Living with a hearing impairment.
|Does silence make you uncomfortable? When I was growing up, my mother told me that anything that moves makes a sound. Of course this sparked a firestorm of inquisitions; me pointing and mother mimicking the sounds with her mouth so I could see them. I understood that in some sense. I could feel the vibrations from stomping feet, slammed doors, shutting drawers but things like ceiling fans, the hands of a clock, or the flip of a lightswitch I could not feel any sound. What about light? Light is always moving and yet I’m told it never makes a sound.
Mother is sitting on the couch next to me. I hate when she does this. Numerous times I have explained to her how it pains me to crane my neck to read her lips. She continues blabbering on about how she doesn’t approve of me using so much sign language, about how I need to learn to speak and use English. I continue to give her major side-eye under the guise of listening. “Are you listening?” she taps me on the arm. “Yes, I’m reading.” My sister, Jessica, awkwardly sits in the armchair behind mother. In the reflection of the vanity mirror I can see she is snapchatting. My father left when I was still a baby.My mother had High Blood Pressure while she was carrying me. That slowly ate away on my ear hair cells. If you look at it now, it looks like a gardner did a horrible job mowing the grass. I assume he couldn’t handle having a deaf child. I haven’t communicated with him but I can tell from the way he scribbles my name on the holiday cards he sends me.
The body is always moving, conveying. Growing up deaf you learn how to extrapolate every twitch, dart of the eye or twist of hand into meaning.
“I just want you to be successful, regardless of what you have been given in life.” Mother says. But her body says, “I want you to be more like me.”
I love it when my friends introduce me to new people, although I never let on. I love the proud and honorable expression they wear when they say "This is Adam - he's deaf", as if I were evidence of their benevolence. I also love the split-second shocked expression on the new people, the hasty smiles and their best imitations of what they think of as their "normal faces". If they do the ritual well enough I turn my head ever so slightly and tuck my hair behind one of my ears, whichever one's closer to them. They never fail to say something nice about my red hearing aids, while my friends beam on. People always comment on my accent. Mostly because I’m from Boston. They’ll turn and casually whisper to their friends. “Is that what people from Boston sound like?” I'll read on their lips.
To be honest, I quite like my deafness. It’s always been there. It’s always been me. You know how when you talk about people, you often reference something about them? Drew the Bartender, Savannah the Feminist, Greg the Guy Who Screwed His Cat in High School and so on? I'm Adam the Deaf Guy. I like it. I don't have any other particularly outstanding traits or skills. Never did.
My family has never accepted my deafness. My mother figured that she would just never have a “fully functioning” son. So she did what people do when they find something broken. She gave me hearing aids, speech therapy, personal tutors. When a doctor says “he’s sorry” before announcing your deafness, of course parents are going to be afraid.
All of us have the benefit as a child to be grumpy. Whether it be because you haven’t been given a chocolate bar or the latest toy car- we have all been a victim of frustration.
Yet deaf children have an additional frustration. A frustration because we can’t communicate how we feel or what we want through language. But I got irritated not just because I was little, but because I was deaf. My mom was so concerned about me being able to adapt to a hearing world: being able to talk, to listen in English-- that she never realized that I wasn’t developing language. I could parrot back sounds but I didn’t fully understand the concept behind them. Thus my language and, ergo speech, was delayed. Hence I would show my frustration by using a toddler’s best weapon: a mega-tantrum. I would absolutely flip shit. I would scream, shout, and cry. “Yeah how do you like those sounds, mom?” I would stand and stamp my feet whilst shaking my entire body – my sister to this day does a great impersonation. I even threw my mom’s china plates against the wall. She’s still pissed about that two decades later. Talk about tantrums.
The house seems extra crowded this evening. My sister taps my arm and tells me that she’s got some big news for us. I try to come up with some witty retort but she misconstrues my silence as lack of understanding and says, “BIG NEWS” while pantomiming. I show her how to sign it but she says that her arms just get too tired to learn sign language. I make a mental note to buy her a Shake Weight for Christmas. Suddenly she shoots up. Bewildered I look around and find my mother and stepfather already sitting at the dinner table.
Hamburger Helper creeps out from my mother’s lips as she tells us about her day. I have a hard time switching between reading their lips and eating my helper. I am watching the steam rise up from the beef when I feel a shift in the conversation. My sister is talking but she keeps covering her mouth. Soon the room erupts into motion. My parents are out of their seats hugging Jessie. I turn to my mom and ask her, “what?” but she doesn’t notice me. As my stepfather energetically walks by I grab his arm but he says, “Not right now.” He's looking for something. I turn back to my food. After dinner I ask Jessie what she said. She places my hand on her stomach.
At the end of the night my sister is sweaty, blond hair plastered to her head like the skin of an onion. The fabric of her shirt is almost see-through in the parts it’s had to stretch across her pregnant belly. Pregnant. Jessie should be due anytime now. She points to a box full of pink baby clothes. What is it? Hand-me-downs, she says. My sister doesn’t know if the baby is a boy or a girl, and the box of frilly outfits makes me nervous. I stare. She points again, though we both know I’ve understood.
My family doesn’t know sign language. My mother read in her parenting magazines that kids who signed would never learn to speak. Then, after I’d learned both and proved her wrong, she declared signing unnecessary. You talk. You read lips. What’s the point? I’ve spent my whole life reading her, filling the blanks of misunderstood speech with the meaning behind the twitch of her cheek, the crease above her left eyebrow. Now I’ve learned her completely, and she has only ever met me through my second language, our thoughts ordered in separate dictionaries.
My sister gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Her name is Cara. I test it out and it feels like I am rolling fine Italian silk through my fingers. I spend lots of time in Cara’s freshly painted pink room, just looking at her. And smelling her. God do babies smell good! Once her eyes start to open wider she looks back at me, studies the whole room with an intensity I recognize. I hold her in the crook of my arm, sign a word or two with my other hand, and her eyes narrow and focus like the lens of a camera. I put her back in her cradle and clap behind her head, watch her not react. I figure out Cara is deaf long before everyone else. I think I should tell my sister but when I get downstairs I find her in the kitchen among piles of flowered onesies and pastel stuffed animals with my mother. I go back to Cara’s room. Just me and you, I say, my hands—useful in this house for the first time— stirring the air into motion.
They find out at Cara’s six-month checkup. Impossible impossible impossible, my mothers lips dance like red garland among tombstones. When my stepfather comes home my mother hugs him and cries until her snot drips down the back of his shirt. My sister is motionless on the couch. I sit with Cara and show her nursery rhymes. I tell her the one where the dish and the spoon take off together and she giggles like we are sharing a secret. “Don’t worry,” Mom says. “We can fix this.”
Soon Cara’s tiny hands begin to form baby-talk signs of their own. I love watching my words on her fingertips. Eat, she says. Eat, more, drink, more. Mom. Mom, mom. Dad. Adam, she says, her hand crunched into a “A” and pressed against her chest. Adam. It’s her clearest sign of all. But I can’t help but be reminded of the Scarlet Letter.
“I have to talk to you,” my mother says one night. I follow her into her bedroom and she makes me sit down. I’m telling you this so you can understand, she says. For the first time in my life the silence makes me uncomfortable. “We’re going to get Cara a cochlear implant.” But her body says, "I'd learned from my mistake." I have been silent but now I feel myself yelling, "You can’t, you can’t, they’ll drill a hole in her skull! She’s just a baby! “We have an appointment at the clinic next week,” she says. Everything will be okay. Cara is not like you, I want to say. Cara is perfect. But the words shrivel inside my mouth and I think I might throw up so I run down the hall into the bathroom and stand with my face over the toilet. Nothing happens, and my mother doesn’t come after me. I find myself walking toward Cara's room. She’s asleep in her crib and I pick her up and throw her extra blanket over my shoulder.
Outside with Cara the air is cool and I feel better. We can go anywhere we want, I tell her, but it’s dark and she’s asleep.
She knows more signs at 5 than I did at 16. She's so precocious and curious. Once she found out that not all animals with four legs are dogs, this opened a firestorm of inquisitions; asking me for the names of every animal she sees. For animals that don't have a sign, she makes up her own. She's a handful. We ended up moving in with one of my friends who is also Deaf a few states away, which has an awesome zoo. I hope my sister finds this story and realizes that Cara is with family now.