a short introduction: my mother was born with the words dying in her beating chest. during her schooling she could wheeze out a phrase here and there, but by college her voice was rough and rasping and every letter cost her pain.
her mouth was a cigar, and with every billow of smoke her lungs seared and scarred. by the time she met my father she couldn't speak a word.
a hospital trip, may '09: she was mute, so naturally she had to be fixed.
men in brilliant coats hooked her to a machine on a may afternoon. a blinking screen blared at her from behind a large black keyboard. the instrument was wheeled on a cart, pushed to her face.
the head doctor's name was doc albert---"al," he said, shaking my father's hand, "call me al"---and he placed the machine in front of my mother, carefully setting the keyboard in front of her. he talked to her like he was speaking to a small child.
"now there, the little buttons can be used to type messages," he whispered, his breath tickling her earlobes, "so your lungs don't have to do the work. got it?"
her head moved up and down, her gray eyes fixed on the metallic keys.
"now there," said doc al again, smiling a little. "can you type something? for me?"
her head tipped a little. she placed her fingers on the keys, her thumbs resting on "q" and "l." then, with agonizing slowness, she began to type.
there was a silence in the room, and it was so icy that the air nearly fogged. my father---a young man, at this point, but well-acquainted with the mute girl---was watching the doctors. occasionally his eyes flitted to the woman and the keyboard.
at last she sat back, and her fingers slid from the buttons. her expression was most odd---pained and confused. only my father could see the embers of words, still frozen to her lips. he was sure she could not push them out.
slowly, doc al and the team grabbed the instrument and gazed at the screen, reading what she had so carefully written.
they tell me this is what gibberish is:
my father's voice was pained as he uttered my mother's name. "loretta?"
she stared at him, blank, her lips curling into a frown.
the car ride, may '09: when my mother lost her voice, she lost her words. it was inexplicable, really.
my father sobbed in the taxi back while loretta stared out of the window, silent. rain was spluttering outside, the same color as his tears.
"loretta!" she did not turn. "loretta, you can write! why didn't you write?" he buried his face in his long fingers.
loretta shook her head very slowly. for a second, a hint of malice crept onto her face, and then it was blank again.
another hospital trip and a few well-placed words: and so it was that doc al and the team of other doctors forged a new machine and a new method of communication. the instrument looked the same as the other, except that the keyboard was gray and much smaller.
"it will make emoticons out of letters," a doctor whispered to my father. "so that she doesn't have to write words."
"she can make faces herself," hissed my father.
"she won't," he muttered back. "we've tried that."
doc al---"you see these buttons? you see?"
loretta nodded carefully.
"those are parentheses. they're little mouths. turn them that way, the guy's frowning. turn them this way, it's a smile."
loretta tilted her head.
"the colon can be the eyes---that's this, right here. if you press the 'd' key, you can make the face laugh."
after much consideration, my mother made her very first digital face:
the entire room clapped.
her face showed no expression, but she typed.
they were called emoticons––faces made from letters.
my mother, the emoticon. my mother, the face-maker.
my birth, august '11: i was born on august the first. my father named me september. he always jumped the gun a little, my father.
my mother loved me.
she could never say it.
my childhood: my most-asked question as a young child: "dad. why did you name me september?"
"you're a september kind of boy," was always his answer. he would look thoughtful, and sit down next to me. "september, indeed. that moment when the sun is at its solstice, placed perfectly between the dark and the light. and the leaves fall only halfway down, crumbling and graying. but not there yet." he smiled a little. "remarkable, isn't it?"
growing up, i always thought my mother's muteness made my dad a little loony, but he was born that way. his eccentric speech coupled nicely with my mother's gentle hands and ceaseless quiet.
i was a fortunate kid. and yet.
i grew up with faces.
my mother couldn't read, but she did get smarter. they added more functions to her keyboard to compensate, and her range of faces grew. she could use symbols, too.
i was so accustomed to this. when i learned to write, i did not think of parentheses and colons, but of eyes and mouths.
there were consequences. i did not read until the third grade.
"this word is 'boy,'" my teach would say, and she sounded a bit like she was pleading with me.
"i don't want words," i responded. "i've got eyes and mouths."
indeed. everything was a face.
daily dialogue: "how are you today, mama?"
"are you happy that i am home?"
"it was a tough day at school. i had to take three tests." slumping over, i said, "i hate algebra."
"and science! we had to learn about atoms. as if anyone needs a unit that small."
"you're right," i sighed. "i'm happy it's over."
frustration, '26: age fifteen. on an october day i shoved the backpack from my shoulders and snarled my way to the living room. my mother sat there, her machine beside her as always, crocheting. her eyes flickered from her work to the television, which was displaying a ridiculous rendition of romeo and juliet.
a pale actor was rehearsing the lines almost mechanically, his face directed to a passerby.
"so shalt thou show me friendship. take thou that; live and be prosperous, and farewell, good fellow." his voice cracked with false emotion.
at this, my mother's eyes filled with tears. her mouth remained a straight line.
entering, i snorted loudly and flung my belongings onto the couch. my mother did not turn around.
i backtracked. "mama, i'm home."
she turned around, and her fingers flew to the keys.
i rolled my eyes a little; it was customary.
the tv---"call this a lightning? o my love, my wife, death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty!" my mother's eyes began to cry again.
i was feeling deliciously bad-tempered at this point. it had been a hard day, and i was an adolescent---i could be excused.
"please, mama, turn this off! it's shit." i reached for the remote, but loretta snatched it away and reached for the keyboard again.
for a second, i stared into the tiny colon eyes of the face created, then back to loretta's damp, expressionless ones. then i lost my temper.
"why bother?" i shouted. "why bother making your stupid faces?!"
the gaping eyes of the emoticon were void of all human nature. i looked from the digitalized marks to loretta. the two sets of eyes were agonizingly similar. it angered me further.
"make the faces yourself!" i yelled. "make the damn faces yourself! i don't care anymore! i don't care about the machine!" and, in my desperation, i kicked the cart over. the keyboard and screen toppled to the floor. i heard a shatter, but i didn't look back.
the tv--"eyes, look your last! arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, o you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing death!"
college, '30: i left my half-crazy father and my watchful, silent mother with deep sorrow. simultaneously i hoped never to come back.
a first conclusion: my mother continued to use emoticons.
a farewell, '39: people describe death as though it were an intricate thing--a complicated diverging of light and dark, inexplicable to the human mind.
but my father's death was very simple. it went like this: his heart stuttered, it jolted, it rocketed, and then it stopped.
my mother was absorbed in a book when she heard her husband clatter to the ground. she ran.
his face was ragged and twisting. every bone seemed to bulge with death. one eye was closed. the other was pressed to its corner, gazing blankly at the dusty floor. it looked like a colon.
on the day of the funeral, it poured freezing rain. the musty january air smelled like a cave.
my mother and i sat sniffing, staring at his grave. it was a sorry heap, an earthen lump.
i rested my head on her shoulder.
"he jumped the gun again," i said, wiping away my tears.
my mother typed: ?
i gulped, and continued. "my birthday is in two days. your twentieth anniversary is in a month. valentine's day is his favorite holiday. he could have survived, but..." i cast around for the right words "he... named me september."
loretta squeezed my shoulder. she understood.
my workday, or the aftermath of growing up with faces instead of words: july thirtieth. i really shouldn't have had to work during summertime, but there i was.
the speaker droned on. the platform was covered in a large poster of the late marlo p. williams, who was recognized as the best lawyer of the firm for ten years straight. the sun was an obnoxious white. it pressed onto the microphone.
"we can only truly be recognized... in death."
my head was down. i didn't like dead people, i had decided.
the woman continued. "those who knew marlo will remember his... contagious smile... work ethic... and love for apple pie."
laughter rippled across the stands. i did not laugh.
"more importantly... marlo was a valuable... lawyer and a true... activist for the rights of... his clients..."
the voice was raining down on me. the words were not patronizing, but they seemed to taunt me in some way. i could feel anger rippling through my insides.
"marlo was... a great friend... a great lawyer..."
shut up. "he had... a great mind..."
shut the fuck up. "...courage..."
stop. stop. i was breathing very fast.
"...a sweet tooth..."
"STOP!" the words rang from my mouth before i could stop them.
hundreds of heads swiveled round. their eyes shoved themselves into mine.
all of those faces were oddly comforting.
and then the words---
"what did he say?"
"what did he--"
before i could stop myself, i ducked, ran through the people next to me, off of the bleachers, and into the air. i gaped for breath, snatching oxygen from the clear sky.
i was free of the voice. i was free of the words.
a second conclusion: ? was my mother's last emoticon.
coughing, '40: my mother coughed for weeks and weeks. i visited her nearly every weekend, and then i held her warm hand in mine while she snorted phlegm into the sink. the gobs drifted, slowly, to the drainage. i turned away, but she would watch them disappear, her eyes fixed, fascinated.
"mama," i said worriedly, after one particularly bad session, "is this what made you mute?"
she nodded and cupped a hand around her forehead. her eyes closed for a second.
the realization, '41: sunday, august first. my fortieth birthday. the day everything went wrong.
how it started:
i visited my mother at nine o'clock to watch her cough.
i pushed the door open. the sky was ember-gray. my mother sat in my living room again. she wrung her hands, she smiled, and then she said, "hello, september."
i pushed my bag onto the hook. "hello, mama."
then i froze. my face rose into lines, waves. the waves fell away, and only my eyes remained---rounded, gaping. i swiped my tongue across my lips.
"who's there?" i asked at once, staring around for the source of the voice. i had thought... but it was impossible.
loretta's wrinkled face was calm, unemotional. as always. "september, it's me." she pushed strands of hair back from her face. "your mama."
my eyes were the shapes of tennis balls by now. i was disbelieving, i was icy, but the truth was there, in front of me, staring through those easy blue eyes:
my mother's first words in forty-one years: "hello, september." my voice came out a strangled whisper. "mama?"
she looked straight into me. "september." and then, the simple words that explained most everything and nothing at the same time---"i lied to you." plain and simple.
for a moment we stood there, frozen. the clock froze. the time slipped past, second by second by second... it stopped. only her eyes remained, and mine.
i always thought my mother's eyes looked like a colon---the same as her emoticons.
they didn't. they looked like keyholes. locked. what had become of the key?
the moment loosened. the tension broke.
i could feel something eating me up inside. it was licking my lungs, my airstream. again i couldn't breathe.
i stood there, panting. and then---
"you... lied to me. why?" i said, hopelessly, "this better be a dream." it was the only logical explanation.
"not a dream, september." her voice took an odd quality. she sounded vague, nearly cheerful. "i never liked speech. i never did. words were foes. they meant things. and why, when silence is so much easier? words," she said again. "the great weapon of our times. 2009---the year before you were born---was the year i refused to form a single one."
i stared at her.
suddenly loretta emitted a shrill, hacking cough. a greenish snot flew from her mouth. she caught it in her hands and watched it slip through her fingers. her throat hacked one up again, and she cleared her throat before talking.
"i die soon, my son." eyes blank, she continued. "but there was one last thing that... i wanted to do for you."
she sat staring at me for a second, and then slowly, her eyes upturned. her mouth folded and curved. and every pore in her face looked alive.
my mother sat smiling.
my mother---the smiler.
it was her first real face, and it was also her last.
a word about truth: they say truth has no color, that it is as clear as a ghost in the air.
for me, truth came in the most brutal sentiment. it arrived in a whirl of sense and color. it was stirred-up, grossly musty. it smelled like a cave and the rain at my father's funeral. it looked like my mother's easy blue eyes.
it was the color of the weather outside: ashen gray, teardrops slipping down the stiffened canvas of sky. even the clouds were weeping.
'emoticon' is another word for 'emoji.'
and yes, the lowercase was purposeful. i get that too much.