Jesse Speed held a puppet of a yellow bunny close to his son Milo’s head. “Hey there, Milo. How you doing?” he asked in a high voice. “You let the dog up here?” The puppet gestured to the Pomeranian Chihuahua mix sitting on Milo’s lap in his wheelchair, and Milo, whose four limbs are largely immobile, turned his head toward his father with a smile.
That smile is the reason for Speed’s many voices.
Beyond puppets, Speed has bestowed special voices on each of their three dogs — an excited one for Julius, the Pomeranian Chihuahua; a southern drawl for their Maltese Chihuahua mix, Bella; and a rather block-headed-sounding voice for their Yorkie Chihuahua mix, Champion, who has an underbite. Speed has made audio recordings of his special renditions of Milo’s favorite stories, such as “Love You Forever,” by Robert Munsch. Before bed, they say goodbye to the rooms of their Bangor duplex, each one imbued with a different vocal attitude.
Speed expanded his puppeteering offerings beyond his home this week by offering free doorway puppet shows to children in the Bangor area, which he performs in driveways and on sidewalks, to bring joy to those who are isolating themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. He announced his idea Sunday on the Fairmount neighborhood Facebook page and did four puppet shows the following day, before a snowstorm hit. On Wednesday, he visited a 5-year-old boy and his mother, the sun warming the family’s driveway theater.
Speed’s son, who stays at home for a different reason, is his inspiration.
Milo, 12, has cerebral palsy, a disorder that has interrupted the connection between his brain and his muscles. He can only say a few words — “Mama,” “Bub” for his father and “I love you.” He has difficulty seeing clearly, hence Speed’s choice of bright yellow for the bunny puppet. And he relies on a tube to deliver nutrients directly to his intestine, with another to empty saliva that enters his stomach.
But, intellectually, he knows what’s happening. “He’s just sort of locked in,” Speed said. The puppets and voices — plus lots of music and animal noises on their virtual assistant, Alexa — are Milo’s connection to the people, places and ideas around him.
“I tried to make Milo’s world bigger,” said Speed, who takes care of him full time.
On Wednesday, before taking the family show on the road, Speed’s bunny puppet, named Cranston, sang “Twinkle Twinkle” into Milo’s left ear. “Can I tell you a secret?” the puppet asked Milo when he finished singing. “You’re awesome.”
Then Speed packed Cranston and a purple monster puppet named Edwin into a black bag, before leaving Milo at home with his mother, Jamie, and nurse, Virginia Beal. Speed had an appointment to make another little boy’s world bigger, too.
One of the few cars on Hammond Street stopped to let him cross, and Speed walked down Thirteenth Street, past the closed Fairmount School, before arriving at the home of Meaghan Duffey, whose son, Parker, is 5.
It was time for a doorway puppet show.
“Did you bring two?” Parker asked Speed, who had been to the boy’s house Monday with only one puppet.
“I did,” Speed said. “Want to wake up Edwin?”
Speed kneeled in the driveway, more than 6 feet from Parker and his mom, who sat on their side steps, to conform with guidelines on social distancing. Edwin, the furry purple monster, struck up a conversation in a funny voice. Parker held an armful of toy dinosaurs for the puppet to see.
The boy spoke directly to the puppet, telling him about the difference between his plant eaters and meat eaters, and sounding out all the difficult names.
“Can you roar like a dinosaur?” Edwin the puppet asked. Parker didn’t hesitate.
When Parker ran inside to get a book to show the puppet, his mother explained how excited he had been.
“All morning he’s like, ‘Is it time yet? Is he here?’” Duffey said. Her son hasn’t been around other children for a while to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Talking to the puppets is like talking to another kid,” she said.
When Parker returned, he was carrying a soft-cover dinosaur book that he proclaimed had 230 pages.
Parker and the puppet sang the ABCs several times, separately, then slow, then fast. Finally, they raced to see who could sing it fastest.
“Oh, you beat me,” Edwin the puppet said.
“No, it was a tie,” Parker said graciously.
Speed has done voices since he was young, growing up in Bradford, and has organized puppet shows in the past for children and adults with special needs. He has seen how the puppets can bring people to life. He’s also aware of how Milo has changed his own perspective.
“He has taught me so much about empathy and how to keep a strong will in the face of adversity,” Speed said, a lesson he thinks is particularly apt now.
Born seven weeks early, Milo wouldn’t eat, and Jamie and Jesse Speed spent most hours of the day and night trying to keep milk in him, they said. When he was several months old, he began having seizures, as many as 50 a day. His parents had to learn how to do things they had never expected to do, such as insert a nasogastric tube through his nose and into his stomach. He has required hospitalization after having an adverse reaction to a new formula.
Because he doesn’t clear his chest or nose well, his parents are concerned about the toll the coronavirus would have on his body, if he contracted it.
Therefore, the distance between Speed and his doorway audiences is as much for Milo as for everyone else.
After singing an original version of “Wheels on the Bus,” complete with dog woofs and rhino snorts, Speed brought out Cranston, the yellow bunny puppet, for Parker to see.
“Hey, how you doing, partner?” puppet Cranston greeted the boy.
“It’s good to see you,” Parker said.
The toy dinosaurs in full view, they conversed about puppet Cranston’s desire for armor to protect himself from the T-Rex. When Cranston said he would use cardboard for his armor, the boy said, no, the puppet had to use metal.
Speed announced it was time for a hop dance, and Parker took off his boots and stood on the driveway in his stockinged feet. Speed turned up a beat on his cellphone, and the puppet and Parker took turns jumping. His mom joined in, too.
When they finished, Parker turned to the puppet. “Can you come tomorrow?” he said.
Unsure what the next day would bring, Speed and Duffey left things open. Speed will be arranging the doorstep shows for whomever wants them in the Bangor area for the foreseeable future, and people contact him via Facebook Messenger to set up a date and time. But he said he hopes to be back to see Parker. The joy goes both ways. As he walked home, down mostly empty streets, Speed said, “That was a nice feeling to see that kid so happy.”