New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author

Within A Deafening Silence

Deaf. The word, like so many other four-letter words, had enough strength behind it to knock my breath away, to sting my eyes. It was a powerful concept and, at the time, a foreign one. How could my beautiful, perfect child be deaf?

I remember blue vinyl chairs in the doctor’s office, the gleam of silver instruments, the artificial colors cast from fluorescents overhead. And I remember a silence after the doctor told me that stretched into an eternity of questions, reservations, and doubts.

So years later, when my oldest son Jerrdan—who was still beautiful and perfect and, yes, Deaf—sat in stunned silence from what I’d just told him about his little brother, I understood. I’d been there, in that place of utter disbelief.

“Casey is hearing,” I said, the words a mere whisper on my hands. I watched as the statement sank in, with all its innuendoes and implications coming to light in his eyes.

“But, he was born deaf, right? Like me.”

“No,” I had to tell him. “He was born hearing.”

The news that his three-year-old brother could hear, could always hear, caused his small brows to draw together in bewilderment and denial.

“But I was born deaf?”

“Yes,” I said.

A roiling sea swelled in his seven-year-old eyes, the prism of tears making the blue shimmer all the more, and my heart sank into it. Not because he was deaf. Never because of that. But because he didn’t know that Casey was not.

“But, I’ll learn to hear too, right? When I grow up?”

His confusion was common among deaf children with hearing parents. Being around hearing adults made them believe that all kids were born deaf, and that they magically learned to hear when they grew up. Deaf children with Deaf parents did not suffer the same misconceptions. They had a solid self-image with which to thrive, a stable platform from which to mold themselves and grow.

With a fist clenched around my heart, I said, “No, sweetheart. You won’t learn to hear. It doesn’t work that way.”

Jerrdan blinked in disbelief. Tears finally pushed their way past his lashes and slid down his cheeks. He was devastated and that realization crushed me, still crushes me to this day.

I wasn’t going to sit there and let the silence stretch before us. Jerrdan had enough silence in his life. I had to explain. I had to tell him how wondrous and glorious he was no matter what his brother could or couldn’t do. But at that time, Jerrdan lacked the advantage of having a mother fluent in a second language. American Sign Language, as I soon discovered, was not as easy as it looked. Oh, I could sign. I was probably up to two thousand words by then. Maybe even three. But what I spoke was not a language. What I spoke was starved of the strength and fluidity of real ASL, a malnourished series of badly formed signs, misplaced and misshapen, and in English word order no less.

Stuttering and fumbling, I tried to scrounge up signs to describe him, signs like extraordinary and rare. I had to explain them instead, using my limited vocabulary.

Special. I knew special, so I used it. I knew wonderful and wanted and loved. But attempting to explain his own significance to Jerrdan was like describing the sun as a yellow globe in the sky with no mention of its value, its power to warm the earth and sustain life. He had no idea what he meant to my husband and me. From the day he was born, our lives had been changed forever.

Jerradan

Jerrdan’s arrival proved comparable in taste and texture to the Jimmy Hendrix Experience and was quite similar to pulling three Gs on a roller coaster. He was sparkling and surreal and left us dizzy at every turn. Though he was born with the coloring of a freshly minted penny, with copper hair and copper toes that kept me entertained for hours, that color soon gave way to the element blond with its sun-kissed properties and atomic molecules. Add cerulean blue eyes and a blinding smile and, viola, a golden boy incarnate.

Jerrdan is that place where the sun comes up over the horizon and bathes the earth with the extraordinary colors of dawn. He moves with the grace of instinct. He is at once arresting and unforgettable.

And from the moment he could crawl, he liked to ride the vacuum cleaner.

I suppose, looking back, that fact should have been a clue to his deafness. It wasn’t, not for me anyway. I did, however, have my suspicions. The first one came to me by way of a Q&A article in a parenting magazine. A mother had written the advice columnist, asking why she couldn’t walk into her son’s room wearing a towel on her head without scaring him. The columnist replied that once her son reached about one month of age, he would be able to recognize his mother’s voice and he would no longer be frightened of the towel. That never happened with Jerrdan. I couldn’t walk into his room with a towel on my head until he was eight months old, when he could recognize my face beneath the wrap.

Clue number two came when I was cleaning the kitchen and dropped an armful of pots and pans. They crashed to the floor a few feet from where he slept. He didn’t flinch.

Bit by bit, clue by clue, my husband and I were given hints that Jerrdan couldn’t hear. The television wouldn’t wake him. The doorbell wouldn’t wake him. A jet flying at mach one overhead wouldn’t wake him. I could call him over and over and he’d never respond. How could I not have known?

There is an unfortunate phrase in American history that has for centuries led people to believe that two conditions, deaf and dumb, went hand in hand. After all, how smart can Deaf children be? They can’t even talk. They must be dumb. This could not be further from the truth. Deaf children are sharp and quick-witted and, like all creatures, adapt.

Naturally, this threw us off.

One minute we were certain Jerrdan couldn’t hear, the next minute we were certain he could.

When my husband came home from work, Jerrdan would turn to the door and wait for him to enter. Clearly he heard his car. When I walked up behind him, he would turn toward me. Surely he heard my steps. When a neighbor’s daughter dropped a glass in the kitchen, he looked. Obviously he heard it break. He responded when dogs barked and horns honked and children played in sprinklers.

Thus, in my own defense, the fact that I constantly vacuumed with a child hanging off the bag didn’t seem that unusual. Still, my suspicions grew until one day, when he was almost eighteen months old, I took him to an audiologist for a hearing test. He fooled her as well. She had no idea if he could hear or not. A trained audiologist. A professional. This would make me feel better later.

The audiologist suggested we go to an ear, nose and throat doctor. We did. He had blue vinyl chairs, silver instruments and fluorescent lights that gave everything an ominous glow. After the doctor’s team of assistants tested Jerrdan in a sound booth exactly like the one the first audiologist had, they still had no idea if he had a hearing loss. This, too, would make me feel better. It would take a powerful anesthetic and a machine straight out of a science fiction flick to find the truth. While the doctor peeled electrodes off Jerrdan’s head, he told me. My son had a profound hearing loss. He was deaf.

It shouldn’t have been a shock. I had known for a long time, had suspected it even longer. But it was that word with its four simple letters that did it. Deaf. To hear it spoken aloud made it more real. More tangible. More irreversible.

So I argued. I told the doctor how Jerrdan turned to look when his father came home, and when I walked up behind him, and when my neighbor’s daughter broke the glass.

His mouth thinned into a grim smile, and I wasn’t sure if the gesture stemmed from pity for my naiveté or annoyance with my ineptitude.

“Watch him more closely,” he said. It was all he said.

In the weeks that followed, I did just that. I watched. When my husband came home from work, I watched as he opened the garage door to pull his car in. When the door rose, sunlight streamed into the house and slid up the wall. Only when Jerrdan saw this would he turn. When someone came to the door and knocked, everyone in the room would turn to see who had arrived. Only when Jerrdan saw this would he follow suit. When I walked up behind him, the floor would vibrate with my steps. Only when Jerrdan felt this or saw my shadow slide into place beside him would he turn and look up at me.

The doctor had been right, and I became one of those moms who lost herself in her child’s cause. I ate, drank and slept sign language. I studied and called and made appointment after appointment in search of the ever-elusive answer to it all. In the meantime, Jerrdan absorbed signs as fast as I could learn them. Suddenly we could communicate. It was a new feeling, liberating and empowering. I could tell him no and mean it. Unfortunately, Jerrdan quickly learned to argue. As liberating and empowering as communication was for me, it was a hundred times more so for him. I can’t even imagine what his life must have been like before he had some semblance of a language to gauge it by. How did he make sense of the world? How did he know what was happening? How did he think?

From that moment on, my life became embroiled in all things Jerrdan. Then came Casey.

Casey

After Jerrdan, my second son Casey was the soft breeze that settles in the wake of a hurricane. The experience of having a Deaf child made me hyperaware of the natural reaction to sound, and I could tell instantly Casey was hearing. I was neither happy nor sad about it. He simply was, and that was that. He was also the cutest thing this side of Texas. He had brown hair and gray eyes and a lazy grin that charmed even the staunchest of churchgoers.

Casey’s personality shined through from day one. In many ways, he was the polar opposite of Jerrdan. Where Jerrdan was the light that danced across a windowpane, Casey was its playful shadow, mysterious and elusive. And he was funny. From the moment he was born, he could make you laugh, deeply, in that place where your soul meets the heavens.

We soon found out, however, that when our two sons were side by side, it was hard for people to see past the brightness that was Jerrdan, the golden boy, the blond-haired, blue-eyed star cut to simple perfection. He was the blinding center, the light that held Casey captive in its shadow and made him difficult to see. But set off, set aside from the shimmering fire, one saw Casey’s glow, softer perhaps, muted, yet just as luminous. A stunning being so full of personality it spilled over and warmed the hearts of those it touched.

Then he learned to talk.

His first word, a sign actually, came at ten months. And life as I knew it ceased to exist.

Two Pieces of a Puzzle

What Jerrdan had failed to realize that day, what we all had failed to realize, was the integral part Casey would play in his life. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was tell Jerrdan that Casey could hear. It was a day I’ll never forget. Tears permeated with pain and betrayal rolled down his summery cheeks.

In all honesty, I hadn’t realized until that moment Jerrdan didn’t know. It’d never occurred to me to mention it. But as I looked down into his huge, sorrowful eyes, I realized my mistake. Up to that point, Jerrdan had felt Casey’s equal, and I’d just tipped the scales, threw their entire relationship off balance. Casey had something Jerrdan didn’t and never would.

It wasn’t easy for him to appreciate his little brother. It wouldn’t take long, however, for him to realize the benefits of having his hearing sibling around. Casey, a born-again rule breaker, soon became Jerrdan’s interpreter-on-demand. Everywhere Jerrdan went, Casey was sure to follow. From the time they arrived home with a mysterious wagonload of food given to them by the neighbors—even I have yet to figure that one out—to the time they flooded a small town south of Albuquerque—yes, flooded, as in lots of water, closed businesses, fire trucks—Casey has been Jerrdan’s interpreter.

And the relationship worked both ways. Jerrdan taught Casey how to flip people off, and Casey, a budding speech therapist, taught Jerrdan how to curse, though Jerrdan’s B-word usually sounded more like bush, and his S-H-word usually sounded more like shuck. Still, I had to give them both brownie points for effort.

Many people have mistaken Casey for being Deaf over the years, a true child of a lesser god. Ironically, just as Jerrdan wanted to be hearing, Casey has always wanted to be Deaf.

They are two pieces of a puzzle, a perfect fit. Where Jerrdan’s eyes sparkle with intelligence, Casey’s eyes glitter with mischief and wit.

Sometimes when they’re talking, when their hands move in rhythm with the beats of their hearts, when the rules of sound cease to apply and the planets align and the seas calm, Casey is almost as Deaf as Jerrdan. Almost.

*Author’s Note

The words deaf (not capitalized) and Deaf (capitalized) are two very different things. When not capitalized, deaf is an audiological term that refers to a profound hearing loss. When capitalized, Deaf refers to a person who is a member of the Deaf community and an active participant in Deaf culture. While the sign for “deaf” does not make the distinction between the two, when it is relevant to the conversation, the signer will often sign “small-d deaf” and “big-d deaf.” In ASL, the signer may also sign “strong deaf,” indicating power and pride in their membership within the Deaf community. Deaf is a powerful and positive word. There is no need to use “euphemisms” for the word Deaf as there aren’t any. Deaf is as good as it gets.