On December 21st, 2012, the infamous last day of the Mayan calendar, I was diagnosed with “rheumatoid arthritis.” I use quotations because I’ve come to understand, deep in my aching bones, these symptoms arrived as sacred messenger delivering unseen truths that lay buried in my marrow.
Since that fateful phone call from my doctor, the pain has visited every joint in my body, at one time or another, appearing on a spectrum from blazing, hot red to dull, pulsing pink. But no matter the day, the pain, in all its shades and facets, has decidedly taken up permanent residence in my hands, my primary tool of communication with my first loves: mom and dad.
If these two hands of mine could talk – and believe me, they can – they would tell you of the labor they’ve done. They wouldn’t tell you, however, about all the appointments, holidays, weddings, funerals and sermons I spent standing in as tiny interpreter. They wouldn’t tell you about all the grocery store check-out lines spent on tippy-toes peering over counters to meet the gaze of the cashier whose polite conversation is falling on deaf ears or the countless drive-thru runs bent over bench-seats, serving as both ears and voice delivering orders – always, of course, making sure to adequately emphasize no cheese on mom’s burger as well as the precise number of dipping sauces needed, so as to avoid unnecessary entry of the dreaded fast-food dining room to request reparations.
Although there is enough material there to fill volumes, if you took time to listen, it’s not what my hands would tell you. What they would want you to hear most is how they labored tirelessly on behalf of the heart. A heart who knows deeply and completely what it is to love another who is your entire world but who exists, wholly and completely, in another one altogether. They would tell you of the countless, tumultuous attempts to cross the vast divide between two worlds existing so painfully close together and yet seeming to never quite touch.
MY HANDS WOULD TELL YOU OF THE BRAIN’S ACUTE UNDERSTANDING OF THE TRAGIC LIMITATIONS OF LANGUAGE AS A TOOL FOR THE COMING TOGETHER OF TWO HEARTS
They would share how on most days it feels like traversing oceans on a tightrope strung between continents. One sleight of hand and you plummet once more into the ocean of eternal isolation that so dismally appears at times to be the human condition.
My hands would tell you of their endless efforts on behalf of the two eyes of a girl who scrupulously studied every wince and wrinkle on her mother’s face – a woman who when she lost her hearing as an infant was thrust into the unfamiliar territory of perpetual silence. The popular opinion at the time was that Deaf children should not be taught to sign but that they must learn to speak, to effectively function as a hearing person without hearing. So that by the time my mother was a teenager her only connection to those she loved came in stolen moments, glimpses and flashes of what her two eyes could capture in a world that moved at the speed of sound.
There is one thing that sign language commands that is not required by spoken language: your full-bodied and present participation. Check out for a single moment and the world falls silent. There is no passive, incidental learning or conversation – that occurs only for those who have the privilege of hearing. Communication and learning for the Deaf is always an active, hands-on (pun intended), embodied experience.
During her coming of age, mom learned to sign in secret. She has a fierce, fiery tenacity and I love to picture this quality of hers on display in the quiet classrooms of Classen High or in small, speechless corners at Skateland, where words make invisible waves formed from the fast-moving hands of teenagers making up for lost time. They will spend the entire evening never stepping foot on the rink because they’ve spent days, weeks, months surrounded by the deafening silence of the spoken words of their hearing families, who never learned to sign and so can never truly hear them.
They have lived their entire lives navigating noisy worlds not set up to receive their full-bodied expression. By the time they finally get together, there is so much to say.
I often wonder how mom felt when the hearing test for her last and only baby girl came back positive, a moment when most doting parents breathe a sigh of relief. When this question comes to mind, I realize I know the answer. I was there. My body remembers as tears form in my eyes and begin falling in heavy streams down my face. My heart wrenches in anguish trying to make sense of the conflict between a mother’s desire to give her child the best of all possible worlds, yet having that desire become overwhelmed by the innocent longing for what you love most to belong to you completely.
Did I abandon her that day? The question reverberates in my mind as I grasp my own hearing-ness as an echo of the foundational wounding of her childhood. Every time she retells my birth story, she introduces with pride the fact that I was two weeks late, and she was here for it. Never once has she bemoaned my overstaying my welcome. As a mother myself, I have enough of a sense to know that both she and I didn’t want to rush my entry into this world. She had parented one hearing child before me and knew I would be her last.
Like most parents who hem and haw over pink versus blue, dad was elated to have his first-born son and he now had high hopes for a baby girl. Mom said he paced the hospital halls, periodically popping into the room, nervously watching the clock, and drinking black coffee. Mom was in no hurry and neither was I. These were our last moments spent in sacred union, where the worldly divide between us was indiscernible, submerged in dark, mysterious waters.
When the waters broke, mom and I entered the hallowed threshold that would ultimately place me firmly in my world as she remained in hers. I wonder if it could have been different for us. What if there had been no routine hearing test? What if the question, “Is she like me or is she like them?” had not been so abruptly, affirmatively answered. What if we could have extended the veiled threshold, savoring the sacred “fourth trimester,” the two of us still not knowing where one begins and the other ends?
Deaf, hearing, young, old, mother, daughter… it’s all just language, right? Words to describe conditions we didn’t choose. Fates we didn’t weave. It seems they’re all just words for what we got that we didn’t know we needed.
LANGUAGE BRIDGES GREAT DIVIDES BUT IT ALSO BUILDS BARRIERS
I didn’t know I needed a Deaf mom in order to become who I was meant to be, though I’ve begun to understand. I’m not proud to say there have been days I wished it otherwise. These hands would tell you that although they’ve longed for the kind of deep rest that doesn’t ever really come around in this life, they would also tell you about the spirit of the baby girl born that day for whom rest was not an option.
I know now that when I made my way out of the womb that day, though I was little (and very, very late), I tried my best to scoop up and carry with with me as much of my mother’s pain as I could, and resolved – with the ferocious tenacity of my mother before me – to make her journey a little lighter than it had been before.
As a child I wanted to give her everything she never had: ears to hear, a voice to speak, the deep connection to a loved one that can only come when you share a native tongue. I grew up watching her dote on the remarkable Deaf children of her friends and I wondered whether I was enough. Whether the fact of my hearing disqualified me somehow from being enough.
One day when I was discussing this with a friend and fellow CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), she said to me, “But Joanna, you’re not hearing.” Then she silently signed, “You have Deaf heart.”
YOU HAVE DEAF HEART
The great fortune of my life has been never having to question whether I was loved.
The great heartbreak of my life has been questioning whether I was enough.
The great challenge of my life has been, and will always be, learning to allow my own pain to take up space and to have a voice even when the incomprehensible pain of another threatens to take me under.
I love you, Mom. Thank you for loving me across the great divide of your world and mine, showing me from the start, that this is ultimately what it means to truly love.
Holding you always in my heart and hands.
p.s. Thanks for letting me spend my first valentine’s day on extended stay in my old womb.