when I went for speech therapy, I just cried. We didn’t do sentences. Renee and I talked. She understood I had to mourn my loss before I could move on. Her staunch belief that I could retrieve my voice gave me courage to continue.
And then it was Labor Day. Time for another school year. Teachers said, “Oh… you sound stronger.” I thought maybe I did, but I wasn’t sure. November. Time to welcome my reading volunteers at the Bridgeton School. The auditorium was full. The audience got very quiet. I picked up the microphone.
“Welcome…” I said… Out came my voice!
I couldn’t believe it. People rushed up to give me a hug. After all that practice… and my mental picture of speaking in public and being heard. It happened! I still had a paralyzed vocal chord but the other one had moved closer and was working for two. I felt as if I got my life back. All that practice, support from my husband, friends, colleagues, and the caring competence of an outstanding speech pathologist paid off.
And maybe some of the credit should go to that © Little Engine That Could …
I think I can … I think I can…
— Kay Winters