Finding Ground

This town is on edge. After a fatal landslide this week that buried three people, you can feel the anxiety everywhere. I feel it looking out the front window, at the long trees swaying on the steepest mountain in town, about 100 yards from our front door. FullSizeRender-24On Tuesday, the morning of the landslide, the rain growled and receded then revved up again, coating the windows like water in a car wash while we ate eggs and toast at the table. "The rain hears so loud," Zaley said, her wide eyes looking into the streams running down the window panes. Friends texted things like, "This is ridiculous." Sometime in the afternoon, it stopped and the sun appeared and we took advantage and went for a walk. We did not know about the three men down the road who tried to outrun the running earth. In our front yard, the little creek had become a powerful gushing thing the color and opaqueness of a frapuccino. Purple fireweed petals were spinning down from Eliasen Loop, the street perched on a shelf of stone above ours. And sometime around the time we were walking, a woman put on rubber gloves to look for her husband's body on the hill behind a washed away house.

Last night was the first heavy rain we've had since the landslide. In the middle of the night, the blue tarp strung tight over the hot tub snapped in the wind, and my dreams translated the sound into the cracking of fast-moving trees. I flew awake, didn't sleep for three hours, and then Luke was leaving in the dark trickle of morning.

FullSizeRender-23There is no TV station to turn to here, to see what has transpired overnight. There's a "Sitka Chatters" Facebook page, so at 5 AM, I cruised through there, watching movies of the deceased till I realized I felt weird invading into the sorrow that should be reserved for the lovers of the dead. There are receipts posted on the Facebook page, too: people "paying it forward" all around town, buying meals anonymously for families who have evacuated, funding $300 worth of coffee at the Highliner for anyone who orders till it's gone. Someone who makes oven-glazed ceramic mugs has been leaving them on the trails with love notes to locals pinned between clay and stone.

This aftermath-feeling of surrounded aloneness reminds me of the New Orleans feeling: a low-grade, disappearing and reappearing dread. Like butterflies before a performance, wings steeped in a real, unshakeable worry. My friend Lisa went to set crab traps in Nakwasina Sound--an area 11 miles from town, but bordered by other islands--and she said she saw the scars of three new slides on those similar mountains. I heard there were six landslides yesterday on our island alone. Even though this was called a 25-year storm, it would be  foolish to assume that more of these mountains won't fall. I have learned this summer that you can't always be surprised when you are the 1 in the statistic--1 in 25, 1 in 250, 1 in 2,500.

FullSizeRender-21I have been doing what I do, which is seeking consolation through questions: "Are you scared this will happen again, too?" An acquaintance whose boys were playing with Zaley on the beach yesterday said, "If Mount Verstovia came down, my house would land on top of yours." But then I saw my neighbor and her one-year old boy at the kid's storytime and exercise class at the library and while the toddlers were pretending they were bears, she told me that the mountain that fell has a foundation of almost pure mud, whereas Verstovia is only inches of mud atop a thick rock slab. A slab, she said, that should stay put. I have been clinging to the image of that slab since we spoke.

I drove past Kramer Avenue, where the deadly slide happened, and my arms prickled in the sun. It's all taped off, but you can see where the trees are still supine, where the cadaver dogs had their horrifying success. The two bodies they've found were guys in their 20s from our church--pretty boys I would have had a crush on if I were their age. The other was a man I've seen in town many times, the Facebook photos jarring me with how much sharper loss is made by familiarity. There's also a video of the precursors to Tuesday's slide: 20-foot logs creeping downhill on a tall bed of brown. There is only the slightest volume to this deluge of soil, and I think of Anna, how she will not know danger first by its sound.

All day, looking up at this mountain through the window above our front door, I picture another landslide. I picture running with my girls, if we had time, if we would go down the steep gravel driveway in reverse, the baby on my lap, Zaley in the passenger seat, no time for carseats or brakes or belongings. I keep comparing natural disasters in my head, and though it seems I've always neglected to think of landslides in the list of the biggest and bad-est (hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis), landslides may be the worst because there's only a second or two of warning before that life-eating suture.

Some people escaped the Kramer Avenue disaster by bolting up the mountain. We escape this morning's ominous sky full of helicopters and clouds by going to my friend Shelley's for coffee and Dutch baby pancakes, which she pulls puffy and golden from the oven in butter-coated, glass casserole pans. Inside Shelley's warm home, Emmylou Harris's voice croons from the counter and I realize it's the first time I've heard music since we found out Anna is deaf, and I am so full of sadness I cannot speak.

FullSizeRender-20Zaley is the best distraction, though--the kind I wish I'd had in New Orleans ten years ago this week, when I found our street stripped down to nothing by the power of water. She is excited today to "balance like a tree," waving her arms and lifting one leg. She doesn't know about natural disasters, despair, any feelings that might underride all the joys in one given day. I wish that Luke were here, too, but he sends an email from his boat: "Don't worry about the things you can't control." It is simple, but that's what saves me from thinking too much today about what we lose before we're ready. I keep saying it over and over again, "Do not worry about the things you can't control," looking at this mountain overhead, looking at my Anna.

The Answers

FullSizeRender-18 This weekend was warm enough for a knee-length skirt tan and for Zaley to build gravel castles on the beach. But tomorrow there's a west gale, which Luke says he has never even seen. 16-foot waves and an airborne chowder of fog. The rain in town is winter-like, misty, shrouding the lighthouse, coastline, mountains, and water we can usually see out all the tall windows in the house we are staying at this summer. "Socked in" they call it. This is apt. These days you must put on socks. You're better off staying in. Zaley's feet blister in her boots when she gets them on before I realize the lack of socks. Then we are out. Then there are tears. There is a forgotten raincoat. A swim lesson gone wrong. The early interventionist arrives at the house when frozen chicken nuggets have just burnt in the oven, the boob is out, both kids are screaming, and Dad has left a beer in the My Little Pony house (which the speech therapist notes aloud).

FullSizeRender-19One night at dinner a few weeks ago, when Luke's youngest brother, Max, was here, he asked, "How much does the ocean fill when it rains?" Luke said "It never fills, it evaporates, that's where the rain comes from." I had never thought of this. Sometimes I wonder why I don't know simple things. I thought I was being a supermom and made blueberry muffins the other day while Jules and her kids came over and swam with Zaley in the hot tub. But I put way too much sugar on top and it crumbled off in brown powdery chunks when we ate the muffins right out of the oven, hot. I do not wait for baked goods to cool. I always miss one step in any set of directions. I over-sugar, over-cook, over-think, under-estimate how long it will take us every time we leave the house. The only thing that makes this better is not when I get it right, but when other people are late or their muffins are gummy.

My friend Jill who has two young kids lays out smoked salmon, sliced cheese, a ring of crackers, fresh banana bread with a perfectly glazed, flat top. She blow dries her hair! Her house is spotless when we arrive. Secretly, I consider where all ten decorative pillows go when people like Jill--people who make their beds--sleep. There must be a pile! I love other people's piles. I think of the preparations we forget in the presence of perfection till I think of the pillows. Nothing is easy for any mother, I think, when Jill's son keeps announcing his farts and when I get home and look at the crumbs on my stove, the half-eaten, un-organic, frozen whatever in the sink. I must believe this or I will crumble like that topping.

I ask all my mom friends, "Is it easy? Is [this] easy for you? Is [this other thing] easy for you?" Why are we supposed to make fishing season look easy? Why doesn't one mom just throw her hands up and say, "Hey! You know what? F-- this! I'm done!" And then we will all mutiny and the boats will all go away and the kids can play wrestling games with Dad and we will eat late, greasy, family breakfasts at The Nugget. That's what my ideal life looks like. Just Luke here more, really. But because this won't happen, I keep asking The Questions. I want to know when other moms quilt/knit/write/shower, when other kids wake up in the morning, if they want their moms to hold their hand for 15 minutes at nap time. Does your toddler run circles before she collapses with rage when you tell her she can't have macaroni at 6:30 AM? The answer, which I don't always remember: all phases shift. My mom reminds me, this always-consolation.

FullSizeRender-17Anna smiles now when she sees me. I'm becoming more aware that when I'm out of sight, she can't sense me because she can't hear me, but I still say, "I'm here, shhh, I'm here." One nurse says, "Anna, yes! A good old-fashioned name." Most people say, "Oh, she is so tiny!" I don't notice her smallness anymore, pulling her up from resting places, her head wobbling back as I catch the weight with my fingers. At two months, she is Zaley's weight as a newborn. Her legs are always warm. She wrinkles one side of her nose in anger when I haven't fed her or moved her in the last five minutes. In sleep, her eyes twitch and roll and I have to tell other kids she sleeps with her eyes open so they don't try to kiss and pet her. Sometimes just one eye opens and surveys the scene from left to right, a judicious little pirate's eye. I google this, scared that what I don't remember about Zaley at two months is maybe the cmv virus making Anna abnormal. In the case of open-eyed sleeping ("nocturnal lagopthalmos"), the internet offers its rare comfort: "this is very normal."

I am still skeptical--a constant, internal uncertainty underlying everything Anna-related right now. I'm wary of anything stated with finality or confidence since everyone said they were sure her hearing would be fine. I look for alternative sources of comfort both for her and for me. The chiropractor at home recommends me to an herbalist in Glenwood Springs who is sending up a tincture of lemon balm and astralagus I should take 20 minutes before I nurse, plus some topical essential oil to put on Anna's skin where the smooth, dark pink rash spots up--the one physical marker of this quiet monster virus. Another chiropractor in town sees Anna and says something that sends relief through me, viscerally, like a wave: "If she were going to be immobile at any point, I think we would already see signs."

My brother sends Padre Pio oil and prayers in the mail, passages from the Bible about Mary's wounded heart. I have a hard time ever seeing my way out of right now, out of myself, and this helps. I do think of Mary in this line of other mothers who struggle so gracefully as to make me feel alone. I remind myself that I am less important than all the suffering Anna's suffering has made me aware of.

A friend needs a blood transfusion. A friend's son goes to the hospital for meningitis. A friend miscarries. A little boy we know here is mute, may never talk. A friend across the country calls me to tell me what worked best for her child with autism. Jules says her school-age kids are attracted to other kids whose parents parent the same way. I pray for such continuity between will and outcome. I know the parents I want to be like are the parents who have shouldered through very hard things.

I postpone making (what I know will be imperfect) bread today for lying in bed with my tiny child. I will never be another woman. My daughters will never be other children. The ocean will not rise.

Two Worlds

I haven't listened to music since I learned that Anna can't hear it. I've gone to turn it on a few times, but something stops me. I know it's part sadness (I teared up in the Seattle airport when I walked past the cheesy synthesizer guy playing outside the bathrooms), but it's also a little bit of guilt. It feels wrong to enjoy something Anna may never experience, as though my access to the world of sound is unfeeling and privileged--two things I've always worked against as a teacher and now as a mother.

This week, I called my high school friend Lexie, a speech pathologist for kids ages birth to 3, to find out what we should be doing for Anna, and the answer is that we should start signing to her even this early. This will be Anna's deficit year before she gets cochlear implants. Whatever sounds would build to meanings have been missing for her since the day she was born. And in case the cochlear implants don't work (or when we've intentionally taken them out for bathtime and bedtime), we will need a language for her that doesn't depend on sound.

Besides the list of 200 recommended first words to learn, Lexie suggests supplementing it with the words that are the most important in our lives. We have a different vocabulary during this part of the year. I think: she will need to know salmon and fog and rain and cereal (which we eat a lot of when we're bored and which I think is the cutest sign so far: you make your index finger scoot like a little worm under your chin, wiping off the milk). Zaley and I made up the sign for Anna already: an "A" shaking back and forth like it's holding a maraca.

I have very little experience signing, but I do remember learning the prayers in grade school, especially the Our Father: an "L" (for law) in one hand stamped against the tablet of another for will; wiping the slate of the hand clean with the other hand for forgive; slicing one curved hand with the other, like a knife over a loaf, for bread; the letter d rising on one side of the body then setting on the other for day. I love the sensory basis of sign language, so much truer to experience than trying to explain in words. Zaley says, "We will make Anna happy with our hands."

Besides learning how to communicate with our child this year, we will spend these 12 months proving to our insurance company that Anna is a good candidate for cochlear implants (her total deafness qualifies her easily, but she'll also wear hearing aids for a year solely to keep active the auditory nerve). While the implants are usually very successful on infants, there's still a chance she won't speak or be able to decode music or talk on the phone. Some children break down crying when they're first turned on because sound makes no sense. They haven't ever heard a voice; it has no antecedent. Can you imagine? No, we can't.

The implant is a magnet that is surgically inserted between skin and skull, transmitting sound by radio wave or code or both--I get confused on the physics. Ears are complicated. I can't even really picture the work of the tiny hairs called cochlea except for the audiologist's metaphor: like tiny little piano keys rolled up inside each ear. To be honest, the thing that got me the most excited about cochlear implants (besides the fact they could bring to Anna speech and sound) are these. My friend Mia and I are already scheming on how to make them in bulk.

But part of me also wants to live a Little House on the Prairie life. And that part of me resists cochlear implants and the internet and all advancements in science. I know, I know. Look at how far we've come! Modern medicine saves lives, returns joy, restores hearing. But I look at this child and part of me doesn't want to mechanize one of her senses (the loss of which might be maximizing the skills of the others). Today, while Anna's eyes chased a flashlight across the whale-stenciled walls of the pediatrician's office, he said, "Man, she is really looking." Everyone comments on the hugeness of her eyes, the way they lock in on a thing, never blinking. What natural functions of her brain and being are we taking away if we add wires and magnets to the sides and insides of her head?

There is such a mystery to me about Anna's body. Her quietude and calm alertness, the texture of her silence. Is it static in there? Is it liquid-like or simply a void? Are there noises in there we can never imagine, like new colors, or a hundred wings flapping in the unseen space between her ears? I picture the sound would be like the look and feel of a cumulus cloud. Like soft cotton. Like comfort.

Luke pulls me up for air when I say I'm thinking about the two sides of the cochlear implant debate and says, "We're talking about giving her back her hearing."

And, in the end, even if we fit her with implants, Anna will always be deaf. Zaley's little friend Johnny, who's 8, happily (and out of the blue) reminded me yesterday that when Anna swims, she'll have to take out her implants and that will make her "deaf again." I take an odd comfort in this, knowing that she can take them out any time she wants--to go to sleep, to be free of the child we have decided she will be. I think of how nice it would be, to go into full silence mode right before bed. When Zaley yells every morning at the top of her lungs, "Mommy, come IN HERE," it will never wake our Anna.

Even though I imagined these girls doing everything together, including walking to St. Peter and Paul school down the street, I am realizing there may better options that will open worlds to us--to Anna--that would give her way more than my pre-Anna expectations ever could. The Jeff Co school district has resource rooms for children who sign. The Rocky Mountain School for the Deaf happens to be on our side of town (although Lexie confirmed yesterday what I've been sensing in the stories I've been reading: they may not accept students with cochlear implants because if a child can hear, is that child still deaf?). The Deaf School prepares children to be members of the Deaf community (capital D, indicating the specific culture of the deaf). I guess some people believe that cochlear implants take away not only a person's deafness, but their Deafness, too.

In one study in How the Deaf Learn, which my sweet dad found and shipped to me right after we found out about Anna, a young girl with cochlear implants said she sees herself as "not quite deaf and not quite hearing." Educators are unsure how best to teach kids who have implants; they often struggle in reading and writing. While the well of language is the deepest source of meaning in my life, it may be so bungled for Anna, it may be her deepest struggle. I want to give her everything I can, but for now all I find myself doing is smiling at her right near her face and signing I love you.

Lexie said our choice about cochlear implants, whatever it may be, should "help Anna enter the world where we live."

We live in two worlds, which is now more clear than ever. Our world in Denver with resources galore, a whole community of deaf children, long drives, more than one elementary school, and two kinds of (D)eaf. And then this world on this island: where I don't know a single deaf person other than my daughter. Where I had my six-week OB appointment at one hospital (executed by my next door neighbor, it turns out. Awkward.), then drove across the street to catch the last 15 minutes of Zaley's swim lesson, then drove another two minutes and over the only bridge here to the other hospital for Anna's six-week appointment.

On our way out, the sticker-stocked nurse from a few weeks ago called down the hallway, "Wait! Wait! I want to hold Anna again." She held Anna out in front of her, head higher than her feet, like a prize. "Anna! Swee-eet Anna!" she sung to her, clicking behind her teeth for the baby to respond, to move her head. I knew that Anna wouldn't look toward the sound of her name. But when she didn't, my heart still dipped.