I was born deaf February of 1996, then born into the hearing world about five months later. When my parents brought me home from the hospital in June–the second of their triplets girls to escape the NICU–they noticed I was suddenly reacting to sounds.
That summer, I passed a hearing test for the first time.
Say that it’s God.
Say that it’s modern medicine.
Say that the delicate nerves in my tiny, shell-shaped cochlea finally caught up to my closed eyes, my paper-thin skin, my toothpick ribs–the wonderful knitting together of a body already outside the womb–and tell me science isn’t miraculous.
In second or third grade, my teachers and parents began calling me distracted. I was always a step behind in class. When my mom called our names from the porch as we played outside, I was the only one who wouldn’t come running, and other kids told me I talked too loudly.
I was 8-years-old, blonde and skinny, with a mouth full of crooked teeth that laughed a lot and stuttered constantly. I had relentless strep throat and ear infections. Speech therapy, colorful braces, and a tonsillectomy helped. But I still couldn’t hear.
I was always a wildly imaginative kid, with an entire town of imaginary friends before I started school: a nameless, faceless airline pilot husband who was always gone, a co-worker named after Steve from Blue’s Clues and his wife, and a whole brood of baby dolls and stuffed animals who I called my children. When I wasn’t creating another world, I had my nose in a book, soaking up someone else’s creations.
I thought that this habit of retreating into my own head is why I didn’t notice when my hearing started to vanish.
Now I’m wondering if I lived in my own little world because the volume was too low on the real one.
Fifteen years later, I think about what I can hear.
Making dinner in my apartment: the AC hums, arrhythmic ceramic clanks as I stack dishes in the sink, paper packaging crinkles, and bouncy show tunes blast from my phone. Drawers sliidddee open, then close with a bang. Food sizzles and water runs.
Have I always been able to hear that?
If I can hear all of that, while my blue hearing aids sit on the counter, can I really call myself Deaf?
When we arrived in early February, instead of late May like we were supposed to, my two sisters and I were scientific marvels just for surviving. Rachel struggled more than Lauren and I did. She had severe cerebral palsy, brain damage that caused nearly all of her muscles to be tight and difficult for her to control. For almost a decade, she survived in a body working against her.
My hearing wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t always hear well in class, but I could talk to my friends about playground crushes and ramble to my mom about Disney Channel shows or my favorite Ramona Quimby book.
Lauren, the neighbor kids, and I spent hours on end climbing trees, hanging from the swing set, and skinning our knees trying to imitate the bike tricks we saw on the X-Games. Rachel couldn’t do any of that. Most of Rachel’s friends couldn’t do any of that. I was lucky, by comparison. I was normal.
I don’t get stared at when I go in public. I live independently, and will probably never struggle to get a job because of my hearing. I don’t get accused of being lazy or demanding for what I can’t control. The social, physical, and financial barriers that bind many disabled people don’t apply to me.
ASL isn’t my mother tongue, and while I’ll turn captions on at home, I’ll never be forced to leave a movie theatre because a outdated, clunky hand-held caption generator couldn’t keep up with the plot. College classes tend to have less background noise than elementary school, so other than making my professors aware of my hearing loss each semester, I didn’t require any accommodations in school.
So am I deaf enough to call myself Deaf?
I was nineteen when I found the community I never knew I was missing. While working as a camp counselor for disabled kids, our hard-of-hearing teens became my people. They begged me to teach them to make friendship bracelets, shyly asked for advice about starting high school, and crushed me in basketball every single day. They borrowed my flashlight, my Uno cards, and my sanity.
They borrowed my hearing aid batteries, and gave me advice on how to keep my aids dry. Nobody whispered. Nobody got frustrated when they had to repeat themselves. When we rode the pontoon boat one night, many of us sat sideways to keep the wind from roaring across our microphones.
The following summer, I sat on cool, hard concrete in a circle of young teen girls. We swatted at bugs and faced each other to lip-read as we reflected on bullying, future plans, and middle school romance. For some of us hearing loss was discovered at birth, some at 10 or 11, but we all had a story of the first time we heard something. Mine was birds chirping.
A couple days before this conversation, I’d asked a young writer I was working with to look at me as we talked so I could hear him better. He said, “Oh, is that why you sound funny?” Only brutally honest children comment on my lisp. I have no idea how my voice sounds different from others, but I can feel it. High-pitched ss- and sh- sounds get stuck at the corners of my mouth, in between my lips and teeth.
I asked my campers if they’re ever embarrassed by their Deaf accents, and a high school sophomore who spoke her first sentence at age five immediately shook her head. “Nope.” She said. “It doesn’t matter how you speak as long as you make your voice heard.”
During that same week of camp, my group was walking back from an activity when it started to pour. We scrambled to help our kids get drying pouches from their backpacks to protect their hearing aids and cochlear implant magnets. Our equipment is the size of coins and costs what my rent does in a year. All I could hear was raindrops pelting my microphones. I ripped my aids from my ears and held them cupped in my hand.
“I need to get a pouch like that.” I said, loudly, pointing. I was hoping the audiologist on staff had an extra I could snag.
One of our adult volunteers looked at me funny. “What would you use it for?” He asked. He was a middle-aged Deaf man who escaped 60-hour-a-week office work to rough it in the woods with our kids. Despite the rain, he hadn’t removed his CI magnets.
“My aids.” I said, opening my hands like showing off a firefly that might escape.
Even around a hundred other hard-of-hearing kids and adults, he said, “Oh yeah, I forgot you had them.”
So am I deaf enough to call myself Deaf?
My campers and I agreed it feels like drowning to be called apathetic and spacey when your face is tight with the concentration is takes to understand every other word of a conversation.
When I supervised the teens-only night swim, our dozens of wide-eyed campers couldn’t hear me without their aids. They didn’t listen to my signs and gestures.
When fluid fills my ears like clockwork every October and January, I feel like I’m hearing underwater. In between doses of Sudafed that makes my mouth feel like playdough, my own voice echoes too loud in my skull, and every other noise blurs together.
Spoken word artist Sarah Kay declares in a poem about friendship: When they make fun of your accent, I will take you swimming because we all sound the same underwater.