Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The game of Scrabble

Something miraculous happened last night.

My son Ben, 16, played a game of Scrabble with me. This was miraculous because Ben has a terrible time focusing, which makes game-playing challenging.

But this time Ben was interested. He even enjoyed moving his letter tiles around to look at word possibilities.

He came up with “ARM.” Then he came up with “ALY” – the name of his cousin, though she uses an “I.” I was ecstatic. Later he produced “ICON.” I don’t know if that was just a lucky guess because he couldn’t speak to explain it.

I had to keep score because Ben can’t add.

We had a lovely time, but I couldn’t help thinking that he would never be able to play at one of our family gatherings, with his cousins.

Just the day before, we celebrated my birthday at my mom’s house. Scrabble is a competitive game in my sister-in-law’s family. Ben’s cousins are brilliant students – one in second-year university already holds a prestigious research grant. My SIL rarely lays Scrabble tiles down without forming double words and knows all the obscure ones most people have to look up in the Scrabble dictionary. My other children joined in the game and it moved swiftly around the table, with words like ‘FEDORAS” and “FOLLOWED” filling the board.

Ben sat off on his own in a chair, reading an old picture book that had something to do with acorns and adventures and making the odd sounds he produces because he can’t speak. He couldn’t participate because of the fast pace and complex language.

And somehow I couldn’t help thinking that this Scrabble game represented the value our family had always placed on education and academic learning. And it made me think how I, too, in the past had revered intelligence and somehow felt it was an ability a person earned through hard work. To me it seemed to be a higher or more refined quality, let’s say, than physical beauty or athleticism. In fact, I once had an argument with a university friend who said if she had to choose between beauty and brains, given our culture, she’d choose beauty. To me that showed a certain superficiality and materialism that I didn’t associate with intellect.

But since my son Ben was born I’ve had to acknowledge that my intelligence had little to do with anything I ‘did’ or ‘‘worked hard at’ but was, instead, simply a gift bestowed upon me at birth. I was lucky.

My son was unlucky and will always struggle mightily to learn and to retain information and ideas in his head.

He can’t join in the family games of Scrabble and he won’t enjoy the intellectual growth, social life and freedom of university.

And while I was sitting there watching our family play Scrabble and Ben was babbling to himself and reading or playing with his Star Wars characters – no doubt with intricate storylines playing themselves out in his silent imagination – I couldn’t help remembering that when I was pregnant with him, my SIL had said: “We have to be careful not to compare our children.”

Sometimes I envy my brother’s life. His child-rearing is coming to an end and he’s able to take great satisfaction and comfort in his children’s burgeoning independence.

But rather than wishing that Ben could be more like his cousins, I think my real wish is that my family better knew the inner world of Ben. They don’t know his sign language and they don’t know how to interact with him. I don’t know if they’re able to see past his odd and anxious ways.

I wish I could tell them about how Ben came up with “ARM” and “ALY” for Scrabble and they’d be as excited as I was. I wish I could tell them that when I was prodding Ben to send an e-mail to his dad yesterday, he chose the correct “too” in “I miss you too” and my heart leapt. But we don’t have a common frame of reference anymore. We’re still playing Junior Scrabble and they’ve moved on to post-graduate work.

I assume they feel sorry for us. I think that’s how I would have felt about our situation, before it happened.


I just finished playing a game of Scrabble with my eldest daughter. We play non-competitively, which means we help each other out sometimes, or sneak in words that shouldn't count to open up the board, etc, etc. Like you, Scrabble, Monopoly and Stock Ticker were played like lives depended on who won or lost. UGH. Like you, I look at my youngest and wonder. But, she heard the eldest and I playing, and started spelling out what words she could. Hugs to you and your Ben. His accomplishment is as great as those with the graduate degrees.

"I think that’s how I would have felt about our situation, before it happened." Yeah, that's a wearying shift, isn't it, back and forth----but those of us who read your blog are looking at the detail of the second o of Ben's "too" and nodding

oh yes! to so much of what you write... to the dangers of comparing our children and to ben's sweet scrabble success! you're a great mom.

I'm so glad that Ben is playing Scrabble for fun. If he learns to love and enjoy words just for themselves, he'll be in very good company. Good for him.

I share many of the feelings you've brought out here about being around an extended family with lots of cousins. It's a special kind of vertigo, feeling proud of all the cousins that got the intelligence gift or the athletic gift or the artistic gift or the funny gift and hoping that my family can see the sometimes hard to see gifts that my own son brings to the table.

But every once in a while, my sister or a cousin will pick up or sit with my boy and I'll see how their face lights up when they feel that warmth that comes out of him so naturally, and I'll know they know too. It may only be for a moment, and I don't know how deep or lasting the connection will be, but it makes a difference.

One must never assume. You may be amazed at how many people, family members included, look at you and your son with admiration! Just sayin'.

I think DeeAnn is totally on to something. I admire you and Ben. I'm amazed at how great Ben is with his communication and writing wow. He can play Scrabble that's also super cool. I'd be bragging on FB about that. I hope Ashley can get there one day.


Please, allow me to play the devil's advocate for only a moment, or as I like to think of it, "Putting in my two cents."

First, there is no denying that you love Ben with all your heart. However, I cannot sit here, as your friend, while you declare your intelligence to be a consequence of luck. For, it is true that many people are born with the gift or talent of intellect, but it also remains equally viable that only a precious few have chosen to become brilliant through hard work.

Second, I would also argue that a university degree, regardless of one's success, does not make them smart. For example, I was unable to balance my intellect and disability at U of T, but when I truly concentrate, and put in the extra time, I can write anyone under the table. I have merely learned of the grace and clarity one finds when they choose to be humble.

Furthermore, I would suggest that there is an astute level of brilliance, higher learning, and wisdom which cannot be attained at university. For example, you recently posted a blog asking your readers to send you their questions in relation to your interview with Donna Thomson, and I obliged by writing: Given the benefits of medical intervention, for those who are diagnosed with cerebral palsy, why is adequate medical care, such as surgery and theraphy, virtually inexistent for people with disabilities after 21 years of age? My question, written in this fashion, would have been viewed as focused, clear, and concise in any academic institution. Nevertheless, you used reason, compassion, experience, and the tone of a book, which may be frowned upon, to restate my question by asking, "Does the concept of overcoming disability help explain why good services in childhood evaporate when a person becomes an adult? Dare I say, "You were right to repose my question, and I loved it --Louise Kinross University all the way!!!

Third, I rejoice in Ben's new abilities, as I know they are "hard won." His family and I should be helping him too.

For, knowledge is worthless without compassion or love. Please, show us the way.

Oh, Louise, I'm bookmarking this one, along with "Worlds Apart." I just read them both aloud to my husband, and we both cried. (We're both feeling weepy tonight, lol.)
I can relate to that torn feeling of wanting to be part of "that" world, wanting to be "normal," subscribing to all the things I always thought I would think and embracing this life that I have given, realizing that I've been given an opportunity to see life and love in a whole other way.
Bravo to you for being such a wonderful mother, but also for being so honest with yourself and with us. I thoroughly enjoy reading all you write and getting glimpses into your life.

Hey, thanks for this! It simply hadn't occurred to me to try Scrabble w/my son, but your description of the words your son came up with make me thinking mine could probably do it, and have fun with it.

"I assume they feel sorry for us. I think that’s how I would have felt about our situation, before it happened."

I wouldn't assume that. They're your extended family, and they've watched your son grow, even if not in as minute detail as you. Betcha they're rooting for him all the way, and are able to recognize his triumphs for what they are if you give them the chance.

Thanks everyone! I really appreciate your comments!!

You're welcome, Louise. Have a good weekend. We love both you and Ben!!!


Louise, I love how you put into words what so many of us fee. That scrabble moment with Ben sounds amazing. I wonder if I could interest my daughter in scrabble too? I've never tried!

I loved this post Louise and my heart soared with yours at Ben's scrabble and email writing. And I can also relate to your thoughts about others' ability to fully understand and share in these hard-won accomplishments!

What a great post Louise. To me, Ben's game of Scrabble is like a vase filled with one delicate have to hold it over your head when you walk through a crowded room to keep it safe and sound. It's not meant to be compared, but held apart and cherished. xoAnne-Marie

I do love playing scrabble..since i was 8 years old my mom taught me how to play it, it can enhance my memory and i can encounter new words which i would look in the dictionary if i don't know the meaning of it.