LET ME START AT THE BEGINNING I am Dani's aunt. Dani is prelingually deaf, born to two hearing parents: my sister Tracey, a hippie with rings on every digit and hair down to her butt; and her husband Sam, an independent contractor who left Tracey shortly after the birth for reasons Tracey has never revealed to me. I moved into Tracey's guest bedroom to help take care of Dani. It was easy for me to take on this responsibility: no husband, no kids of my own, unemployed. But Dani frightens me sometimes – her need for goodnight kisses, the way she snuggles up to me when we watch television, her constant “I love you”s – almost as though she thinks of me as her mother when Tracey is away. much as her affections warm me, I still feel like a visitor here. I cannot stay forever.
Tracey plays acoustic guitar in a Beatles cover band, cashiers at a convenience store, smokes dope and occasionally brings coworkers home and makes love to them in the bedroom where she and Sam used to sleep. I am in the bedroom down the hall and can hear every detail. My sister howling, the headboard smacking the wall. At first it was vexation, a simple annoyance, although I understood her need for release as well as I understood my own. Currently, I am pitiful enough to occasionally slide my fingers under the purple band of my underwear and play with myself to the sounds from down the hall. Tracey never talks to me about these encounters, so I act like they don't exist, which has generated a certain distance in our breakfast conversations.
I am twenty-six now; I am unable to have children due to complications following a car accident when I was sixteen. I have a shaved head and gauged ears, remnants of my punk-rock adolescence of which I refuse to let go. I wear torn jeans everywhere except five-star restaurants and weddings, for which the happy trio of Tracey, Dani and myself have little time or money, anyway. Tracey tries to get me to clean up for the sake of getting dates, but she forgets that she was the one copying me during childhood. More than anything, I love Dani. I love playing with her hair, reading to her in signs, and I am completely absorbed by her interests. Fairy tales, soccer, homemade pizza. Every harmless thing I would want my own ten year-old to eat up if I had one.
After Dani completes fifth grade, she also graduates to a new doctor. When we meet the doctor, a Doctor Sanford (who introduces himself simply as “Matt”), we sit in a whitewashed office with no windows and listen to him explain that Dani is a candidate for something called a cochlear implant, which can potentially improve her hearing. “It is not a cure for deafness,” he says, “but rather, a prosthetic for hearing. Because she has not yet passed the critical period of adolescence, her brain will still be able to learn to process and distinguish speech.” I hold Dani's hand while Matt speaks even though she cannot hear him. She has always been an excellent lipreader, but he is using plenty of words she doesn't know.
He explains the operation: a small incision will be made behind Dani's ear, then he will drill into the thin mastoid bone and insert the tiny electrode array in her inner ear. This will be done under a general anesthetic and she will go home the same day as if a hole hasn't been drilled into her skull. From the outside, she will look like she has a hearing aid attached to a magnet on the side of her head.
There are risks: meningitis, facial nerve damage, a thousand types of skin infection. But most of all, the implant will inevitably damage the nerve cells in Dani's cochlea – the loss of residual natural hearing means she will never be able to hear without the aid of the implant. This is, I think, a disclaimer he must give everyone while describing this operation. Dani has been deaf since birth and we've been told a thousand times she'll never be able to hear on her own, but Matt's warning ignites guilt in me, as though we're throwing Dani to science and not leaving her to nature.
I interpret to Dani while Matt speaks, but I don't tell her about the bad things. Just that she may be able to hear and that this operation is her choice. It is the hardest interpretation I've ever had to do because Dani is ten years old and has no concept of sounds or voices. She can't miss them because she's never had them. Nevertheless, she looks at me as I explain it, her blue eyes sliding from my right hand to my left, her lips pouting like they always do when she's concentrating. I imagine once she thinks it through, Dani will regard the operation as just another adventure.
Tracey practically signs on the dotted line before Matt even finishes speaking. But her excitement is not for Dani. It's for herself. If Dani can hear, Tracey's life will be easier. She can play out with the band, smoke until she's incoherent, and she won't need me taking up space in the house.
None of this is to suggest Tracey does not love her daughter. That wouldn't be fair. She loves Dani more than Hey Jude; more than summer breeze gliding through her hair; more than any amount of toe-rings, bonfires and casual lays; more than seven years of marriage with the man who helped create Dani and more than the parents who sang the two of us to sleep in our childhood double bed. But she cannot deal with the pressure. It embarrasses her to introduce her daughter with a disclaimer attached. She can't raise Dani alone, which is why I'm here, but I cannot be Tracey's Other; she needs to be with a man. She doesn't seem to mind that it could take years for Dani to be able to hear properly, form her little voice around words, and fully communicate with others. In Tracey's mind, once Dani awakens from surgery, she will be fixed.
* * *
Over the next week, Tracey slowly convinces Dani that getting the cochlear implant is the right decision, although I watch their conversations and Tracey often signs Nothing can go wrong. I want to step in, but I was the liar at the doctor's office, and I'm not mom.
I make the mistake of nosing around about cochlear implants. I come across articles that focus on the surgical process and the side effects. I read about botched operations in which eardrums are shredded to powder or surgery goes smoothly yet the patient never hears a thing. The most stunning discovery is the one about which I've been most worried: a young woman about Dani's age gets the implant and, having had no concept of sound since birth, loses her mind in the cacophony. The implant is hastily removed, destroying all residual hearing, but the girl swears she can still hear the noise, and she is put in a mental hospital.
My dreams all involve Dani screaming, but no sound comes out. Her eyes are tightly shut, her jaw hangs. Silence. In waking life, my thoughts hang on Dani's skull being drilled. That spot where I always brush her hair over her ear will soon have a chunk of steel violently spinning through it. I can't help but expect the worst: the surgeons will hit something soft and vital and Dani's little head will pop like a water balloon. Then the head surgeon will come to us in the waiting room, stand with perfect posture, hands clasped in front of him and say, “Sorry folks; there was nothing we could do.” No apology to Dani.
Dani and I spend some time at the park the day before the operation. We sit for hours watching people and seeing which one of us can get more height on the black rubber swings. The burning orb of the sun hovers over us and we don't mind the heat until we stand and our thighs stick to the metal bolts holding the swings to the chains. Dani, who can't stand sores or blisters or any sort of blemish, is briefly miffed, but I calm her down by saying I'll buy her an orange fruit smoothie.
I will hear you soon, Dani signs to me during the walk home. I want to smile and cry at the same time. She's excited, but doesn't even know what it means to hear. To Dani, it's an epic journey into the unknown. The unknowable.
* * *
Tracey is called into work the day of the operation, and is told she will be fired if she doesn't come in. She throws a fit as I gently wake Dani and usher her to my aging Isuzu.
“I don't care,” Tracey says, her necklaces jangling as she whips her head away from my nurturing hand. “I'll quit.” But she knows she can't quit. After a few heaving breaths and the promise that I won't let anything bad happen, Tracey gives me a half-hug, composes herself, grabs her car keys from the coffee table and rushes out the door.
I decide to dress up for Dani's big day. I snatch a pair of Tracey's designer jeans and slide into them, twisting in front of the bedroom mirror and admiring my lower half, which doesn't look half bad now. I spritz my neck with the contents of a peach-scented bottle from Tracey's dresser, throw a summery tank top over my head, poke two fake diamond studs into my earlobes, and walk to the front door. Dani is in the passenger seat, leaning back, eyes closed.
I do not belong in a hospital. I did my time after the accident and still can't forget the sleepless nights, the bland room, the feeling of having my shredded guts stitched back together. Without Tracey to hold my hand through the bleach-smelling corridor where our baby resides, I am frightened. I curl up in the lobby and watch The Price is Right all morning until surgery is done. When the nurse calls me in, she tells me Dani is in the last room on the left.
The operation goes smoothly. Doctor Sanford performs it himself. No infections, no extensive damage aside from her inner ear, which is now outfitted with a microphone, a speech processor, a receiver, a stimulator, and twenty-two electrodes.
I make my way past the other little rooms and try my damnedest not to look at any of the other patients, but I cannot look away. Some are groaning at unseen ailments; some sit upright eating in silence. Others, hooked up to networks of tubes, sleep. A family is huddled around one of the beds, all chattering with low voices, but I cannot see who or what they are looking at.
As I enter the room, Doctor Sanford appears from behind the curtain of Dani's little alcove. He hails me neutrally, waving his hand alongside his head as if we are old friends. “Our girl is ready to go,” he says, and I catch him looking at the rear of my jeans as I go past. I have a brief, silent conversation with myself about Doctor Sanford and his taste in women, shaven heads and designer apparel. I snap out of it when I part the curtains and see Dani.
Her head pokes out from under the ghost-white sheets. The device is firmly in place; a piece that looks like a black hearing aid is attached behind her ear, connected to another circular piece on the back of her head, which I see when she turns to look at me. Her eyes open and close slowly, drowsily, no doubt the effect of the drugs on her tiny body. A fantasy passes through my head in which I imagine she will be able to hear me when I speak and that she will jovially respond with a full sentence telling me how she feels. I do say “Hi, my little sweetheart” aloud, but I also sign it to her when her eyes fully open. Doctor Sanford says he will give us a minute, and he strides off.
Dani wriggles her arms from the mass of bedsheets. I have a headache, she signs to me. I want to go home.
We will, I sign back. We have to wait for the doctor.
She smiles. He is a nice man.
We spend the next few minutes discussing the dreams she had for the three-and-a-half hours she was under. She tells me she was friends with a narwhal. It grew so large she was able to ride it. They scoured sea-bottoms for gold, leapt through the water's surface and soared through the expanse of the sky together. I am briefly jealous; I want to give her something even better.
Doctor Sanford sidles up behind me. He sets a plastic cup full of water in front of Dani and winks at her, then regards me with a brief smile before putting his face in some paperwork.
“It's going to be about two weeks before incision heals,” he says. “Come back in and we'll activate the device. In the meantime, you should encourage her to make sounds, exercise her voice and try to speak some of the words she reads. There will be extensive ongoing therapy once she can hear, but this will be a good warm up for her.”
We get Dani out of bed and onto her feet. Her legs wobble like strands of wet linguini when she tries to walk, so we each lift her by one arm and carry her to the car together. Doctor Sanford gives me his card, which I already have. He reminds me again to call him Matt. “Are you this informal with all of your patients?” I ask. I try to make it flirty, and in the half-second before he answers, I recognize the absurdity, the immorality, of the situation: me and Dani's doctor. But I do smell good, and he's the one who checked me out before. I snap out of it. “I'll see you soon, Matt,” I say.
* * *
Tracey never quite gets over the fact that she missed it: driving Dani to the hospital with no conversation but a mother's soothing touch; holding her daughter's hand before surgery, being there when her eyes opened. She takes her frustration out on me. I am resentful, sexually frustrated after the whole Matt thing, and I have several words for both my sister and her daughter's surgeon. The whole reason I am in Tracey's house is because I gave up everything to help her. I could run away, take up waitressing again, finish that marine biology degree.
However, this is my family. Instead of screaming back at Tracey, I pamper her. I give her back rubs when she comes home from work. She crashes face-first on her bed and I dig my fingers into her knotted muscles until she is near tears. After a few days of this, Tracey's temperament begins to cool. She listens to me when I tell her what Dani and I did all day and when I remind her that her health insurance completely covers the operation.
But things don't go as planned. Dani does not want to speak. She is embarrassed. She becomes impatient with me when I push the issue. Tracey has no luck either. There is a disagreement between them one morning, and mother and daughter begin to spend even more time apart.
When the wound is fully healed, we bring Dani back to get the device activated. It takes Doctor Sanford (sorry, “Matt”) all of thirty seconds to turn it on and send us on our way. I let slip that I take care of Dani most of the day, and he tells me how brave I am. He hands me another card, which I slide into my back pocket.
* * *
It gets bad. During a trip to the local aquarium, Dani has a panic attack and begins pounding on the shark tank. A shortfin mako sweeps past, briefly hovering in front of us before aquarium attendants escort us out. We spend the rest of the weekend home.
Dani lies in bed, fiddling with a dolphin diorama that hangs over her pillow. I sit on the bed next to her and sign, Did you hear something?
She sits up, nods, but she doesn't say anything back. She has not made a sound since the operation. I want to convey how worried I am, how much I need her. In my head, I dismiss everything I thought before: that I could run away, ignore my family, date around. When Dani acts this way, I feel pitiful.
Do you want to try reading with your voice?
A curt shake of the head.
You can try it whenever you are ready.
She opens her eyes wide and indicates the device on her head. Opens her mouth, no sound. She signs, I hate this.
What can I tell her? That everything will be okay? When will it? When the speech therapists step in?
I sign back, Can you hear me now? and I say the words along with the signs.
She shakes her head no. I don't want to upset her, but I need to know what's going on in that brain of hers.
What happened at the aquarium? Did you hear something?
She pounds a fist into the soft mattress like a little gavel. You did this to me, she signs, then plops down into the bed with absolution and flings the sheet over her face.
I wish Tracey was home. Someone to comfort me; someone with a voice. If Dani wants to ignore me, all she has to do is turn her head or quiet her hands, and she's made clear that she's not in the mood to deal with me.
But then, when has Tracey comforted me since I've been here? Never.
Stifling hysteria, I walk to the kitchen. Black-and-white tile floor. Refrigerator humming. For some reason, I pick up one of Matt's cards from the counter and dial him up at home. I just need to hear another voice.
“Hi, Doctor San– Matt.” I explain who I am. When I sheepishly say, “I was the bald one,” he remembers. I don't even have to remind him of Dani.
“Yes, hello,” he says. “Is everything okay?” I can't tell if it's personal or professional interest. Having half my conversations in sign has made me rusty at phone talk.
“Dani won't talk to me. I'm home alone with her and I'm worried.”
“Did something happen?” His voice is frustratingly calm.
“No. Well, yes. She had a panic attack at the aquarium. She told me she heard something, but then said she couldn't hear me talking.”
I hear him exhale pronouncedly as if blowing on tea. “This is fairly normal,” he says. “She's expecting to hear, but has no idea what hearing is yet. She's afraid of what might happen. It sounds as though you are, too.” He says it as though he's known me forever. I want to tell him to piss off, that he doesn't understand, that my feelings are none of his business, but he is right. I keep quiet.
I hear him take a generous sip of the tea or coffee or cognac or whatever it is. “Signing is your special thing with her, I know,” he goes on. “But trust me. The implant will help her. She'll come around in no time.”
* * *
I know what is probably expected now. Matt and I get together; we talk about Dani and things get all mushy. Maybe we go back to his place, he tears my clothes off and we don't even make it to his bedroom before eating each other alive. I won't pretend I haven't thought about it, but none of this happens. He doesn't know that my abdomen is scarred from the accident or that I haven't dated since high school. I put as much distance between myself and everything to do with the scientific aspect of Dani's problem as possible. I want my relationship with Dani to be beautiful and free, relying on nothing but the two of us. I remember a saying that went, When a doctor treats you, he plays God. Matt Sanford, the god of our little world, must step back for a moment and let us evolve.
The following afternoon, Dani still won't speak to me. We are in the living room together; Dani is watching Garfield and Friends with subtitles. Her hands stay folded and motionless. The front door lurches open, revealing Tracey's slender form. A breeze rushes in with her and blows a cluster of papers and blank checks from the coffee table. Her hair is matted in the front, and the rest is a cloud of static, clinging to her shoulders and back. The car keys rattle against her rings as she tosses them on the table.
I ask her how work was, and she doesn't tell me much of anything. She doesn't need to. She's been away from her daughter for eight hours, wearing an apron, counting pennies. We hug, and as we part, she rubs my head. I can smell a metallic odor on her hands from handling change all day.
“Our baby is upset with me,” I say.
Tracey throws her apron over a chair. “Take the night off, okay?” I can see it in her face. Tracey is tired, resentful, ready to call it quits – with the job, Dani, me, everything. She goes to the sink, runs some cold water, splashes it against her cheeks. Without drying her hands or saying a word to me, she goes down the hall into her bedroom and firmly yanks the door shut.
I am exhausted, but we need to talk about Dani. When I walk into Tracey's bedroom, she is face down on the bed, still in her work shirt. I sit next to her, pull each wet ring from her fingers one at a time and drop them into a ceramic bowl on the nightstand. She doesn't make a sound. I go to her feet, pull away her toe rings and make a tired attempt at a foot rub, digging my thumbs into her soles. She finally groans a little. I keep going for a few minutes and move to the small of her back. The muscles are tight, knotty, like a trail of solid bubbles on an alder tree.
She moans, “Help me.”
I roll my hands through the hair on the back of her head. “Tell me what you need,” I say.
She is quiet. I begin massaging the back of her neck, working my fingers in deep. After a moment, I close my eyes, falling into the onset of sleep even as my hands keep going. When her breath slows and deepens, I gently drape a sheet over her back and walk down the dark hallway back to my own room.
I wake up at four in the morning with what feels like an ice cream headache and Dani curled up in bed next to me. This is a breakthrough. I feel as though she has not acknowledged me in days. Her arm is flung over my breasts and her eyes are squeezed shut.
The fact that she has come into my room, peeled back the covers gently enough to not wake me and nestled herself so tenderly against me is almost celestial. I am stunned by it. I glide my index finger along her cheek. “I love you, my sweetheart,” I say out loud. Maybe she can hear me, maybe not. I wonder what my voice will sound like to her. Whether she'll hear the real me or whether I'll sound like a robot through her implant.
Dani awakens. Fresh-faced. Zeal burns in her eyes – she wants another chance at the aquarium. For a moment we lay still, amazed at each other. She puts on a smile that melts my insides; it's the smile that says she wants me to forget something she's done. She makes an “a” with her right hand, rotates it over her heart, points to herself, then mashes her fist onto the opposite palm like a mortar and pestle. She's saying, I'm sorry I complained.
I don't wait for her to ask about the aquarium. I sign that I will take her if she wants to go, and her face brightens. I say aloud, without signing, “I want you to grow. I want you to fall in love, have children.” She shows no signs of hearing me. She snuggles up close.
I try to be the responsible aunt. I wish Tracey could be with us, but work dominates even her Saturdays. I wonder if she talks to any interesting people among the coin-flinging and grocery-bagging, whether she schmoozes with men anymore.
Dani and I walk through the lobby of the aquarium. The cool subterranean blue undulates over our faces. An octopus shimmies past Dani's head, moving through the water like a belly-dancer, and she chases it along the transparent glass wall until it skitters out of sight.
She wants to see the sharks and the narwhals (though she doesn't have a sign for narwhals, so she sets the back of her hand on her forehead and points her index finger out like a horn, opening her mouth wide like a whale). I close my fist, extend my pinky and thumb, and wiggle my hand in front of my face. You're silly.
Dani laughs. A series of high-pitched cackles, like the call of a chickadee but more enunciated, erupts from her. It's so rare to hear her voice. I wonder if she even knows she made sound.
I can see it in her face as we make our way through the cavernous walkways toward the narwhal exhibit. The grin of a child, but also the fostering eyes of a mother. A lover's concerned brow. Dani is already a woman.
We walk over a small bridge that spans an open tank. Dolphins pop along the surface. Children chatter and giggle as their parents drag them past. The overhead fans, which look like the engine of a rocket ship, cause the hanging starfish mobiles and sea turtle skeletons to joggle and oscillate over us. Dani holds my hand. The narwhal exhibit is in the next room.
I don't know why, but I stop in the middle of the bridge and I get down on my knees in front of her. Your mother loves you. She wants to be here. Dani exhales and looks at me in a way she never has. She signs, I heard her this morning. She told me she loved me.
Can you hear now?
She points at me with her thumb and forefinger, slowly lifts her hand to her forehead and clasps the fingers together. Confused.
I think of how tight Tracey's muscles will be when I massage her tonight. What I'll tell her we did today. How the knowledge of being the first thing Dani has ever heard might alleviate her pain. Whether she'll be able to appreciate the moment Dani and I are sharing right now. And then, for some reason, I'm suddenly glad Tracey couldn't come with us.
There we are, in the middle of the bridge, hovering between the noise of the rocket-fans, the floating skeletons, and the blue waves crushing themselves against the tank beneath us. I imagine this is what the sea is like: the foam raging above; gray blurs and dorsal fins slicing around us; our naked forms spinning in the womb of the ocean as we lift our heads and hear for the first time.