My Deaf Son Fought Speech. Sign Language Let Him Bloom

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I watched my toddler wade into the Gulf and launch a fistful of pebbles in flight. They glistened, tiny sparks of light, before I realized he was up to his chin in cold water. And I realized that if I called his name, if I screamed it, the word would sink like stone.

When Micah turned 2 we had learned that he was profoundly deaf. In the audiologist’s office, an auditory brain response concluded he couldn’t hear a helicopter. “You’re taking this well,” the doctor had said. But later, as I watched Micah step deeper into the Gulf water, I wanted to rage. I was so angry, I could have torn the beach apart.

We celebrated his third birthday, and the audiologist turned his cochlear implants on for the first time.

I said, “Hi Micah, can you hear mommy?” His hazel eyes widened and he screamed in terror, his body trembling. Shock.

In American Sign Language, the sign for cochlear implant is similar to the sign for vampire. Vampire is signed with two fingers like teeth to the throat. Cochlear implant is signed with two fingers like teeth behind the ears. The audiologist told me not to sign at all. She said sign language was a crutch that would hinder his speech. When he heard my voice for the first time, his cry was guttural, a stab wound. He was bitten by sound.

The audiologist adjusted the pitch and tuned the levels to make a simulation of sound. She called this process mapping, but there were no guideposts to show the way. How do you chart loneliness? How do you trace a landscape of silence and sound between mother and son?

At home, I wrapped my legs around my toddler and pinned him to the carpet in what looked like a wrestling hold as I tried to keep the processors for his implants on his head. He was crying, and I was crying, and I wondered if my actions could be considered abuse.

He refused to wear the $18,000 sound processors, and his defiance was feral: head butts to my face, kicks, bites. The back of his head smacked against my jaw, and for a moment everything went black. The implant surgery alone had cost $50,000. Auditory verbal therapy was out of pocket, the doctors were out of network. What choice did I have but to force him?

When Helen Keller wouldn’t cooperate, her teacher Annie Sullivan used brute force. In “The Story of My Life,” Sullivan described how teaching obedience to the deaf and blind girl had to precede teaching language. Sullivan compared her work with Keller to housebreaking a dog. She wrote, “to get her to do the simplest thing, such as combing her hair or washing her hands or buttoning her boots, it was necessary to use force, and of course a distressing scene followed.”

To sign the word force, spread your fingers wide and grip an imaginary face with the palm of your hand. With a quick motion, shove the face into an invisible water bucket and don’t let the head rise for air.

Each week, I dragged him to speech therapy. Let the ritual of F begin: His upper teeth on his lower lip as he tried to blow a scrap of paper off the back of his hand. Next came the puh and guh with its grunts and grimaces.

He didn’t resist. He gagged his hands. He let his fingers slip dumb at his sides. He tucked his hands into his pockets like two clipped birds.

Micah was prelingually deaf, meaning his deafness preceded language. Doctors say there is a critical window from birth to 12 months for language acquisition. By the time he was 4 years old, he had a severe language delay, and I feared that his window for language was closing. When I spoke to him, I observed his stoic expression and panic knotted my stomach.

In public, his meltdowns drew unwanted attention on playgrounds and in grocery stores. How had I become the dejected mother in the fruit aisle, helpless as Micah bucked and cried, dangerously hitting his head on the linoleum floor? I felt the eyes of other shoppers watching our distressing scene with pity, others with harsh disappointment, but no one could have been more disappointed in me than myself. I was failing him.

Then I took one too many of his head butts to the chin and woke up paralyzed on the right side of my face. I couldn’t blink. I couldn’t smile. The doctor said it was trauma to the seventh cranial nerve, causing facial muscles to weaken — as happens with Bell’s palsy. My face drooped like a stroke victim’s and for two months, I used a patch over my unblinking eye.

There is no particular sign for the word desperate. Instead, it is conveyed by a panicked facial expression. But my face was frozen, much like Micah’s voice. Stuck.

I blamed myself. I was no Annie Sullivan. I couldn’t break him, and instead, he was breaking me.

I gave up on spoken English, and enrolled in American Sign Language classes at the local community college. Micah’s first sign was flower. To sign flower, the right hand grasps an imaginary stem and holds it first against the right nostril and then against the left, and like a flower, Micah blossomed one new sign at a time and took his implants off his head for good.

The first time he told me a story, he was 6. We were eating greasy burgers and fries in a diner’s pleather booth, and he told me about a dream from the night before. Our mouths were full, chewing, lips sealed, but his story continued with rapid-fire signs.

Sometimes, when we lie side by side in the dark, he places a small hand on my throat to feel my voice, a gesture as intimate as a lullaby, and I consider the symphony of touch. On my skin, I feel his palm outstretch, feeling for vibration, and I think of my voice as a petal pressed between locked pages.

In the dark, his hand reaches up to speak, and I shine a flashlight on his fingers. They make rapid shadow puppets onto the bedroom wall, and I understand his story like a hieroglyph. I see his voice. I hear his face. His pristine silence fills a room far more than sound.