The first time I felt the permanence of Anna’s cochlear implants–of Anna’s deafness, maybe–was when the nurse called my cell phone in the middle of her cochlear implant surgery to update us. We were in the surgery waiting room. Luke was eating a breakfast sandwich and I was looking up at the screen that looks like the Departures and Arrivals screen in the airport. A.W.: Procedure In Progress, the line said. I must have looked at that line 200 times–each time, picturing Anna’s body limp on the gurney, and each time, wishing the line would switch to In Recovery and I could push my head against the side of hers, warm and pulsing and the doctor saying he was done. When I answered the phone in the waiting room, the nurse said, “Dr. Kelsall wanted me to tell you he has completed the left ear. He’s closing it up. Then we’ll begin the right.”
At that moment, I felt this wave in the brain: elation, gratitude, mostly relief that her anatomy could support this apparatus we have hoped for and anticipated. But also, if I thought deeply enough and if I continue to think deeply enough–below the sweet reprieve of a successful procedure and below the thanking God for adept professionals and below the tingle of energy that comes with any step towards transformation–I also felt a kind of settling I didn’t expect. I can’t describe it. It felt like sand being poured into my core, and all those granules landing in the last place they would ever land. I don’t want to call it disappointment, I want to call it acceptance. But not the end-of-yoga-class, melty, at-ease kind of acceptance. The kind that said to me: this is for real, this is the way it will always be. We just put a device inside our daughter’s head that will remain there for the rest of her life. If she weren’t completely deaf, she is now. And if she ever does want to hear, we will be dependent on technology for her to be able to do it.
I guess I consider myself a bit of a Ludite. I think that, more often than not, technology makes us less humane. I feel this way because I can feel it happening to me. I feel the pull of my iPhone away from the four walls around a moment; I feel the temptation of Facebook away from my in-the-flesh friends; I feel the compulsion to photograph any moment that is beautiful or funny or places my life in its best light. Not only is it a blessing when I forget my phone at home because then I can just watch my kids, the absence of my phone reminds me how to take joy in. Zaley went through a brief phase where she didn’t want to be photographed. I could see that she didn’t have any problem with being caught onscreen; she simply didn’t want to be stopped. She knows what I have to be reminded of: that living through the devices around me usually removes me from my sensory experience of the world.
How is it, then, that a person like me can believe that a new technological invention (cochlear implants) will make my other daughter the person she might one day want to be?
Because I am making a very intentional exception, I believe. Because my sensory experience of the world is absolutely dependent on sound. Because my daughter had absolutely no access to sound. Because cochlear implants will, in their own way, give it back to her. I like to picture it like this: in today’s world, we usually receive music by way of technology as opposed to in-person. We don’t sit in concert halls each night of the week. In our house, there is always singing, but there is also the radio and the computer and CD’s. It would be hard to find a person who contends that the radio and the record industry have ruined humanity. (Far harder to find than someone who’d say the same of the smartphone). If I think of cochlear implants as Anna’s little internal radios, I feel more certain that this technology will not make her less humane. I feel that–like the presence of music in mine–the presence of sound might improve the quality of her life.
Still, one of the hardest things about watching Anna suffer and recover this week is that this surgery was optional. As in: not medically necessary. As in: I chose this. While I held her moaning in the recovery room, her IV-punctured hand wrapped up in a mitt of gauze and her head encircled with blood-spotted pads, I asked her silently for forgiveness for putting her through this surgery so she can be like me.
The day before her surgery, Luke and I walked around our neighborhood and talked about her operation. For the first time since we’d had Anna, Luke said that he wasn’t excited about surgery, that to him, it summoned some sadness. Sadness about what it meant–that Anna’s deafness and our ability to hear have created an obligation for us to make her life easier (or less isolated, or more full of potential, or whatever other phrase you want to insert here that doesn’t quite articulate the love-filled yet gaping divide a hearing parent tries to leap over to reach their deaf child). I agreed. There is a sadness surrounding this week, especially because we haven’t yet turned on her implants, so our joy of her recognition of sound is still just projection. We decided that this sadness does not, cannot, confuse our decision to implant her. When you are given an invention that will serve as a bridge between your child’s language and yours–your child’s life and yours–how can you not choose to cross it?
Even though we are still working to learn sign language, we are struggling. I’ve heard that a hearing adult (without a deaf parent or deaf sibling) will likely only reach a kindergarten proficiency in ASL. There is no country to go to where all the inhabitants are deaf. Unlike every other language you could learn, there is no opportunity for immersion. There are classes at the community college and the Deaf School and the deaf adult who comes to your home, but all day, every day, the reality is that we hear each other and we hear the radio and we hear the T.V. and we have no fluency in our fingers.
Even though not a single deaf person we know has questioned us about our choice to implant Anna, I feel that I am still defending it despite the fact that there is no other option to give her full access to a language we are qualified to give her. I see here that I am still defending the decision, most of all, to myself.
Her surgery was three days ago, and she seems to have fully healed. Her sleep is back to normal, she doesn’t need Tylenol anymore, and she seems to not notice that there is anything new inside her head. I know she is ok, and yet, behind her ears are the steristrips we can’t change out till Friday and there is the dried red-brown of her blood. Her nose spontaneously bleeds and I have to tell Luke while he’s holding her that it’s dripping onto his sleeve. Whenever I see any of the blood from this surgery, I am not 100% sure we have made the right choice, even though we couldn’t have made any other one. Anna reminds me that we don’t always get to make the best choice. We have to make the best choice available.
Even more than Zaley as an infant, Anna has always been calmed by the open sky and a slight breeze. Today, she wouldn’t take an afternoon nap, and as the wind was whipping off the mountains and the sky was turning a dark, pre-tornado blue, I put her in the baby carrier and walked around our streets. The same flags waved on neighbors’ poles, the same neighbors waved from their drives. But now our house and our walks and our child are different. Today, as I cupped both sides of Anna’s head in my hands, I could feel the swell of the quarter-sized magnets under her skin. She was looking up at me and smiling her smile–the one that knows something maybe I know, too, but can’t quite access. Like a word on the tip of my tongue. Anna is that word. Yes, you almost have it, she is saying, this thing I already know, this thing I already am.