Poetic justice for an

outspoken soul

St. Petersburg Times
Special to the Times

For over a month during the holidays, I couldn't speak. I don't mean that I was hoarse; I was voiceless, silent, mute. Reduced to pointing and whispering.

    Each Thanksgiving, our friend Bob hosts an outdoor celebration. This year he asked if I would write an ode  against the AARP, which had, by its

support, helped assure the passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill.

    With a cold coming on, I got up in front of 50 people and sang - no, shouted - the following, twice, to a kind of bastardized tune of The Star-Spangled Banner:

            Oh, Say can you see

            How the AARP

            Sold us down the river

            Through venality.

            We're dupes of big drugs

            Unable to plea

            That hole in the doughnut

            Leads to penury.

    Then I led a couple of rousing choruses of:

            We don't want no stinking AARP

            We don't need no stinking AARP

    And we burned the little paper membership cards I'd made up on the computer with matches I passed around. The children particularly got into the pyromania. I was so pleased with myself.

    The next day, in some kind of instant retribution, I couldn't speak.

    People reacted in various ways. Some were sympathetic, which I appreciated. A few whispered back, and a few shouted trying to force me, by example, to speak up. My friend Patricia couldn't stand to be around me. She said that just listening to me whisper gave her strep throat. Marilyn chided me as if I were trying some childish prank and should cut it out. P.B. affirmed my noble Buddhist silence. Her husband Ron, who seldom says much even though he can, said that I was fortunate: "Talk long enough and you'll say something bad."

    At Christmas in Connecticut, my daughter said I made her house seem like a place filled with secrets. On the airplane coming home, the flight attendant visibly recoiled when I mouthed: "I can't speak, but I'd like cranberry juice."

    It's amazing how much you can accomplish with no voice. I mouthed "locker, please" at the gym. I shopped, presented my credit card and a silent "thank you" at the grocery. The hardest part was not being able to answer the phone. Les taped a message for me to use when someone called. In his booming maleness: "This is Norma - not her voice, of course, but she's on the line. If you'd like to say something, go ahead."

    My sister has a friend who had a thyroid operation as a child, which paralyzed her vocal cords. When she calls people, whispering into the receiver, they think it's an obscene call and hang up. Or they say, "I haven't got time for this foolishness," while she whispers helplessly, "It's not foolishness."

    For more complicated messages, I managed by whispering what I wanted to say to Les and letting him pass my words along. Sometimes he misheard or wouldn't do it, and my whispers grew desperate. Then he'd say: "You're getting hysterical," and I'd hiss furiously, "How can you be hysterical when you can't make a sound?"

    It was frustrating listening to him tell stories. I realized that in our regular relationship, I'm the color commentary. He gives the bare bones, and I add what people were wearing, the expressions on their faces, and what they were really thinking.

    One night at dinner, I heard him give a completely fabricated version of a juice fast we both tried. In his version, it was a splendid experience; he never thought about food; and it just goes to show that most hunger is psychological. In reality, he was grumbling by the end of the first day. Saying how bad he felt and what a terrible idea this was by the second. He threatened to quit on the third and did quit on the fourth, with the excuse that he needed to eat for a plane trip. When I complained in what he dubbed my "hysterical whisper," he said it didn't matter whether it was true or not; it was his reality.

    In early January, after more than a month without speaking, I finally got in to see the ear, nose and throat doctor. He numbed my nose and throat to suppress the gag reflex, and worked what looked like 2 feet of segmented steel with a light on the end, through my nose and down to take a look at my vocal cords. Say "eeeee." I gave him my best "eeeee."

    "You have inflamed vocal cords and the condition will gradually go away. But you'll need to see a speech therapist. After being silent so long, the muscles change and, unless you fix it, you'll never speak normally again."

    My voice returned, slowly, hesitantly, the low notes before the high. If I speak in deep, measured tones, I sound hoarse but almost normal. If I get excited and my voice rises, I squeak like a teenager.

    Today, I saw Maureen, the speech therapist. She said I would be prone to laryngitis for the rest of my life. My vocal cords, instead of flowing softly as they should, rub against one another like sandpaper. She wrote out a list of dos and don'ts.

    I'm to avoid caffeine, alcohol and acidic foods. I should massage my larynx for five minutes a day (it feels as odd as it sounds). I'm to gargle with saltwater, drink more plain water, and never, under any circumstances, shout. So much for my favorite way to fight.

    It has been one of those life lessons people are always saying is so good for you. Like the universe sending me a message: Shut up.


Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, The Last Resort, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011.