One day when my daughter, Lei, was 16 months old, I found myself chatting with another mom and her daughter, who was within a month of Lei’s age. The girls were playing and this other mom and I were making the kind of small talk that moms of young children can make even if they don’t know each other well.
When the other little girl began to fuss, her mom asked her, “Are you hungry?”
The girl nodded.
My jaw dropped.
Lei had never ever done that. It was a great day when she pointed at something. Although she clung to me so much we called her “monkey baby,” she spoke zero words, didn’t nod, shake her head, answer to her name or follow simple commands. She didn’t consistently make eye contact and had certainly never answered a question.
Instead she produced an earsplitting shriek whenever she felt happy, upset, scared, hungry or tired. She refused to nap, resisted bedtime and nursed every two hours day and night. She ate any dirt, rocks, sticks, egg shells, soap and ointment she could get her hands on, but either refused food or chewed it, packed it into her cheeks and then abruptly opened wide, spilling it down her chest.
Fast forward three months. Lei had been evaluated through Early Intervention and received a preliminary hearing screening that vaguely indicated a possible mild hearing loss. No big deal, my husband and I thought. We could learn a little sign language, speak up, turn up the TV.
When I took Lei to the audiologist for further testing, my parents went with me. My husband was out of town doing an artist residency with his band.
One audiologist in severe black-rimmed glasses sat outside the sound-proof room at the controls while a younger, rounder woman with a wide smile sat inside in front of my daughter, who sat on my lap. They call this a “two-tester.” The cheerful young woman made big eyes and big smiles as she helped Lei drop a colorful plastic block in a bucket every time Lei responded to the sounds piped into the small foam earbuds they had placed in her ear canals.
I thought it went well. For once Lei stayed engaged and made some eye contact. I thought I was safe in my little bubble of denial, I guess.
And then the nice audiologist in the black-rimmed glasses popped the bubble.
“Your daughter has a moderate-to-severe hearing loss,” she said. My guts felt like they dissolved and poured out the soles of my feet. Somehow I still stood there holding Lei. The audiologist showed me an audiogram that illustrated decibel levels for different sounds. That may have been the first time I heard the words “speech banana.”
It all made as much sense to me as the term “speech banana” makes to most people in the world: exactly none. I grasped onto numbers: 50 decibels was the lowest Lei could hear, and that was about the volume of normal conversation. So she could hear us talking to her? No, she can only hear low tones at that volume. Higher tones have to be louder. Like 70 or 80 decibels, whatever that meant. I knew nothing.
Suffice to say the weeks that followed were dark and confusing. But gradually Lei and I started watching Signing Time every day, and I started signing to her as much as I could.
Thanks to a fascinating PBS special on language I had watched on a lazy, pre-motherhood Sunday afternoon, I knew that hearing babies were immersed in language since before birth. I knew they were passively learning it whenever people spoke to them or near them. And I knew that my daughter couldn’t just passively pick up language. She had to learn it through her eyes, and I had to teach her.
I began looking up signs for everything. Things that didn’t have signs (like broccoli, for example) I fingerspelled to her. Our otherwise wonderful speech therapist poo-pooed my fingerspelling. She said there was no way it could make sense to Lei, but I countered that children of Deaf adults were signed and fingerspelled to (much more fluently than I was doing), and they eventually decoded the meaning. So why shouldn’t Lei?
Getting language into Lei’s eyes was my obsession. I was her full-time caregiver and I signed to her constantly in pidgin signed English.
Lei watched. Sometimes she signed “MORE,” or “WATER.”
Then one night when Lei and I were visiting my parents in Atlanta, and she was wide awake as usual around 2 a.m., as the light of the moon shone through the window near the bed where I was trying to get her back to sleep, she busted out her first, prophetic two-word phrase: