A new year, a new home for my family. This summer we made the big left-to-right cross country trek landing smack in Virginia. It’s nice to be back on the East coast after many years in CA. Although for me, there’s a lot I’ve actually forgotten about summers around here. Namingly, the weather. I mean there’s WEATHER here. It rains! Not just a little drizzle either, if you blink too slow you’ll get stuck in a downpour. It Never Rains in Southern California, so I admit, my awareness of the weather systems has taken some getting used to.
To my children (5 and 2), everything is new. Taking advantage of summer, we’re scouting out new parks, new places, new roads to take and things to do. Having just hit their swimming strides after early summer lessons, we were eager to join a local pool down the street. From the handpainted welcome sign to the casual entry protocol (lifeguard waves from the high chair), this pool felt very cozy and small town. Like many things, coming from a big city to this, it’s an adjustment. I couldn’t get used to the fact that we could PARK. And that it wasn’t packed. Usually just a few families were there. (Unless it was Thursday. I later found out Thursdays are “Karate kid” days, where the kids taking a martial arts camp descend upon the place. Some might call 60 kids in the shallow end “mayhem”. I’d call it a normal day at a Y in the valley.)
As with everything else, a new place, with new people (in a POOL, no less) requires some communication adjustments too. As a deaf person who wears a hearing aid, going to the pool has always felt like “flipping a switch” to me. I take my hearing aid out to swim, and when I remove it, I am crossing over. I fly from 0 to 1000. I go from hearing chattering, cars, footsteps, kids screaming, loud-loudness to a slow motion sound sequence with brilliant fireworks. With one switch, these huge sounds come to a simple halt leaving in its wake the occasional sprinkle of a faraway sounding air symphony. That moment is a rush. That moment is a little rock in the stream I step on to cross over from one land to the next. I spring off from it exhilarated yet re-calibrating to shift the information and energy from my ear to my other senses.
Anyhoo, so I’m in this new cute place groovin’ with my little ones and no actual hearing to float me through a lipread conversation (I’d have to completely lipread it which is, you know.. iffy), so I just embrace it and do my thing. In doing that, I keep it simple. EVERYone at the pool knows I’m the deaf mom. Because I’m straight with people about it. There’s no hiding it anyway, and it’s simply that small of a place. Communications are kept short and sweet. My children are also wildly enthusiastic about swimming, fleeing from the sunscreen lotion, pool noodles, running from the kiddie pool to the big one, fighting with each other, screaming and demanding food so this keeps me from having to explain to anyone who is even slightly observant that I can’t chit chat right now. Simple, right?
Still, there’s curveballs. My experience with other kids only goes as high of an age as my oldest with maybe a 2 year cushion. My oldest is 5, so I continue to learn what other 5-7 year olds (who usually don’t have deaf parents or exposure to deaf people) are doing/saying and how they communicate. Kids’ speech can be especially tough to understand, but when kids are toddlers they’re not really interested in a detailed explanation of why I’m not understanding them. Older kids ARE interested and want the 411. It’s been interesting to see their reactions to the simple statement:
“I’m deaf. That means I can’t hear you.”
- Pantomime – from the freckly faced 7 year old missing her two front teeth. After staring with her mouth open for a full minute she came up with NECK-SLIT, POINT-TO-EAR, VIGOROUSLY-SHAKE-HEAD, to which I politely responded, THUMB-UP, WINK. I created a monster with that, unfortunately. She stuck to me like a magnet for the next hour, trying out new sign creations she thought up.
- Sneaking around – from the same girl who loved to “sign” and had befriended my 5 year old. Initially they asked if she could swim with her on the other side of the rope in the deeper end. When I said no, she then approached MY MOM to ask HER if they could go. Maybe she thought she didn’t sign it clearly enough for Deaf Mom so Hearing Grandma would surely override. Sorry sista.
- Dissemination – from the probably 7 year old little karate shit with the mohawk who was using one of the balls we brought and so graciously shared with the other kids to bounce off my 2 year old’s head who gleefully swam by babbling something. I moved in closer at that point to step in, when the kid turns to me and asks me something while laughing and pointing to my son. With no clue what he could be referring to, I smiled at first, but being 7 he was saying something specific about my son in front of a bunch of kids, and I didn’t want to bluff so I informed him I was deaf in a firm, pleasant way while making my way past him. He then proceeded to swim around trying to get other kids to “talk to me because I can’t hear”. Always mindful my children are watching me, I do try to be as graceful as I can. I simply went back over to him smiling, grabbed my ball from him and said, “You’re so funny. Give me my ball back.” HA HA! Get your own ball kid.
With those exceptions, most people are mindful of their social graces. You just never know when you’ll get a weird question from someone, or kids just experiencing their first encounter with a deaf person. The only thing you can control is your own reaction, really. Over time, I’ve learned with practice I can handle most social hiccups, even though you’ll never be prepared for everything.
One day, everyone suddenly got out of the pool, so we followed suit. Normally you can follow others’ visual cues to piece together what’s happening but all I could gather was some people were drying off, some making their way out like they were leaving. Uhp, time to go. I couldn’t figure out why. I inquired of the lifeguard who was walking by and asked if they were closing. He began a casual explanation of 3-4 sentences that I couldn’t quite make out. It wasn’t making sense. Still I asked again, feeling almost apologetic I couldn’t piece this together. After a couple more tries, he shortened it to one word. And I understood it.
I jerked my head back and looked straight up into a blue sunny sky.
“Thunder?” I asked. He then pointed beyond the trees to reveal some gray clouds creeping up. Downpour 10 minutes later. Welcome to the East Coast.
Frame of reference (and visuals!) is everything in communication. Being transplanted into new situations makes me feel like people are speaking another language sometimes. It’s hard to feel 100 percent confident in these times. Heck I felt pretty silly.
But it’s a good reminder not to take myself too seriously. AND I’m grateful for friends and family who can relate to this. I KNOW I’m not alone. As a mom or as a deaf person. Every deaf person has a crazy communication story. Every mom has a crazy-day-mom story. This is a crazy-day-deaf-mom story. Same thing but crazier!
As Labor Day draws near and this sweet summer place closes for the year, I celebrate these two guys. My kids. I am constantly reminded to see things and myself through their eyes. They will know their parents are deaf. They will see the beauty in communicating with us visually. And for those who don’t know ASL, my kids will see creative (and hopefully graceful) solutions in action. Every day is an opportunity. Every day is a gift.