Nonfiction, Parenting

Our Slowly Recalibrating Ears.

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My daughter, age 3

I was hoping for something immediate; we’d put them in and every word she uttered would be comprehensible because she could hear the highs, the lows, the hisses of them, could distinguish the curling in of the lips around M’s and the baring of teeth for the N’s. And maybe the selfsame night, we would curve our bodies together like the twin-bed-sharing contortionists we so often become and have, for the very first time, an unconfused conversation.

You rush her along, her father insisted two nights before our audiology appointment. She’s only three. She’s a baby.

He is right; in my mind, I am rushing it all along — not just our daughter’s development, but ours, as parents, as co-parents, as individuals able to contentedly compromise. We still do not know how difficult all of this is for the other. Our feelings are passing ships. Afloat, alone, at the ends of our days, we are too busy nursing our private wounds to be beacons for one another.

The hearing aids are inconspicuous. The amplifiers, a deep indigo, tuck neatly behind her ears. The molds are translucent, two shades lighter than her skin; they curl around the cartilage and settle just inside the ear canals. Kim, the audiologist, urges us both to take turns pressing them in and demonstrates how to remove the batteries.

Both exercises take me two tries; her father does them by rote. Today, I am too ginger, a bit disengaged. Today, he is the one sitting with her in his lap, listening as though he lives with us.

This is his first trip to the audiologist’s office. It is my fourth. I am alone at the meetings with her hearing instructors, alone at her IEP meetings. He tells me, all the time, that I am not in fact alone; that he is also here: worrying, scheduling, purchasing, negotiating, budgeting.

But his here is too often metaphysical. He is here, but he resides across the country. He is here, but not in a way that allows me to remain asleep when our daughter wakes at 4 a.m. or to write when she needs a bath. He is here, but he cannot hear her when she asks for him, cannot discipline her when my patience is papery, brittle. He is here while ever urging me to uproot and move myself and our daughter there.

It is true that I rush. I am eager for that other shore, where this will be well resolved, but I do not wish to abandon my ship to reach it. Neither does he. These ships are tall, are sprawling. We’ve built them, for better or worse, apart. Our ships are all we have.

The batteries last just 7-10 days. Their strength can be determined in one of two ways:

1. Hold the hearing aid in the palm of a hand. Open, then close the fingers. Listen. If there is sound, not unlike a microphone’s feedback, the batteries are working.

2. Affix one end of an external tube to the part of the earmold that fits into her ear canal; hold the other end to my own ear. Say something. Listen. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct: the batteries are working.

She came home with the aids in her ears, and before long, my mother was teary. She had not taken discussions of buying them well, insisting that they were unnecessary, resolute about other speech and language methods we should try before conscripting her to what she felt was an ill and too-early fate. She just needs time, she would press. She just needs time.

But she was with me when the tests were run. We sat thigh to thigh while the baby was sedated, watched and waited in silence while the probes in her ears and on her forehead produced squiggles and ticks and graphs. We both heard the assessment, the recommendation: though this isn’t the type of hearing loss that will progress, it is also not the type that goes away.

This day was always coming. She just felt rushed along.

I, on the other hand, keep feeling like we’re lagging behind. Teachers have been asking for months when we would get these tiny devices. Her pediatrician has called me, questioning, pressing. Her deaf and hearing impaired instructors have called me in for meetings, have played sound files that simulate what noise sounds like in our ears compared to in hers. Everyone else with a stake in our girl has insisted: the sooner, the better.

When everyone wants to know when, it’s the mothers who are markers of time.

These decisions should ultimately be ours, her father says. Promise we’ll be the last word in making choices for our daughter. He is asking us to be noise-cancelers for each other.

We are, is what I tell him. But what’s truer is that, for now, these decisions are mine. I act as my own filter of what voices are welcomed in or canceled out. So often, I am hearing them alone. And explanations are expected, not of us, but of me.  He is the disembodied voice, enforcing via phone; I am the one who walks in through the door. Here.

It has never made much sense to me why he is not. But I’ve grown quite adept at pretending, at nodding my head as though it’s all coming in clearly.

She can take them out with one fluid movement. Mama, she says, extending them both in the cease of her hand. Ears. Maybe she thinks they’re an extra set, ears for their own sake, lonely for a body to befriend. Maybe when she hands them to me she is saying: these friends are beginning to bore me.

The goal is to get her to wear them at all times except during baths, naps, and bedtime. For now, she is primarily wearing them to school and when we are alone at home. A weariness befalls the house when she wears them with my mother and grandmother here. They do not like to handle them; they sneak skeptical glances. And in the hidden space where I am squirreling away private anxieties, their unease makes me question myself in ways that I cannot let on.

We are all being tested like her batteries. Opening, closing ourselves: waiting for feedback. I have no problem listening, but it’s my voice that needs to be amplified. If I am louder, clearer, more distinct, my daughter will hear what she needs.

Before, I imagined immediacy: her face lighting up, clear sentences coursing through her lips in streams. But now that they’re finally here, I can’t really tell what difference the hearing aids are making in her experience of sound. She never resists them. From the very first day, she has welcomed them — at least for awhile — without any protest at all.  Once or twice, with them in, I have heard her correcting her diction. It’s difficult not to make more of that than I should. I am impatient for witty repartee, for knock-knock jokes and endless questions, for clear, concise signals and measures that we’re truly communicating.

But this is a shifting that’s subtle. It cannot be rushed. Slowly, we are all being called to self-correct and all hoping, over time, that we will hear with more sensitive ears.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Jump at De Sun.

You have unassailable rhythm. This is a characteristic we noticed, even before you began to develop fine motor skills. You were three months old, and you could hit a drum with a mallet. You could keen your ear to cadences. The small cymbals of a tambourine shook under the strike of your infant palm. You hummed melodies before your mouth could form the ovals and planes necessary to pronounce lyrics.

Like so many children, you possess a raw musicality, a boundless curiosity in all instrumentation. But I also see an inkling of discipline in you, a commitment to practice quite unusual in two-year-olds. It is the rare day that passes without you asking to play your great-nana’s electric piano. Once you’re lifted onto the stool, it is difficult to coax you down. The praise you receive is too rapturous; the power you feel when the pads of your fingers elicit a chord is too intoxicating. We know that, if allowed, you would stay there for more than an hour as long as we were also there to laud you.

As your mother, it is my imperative to nurture this quality in you, even as it awes and unsettles me. My charge is to propel you toward each zenith for which you’re brave enough to press, while also making myself a nonjudgmental net to catch you when you fall. I mustn’t betray too colossal an expectation, too devastating a disappointment. Your pursuits are your own. Any joy or sorrow I feel as you set forth is mine to manage.

Increasingly, I am coming to understand the act of mothering as a cultivation of temperance. It is a holding-in-check of our most outsized expectations, a delicate calibration of all that we want for our children, all that they are capable of achieving, and all the moments when we each will need to accept a reality that resembles none of those possibilities.

But darling, you make this temperance difficult. How can I filter these bright beams of expectation when you glow so incandescently with promise? How can I allow you field of grass-skipping girldom, when with each day, you invent new reasons for me to spur you toward the sun?

It isn’t easy to wait for the coming years to unfurl themselves like a story quilt and reveal how you’ll evolve. But I will not anger God (or you) by rushing time. Its glacial inching is a grace. I will sip you slowly and relish each talent expanding. My every affirmation will be liberally and patiently seeded. I will make it my aim to know who you are, at any given moment, rather than to trouble us both over all the wondrous things I imagine you’ll become.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Beyond the Carousel.

Then, at dusk, we empty into evening, a downtown restaurant at our backs, an army of dragon paddleboats bobbing on the brackish water before us, and you in your father’s arms. On the Harborplace steps, we part ways with well-wishing relatives, watching them recede in the warm, black crowd. Night catches all the day’s promise in a satchel of tawny sky, tossing sparkles of memory and hope high above us. I gaze out at them glittering on the water’s dark surface as reality takes hold: we are alone.

The sensation is rare and foreign. It is not often that we are nuclear: father and mother and child. It should mean serenity or a kind of relief that for moments–however brief–we are a convincing spectacle of togetherness. But I am on the verge of detonation.

I do not know what to do with my hands when you aren’t holding one, don’t know quite where to look, if not at the damp and dewy wisps of hair against your forehead, if not at the oversized molars that loom so large whenever you yawn or cry.

You are too far away, up there. High in your father’s embrace, you are taller than I am. Occasionally, when he holds you, your downward gaze is regal. You’re an heiress deigning to acknowledge commoners. You’re a starling in flight, bored with the bits of breathing color below.

I give you both a wide berth, walking several paces behind, and wonder if you are too young to believe that the grass on your father’s side will feel lusher between your toes, will grow softer blades and brighter buttercups.

Tonight you are two. I am thinking of the way you used to belly-crawl, dragging yourself across the floor of my old apartment like a soldier wriggling under trip-wire; the determined set of your jaw when you finally hitched yourself up on all fours; the wideness of your eyes the first time you tasted a teething biscuit; the way you wailed as those pearly rounds poked through the pink of your gums; how you burbled and hummed–how you seethed!–before you could voice your demands. There is little left of the infant in you; your every gesture now is precise, the features of your face settled and firmly defined. You’re still aren’t talking much, but you make certain that we all understand you. I see you now as you will be at twelve, as you will be at twenty.

But then, I am always so far ahead of myself.

Before long, I close the space between us, ready to reprise my role as a merry member of a modern family. I play it well. In lockstep with your dad, skirting the Harbor’s perimeter, I am thinking of the day when he’ll be gone. I am turning the words over like flash cards, studying to answer the questions you’re too young to ask: Daddy has to go back to work. But he’ll be back. Remember? He always comes back. In three days, these are the exact words I’ll say to you. You will look up at him and frown, climb from my lap to his, rest your head on his chest and listen, as though recording his heartbeat to be played back as a lullaby. I will blame myself, because I understand exactly how much I am to blame.

And I am angry already, exhausted, though no casual observer could detect it.

I am too busy grinning at your pealing laughter, too busy pretending the bond between parents is as effortless as the bond of daughters and dads.

This is your first trip to the Harbor. It pleases me to see that it dazzles you just as it did me, when I was little. Your mouth is agape, your eyes brim with awe, a silver tiara enhaloes your massive afro puff, and for a moment, I wish that the time-space continuum would still until your father and I learn to make optimal choices, until you are old enough to ascertain how much of all this is an act.

Unbeknown to you, we are searching for a carousel.

You and your father tend to ride them. It is a ritual that began with his first visit to us after we moved here from Michigan. I am always asked to join you, and I always decline. You need a tether to each other that isn’t me. Perhaps neither of you will ever know how much I enjoy watching you whirl when I’m not there.

It may be selfish to admit, but I prefer you to myself. I believe he does, too.

We walk the length of the straightaway, passing party boats, a sparsely populated Italian ice hut, a closed smoothie stand, before curving toward the place where we expect to find the carousel.

It’s no longer there–or at least we don’t see it. Up ahead, there are dense crowds of volleyballers, spiking returns under harsh, high light. The sand under their feet is littered with Newports smoked down to the nub, with hard pebbles of debris. We stop before reaching them, unsure how to proceed.

You are still a lit torch burning from the inside out, eyes still dancing as they take in the water, the people, your parents and their touching shoulders and their smiles that work overtime to hide artifice from the camera that captures us all.

But when you are twelve or you’re twenty, I will explain to you how difficult it becomes for adults to pretend. The ease of make-believe is only accessible to children. I will tell you how fully I tried to commit myself to the ruse, how even the hope felt false, how only our friendship and shared adoration of you was honest. But I’ll refrain from describing what it is to spend years lying slack at the end of a line, how every breath is painful as you wait to be reeled in and believe that the hook from which you hang is love.

When you ask about your second birthday, I will say you spent it luxuriating in your parents’ affection. And at its end, we all sat in silent wonder, each at unexpected destinations.

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