I wrote this story when Lei was two and the mere ability to communicate with her still awed me.
Bed-making came right before bedtime tonight. My two-year-old daughter took all the snapping and floating of bedding as permission to jump on the bed and pretend to swim in the waves of fuzzy blue blankets.
“Time to change into pajamas for night-night,” I told her, signing “TIME CHANGE SLEEP CLOTHES FOR NIGHT-NIGHT.”
Lei jumped under the comforter and straightened her body in resistance. I tickled and wrestled to get her pajamas on.
“Come on, kid. Time to read books.” “TIME READ BOOK.”
She shook her head and gave me one of her quick and airy no’s, as though absentmindedly declining a third serving of ice cream. I was enjoying playing on the bed, too, to be honest. So I offered a compromise:
“Do you want Mommy to tell you a story?” “WANT MOTHER TELL-STORY?”
She settled in the big bed again, arms pressing flat on top of the blankets.
“This is the story of the three little pigs,” I began. “NOW HAVE STORY THREE LITTLE PIGS.”
And I launched into my very first attempt to tell my daughter a story in the pidgin of ASL and English that makes up her mother tongue. I felt a little awkward at first, but soon warmed up as the feckless First Pig and half-hearted Second Pig built their semi-permanent structures. By the time I got to the Third Pig, I decided bricks are just not interesting enough visually. Instead of industriously smearing Portland cement between three-by-three-by-six bricks, Third Pig had to search the ground for large, heavy stones that he stacked to build the walls of his house. Grunting and straining, I hoisted these imaginary building blocks up until collapsing in a satisfied heap to admire my handiwork. She laughed, astounded, as my face reddened with pretend effort.
As I introduced the “BIG BAD WOLF”, I strutted along with a kind of funky-chicken flair, signing and singing about my love of pig flesh, pointing to my inflated chest and sticking my elbow out at a ridiculous angle. “I WOLF, I LIKE EAT PIG, I WOLF, I LIKE EAT PIG.”
I discarded the familiar refrains about chinny-chin-chins; there’s no way to sign that. I showed the pigs as defiant at first, then frightened as they ran to Third Pig’s house. My whole body huffed, puffed, and blew away the straw and stick houses.
My audience couldn’t have been more receptive. Lei convulsed with giggles at the cocky strut of the wolf, though she seemed a little scandalized at the thought of eating a pig. When the pigs were cornered, she huddled down under the covers, chewing the edge of the blue fuzzy blanket in worried concern.
Miming the pigs’ elation as the stone house withstood the Wolf’s breathy assault, I, too, enjoyed an ecstasy of success I couldn’t have imagined a year ago when my daughter was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss.
This feeling of communion, of sharing ideas, images and feelings, is relatively new in my relationship with my daughter; still new enough to cherish it every time it happens. In the past year my daughter and I have closed what used to seem like a permanent and unbridgeable rift between us.
By the time her hearing loss was diagnosed at 19 months old, Lei had spent her life largely cut off from explicit communication. Her primary form of self-expression was a constant high-pitched shrieking that had alienated many of my friends from visiting or even talking on the phone with me. Although extremely charismatic with strangers, at home Lei honed in on visual stimuli, finding her mother’s strange lip movements puzzling but not worth her attention.
And after a complicated pregnancy and birth, I had given myself completely to being Lei’s mother: I wanted to do it right. I breastfed on demand, which meant every hour or two, round the clock. I wore her in a sling, I gave up driving because she hated the infant seat, I read to her, I sang to her, I kept the TV off; I took her on walks and told her the names of all the different trees. I even tried to teach her sign language, but learned the hard way that hearing and deaf babies have different needs in that area, too.
By the time I knew why my daughter didn’t answer to her name, make eye contact or respond to the simplest speech, my confidence was shattered.
I remember telling a friend of mine that my situation was like those after-school specials about the father who is a football coach but his son just can’t play. All I wanted was to communicate with my daughter: to share my world with her, and to know the world within her. That was my dream, but Lei was cut off from me by the lack of a shared language.
So we took the route of learning sign language and integrating it with speech. She hears a lot with her hearing aids, so pure, voiceless American Sign Language is not quite right for us. But a purely “oral” approach that excludes signing would have kept Lei’s father and me isolated from her until her brain could interpret the new sounds she was hearing and get her mouth to reproduce intelligible speech. No, we needed to be able to communicate as soon as humanly possible.
Of course, building a way to communicate with Lei made my Third Pig’s exertions look trivial. My husband and I sweated, cried and sometimes screamed in frustration as our daughter reached the end of her short vocabulary and shorter patience, a two-year-old playing charades without knowing the rules or the point of the game.
But little by little we made it to where we are now. Now I can ask her a simple question and have her reply airily, “No.” Well, not always no, but she is two. I ask her to put her plate in the sink, and she does it. We sing together, she tells me about her day in preschool. My husband and I repeat to each other with awe every spontaneous sentence our daughter creates.
You might think that the Big Bad Wolf of our family’s story is Lei’s deafness. That would be wrong. That Lei can’t hear is not a big issue, except when it meant–and still sometimes means–that she can’t communicate. Lack of communication is what ate at my innards during those long and lonely months of holding my daughter in my arms, nursing her from my breast, and feeling like she was a million miles away from me.
Lei beamed up at me tonight after I finished my story. I was out of breath and covered in sweat. But as I returned the happy look she gave me, I felt a delicious and purely maternal confidence glimmer in my chest. The long and painful days of isolation from my child receded into the distance. The stones of this house are heavy, and placing them has been hard. But no amount of huffing or puffing can scare us now.