THE BLOG
10/15/2014 04:52 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

The Heartbreaking Sound of a Voice from the Past

Sarah Smiley

Lindell and I were driving to and from errands. I was lost in my thoughts about the day, and he was playing with my phone in the backseat. The car streamed music over Bluetooth, but because Lindell had the phone and it was on shuffle, I had no control over which tracks would come on next. The radio was shuffling through all 300-something songs in my library, many of them I hadn't heard in years.

It didn't matter, though. My mind was filled with thoughts about the dishes, the laundry and my work that wasn't finished. The music and Lindell's humming were purely peripheral.

And then I heard it -- this tiny, feathery voice coming through the speakers: "Tee, tee, tee."

"What?" Lindell looked up from his game. "What is this?" And then he hit "next" and changed the song.

I quickly pulled off the side of the road, parking almost perpendicular to the curb.

"No, go back," I said. "Go back one song."

"What? Why?" Lindell said, without looking up. "It was weird."

"It was you," I said.

"Me?"

"Go back."

Lindell tapped on the phone, and then there it was again: "Tee, tee, tee... E, B, C... J, K, M, M, M, M, P."

I don't say this frivolously: I was breathless. It was a recording of Lindell saying his ABCs when he was 2 years old. For a moment, it was like Lindell was seeing himself for the first time and I was meeting a long lost friend. Both of us were silent.

"Q, U, R... Munch... 2, U, V, W, S, Y, N, T."

I've had feelings similar to this before when I'm cleaning closets and come across one of the boys' old onesies or their favorite stuffed animal from when they were a baby. I've stopped and put a hand to my chest many times when I open a book and one of the boys' baby pictures falls out.

But those things are material. They remind me of the boys, like an echo, but they aren't my boys. This voice, however, so ephemeral and intangible, got me right in the gut.

Lindell's 2-year-old self had been photographed many times. I know that face like I know the veins on my hand. Even today, I can close my eyes and picture the way Ford, almost 14, or Owen, almost 12, looked when they were two. Our culture, especially today, is vigilant about documenting faces with photographs before they grow and change. But their voices? Those seem to disappear into time and history like a curling spiral of smoke rising up into the sky. Just like that -- poof -- and the voices are gone.

After the "ABC's" were done, another recording began. It was 2-year-old Lindell singing "Child of Mine" on a road trip. His voice is breathy and burdened with drool. He mispronounces words, saying "Chire of By." He hums all the parts he doesn't understand.

In the background of the recording, I'm talking to Dustin about directions and the weather. Was the sweet little voice that ordinary to me back then?

By the time Lindell and I got to the recording where he says, "I luf you, Mom," four little words with such power, we had picked up Ford and Owen and they joined Lindell in the backseat. Once we got them caught up -- Yes, that's really Lindell when he was 2 -- the look on their faces showed that they, too, were profoundly moved by rediscovering a tiny voice that used to seem so normal.

"Wow," Owen said. "I think I remember him sounding like that."

We laughed at Lindell's "ABC's" and the way he sang "Chire of My," and then Lindell tapped the phone again to play the last track in that album. It begins with "ABC's" again, but then, for the first time, you can hear young Ford and Owen in the background. "I want a turn," they whine. "I didn't get a turn. Let me do something."

Soon, that little sweet voice turns angry. "Go away! I wanna do Dar Wars."

A fight erupts. Now the voices sound more familiar -- bickering, arguing, begging for a turn.

And then, in the far background of the recording, my voice comes through loud and clear: "Do you guys want me to play that back so you can hear what you sound like when you fight like this?" I can almost see myself in a bathrobe and with curlers in my hair.

Ah, yes. I remember those voices now.

But what my heart will choose to hold onto is that little, breathy voice singing his E-B-C's and M-M-M-M-P's. It will go right in the place where the old stuffies and onesies don't have stains or smell bad. Where children never fought. And where that baby boy will always say "luf" instead of "love."