My Mother, Disabled by the Disease of Denial

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My mother, despite being profoundly deaf since infancy, took piano lessons as a girl. It was my grandmother’s idea.

Why her daughter should play an instrument she was unable to hear is uncertain. But I can guess.

Maybe she wanted my mother to feel like a person equipped with normal hearing, same as almost everyone else. Or maybe my grandmother wanted to fool herself into believing her daughter could hear. Or both.

Whatever the case, I’ve long imagined my mother taking those piano lessons in the Bronx. She’s seated at the keyboard, her hands arched, the teacher instructing. She plays a tune, unable to tell whether she’s played it well, with no clue whether she’s missed a note.
Oh, mother why? she must have wondered. Why must I play piano? I’m deaf. What’s the point?
But there my grandmother might be, watching the lesson, even delighting in hearing her deaf daughter play piano.

Ah, yes, she might be thinking. My daughter can play piano. She’s as good as anyone else, and now she knows it.

It’s hard to decide what to make of all this.

Certainly my grandmother had the best of intentions. That’s why she had my mother take dance lessons, too. Again, my mother learned to perform to sounds she was unable to perceive. She would pick up the steps to the waltz and mimic the teacher gliding across the dance floor to the strains of Strauss, only she would do so to silence.

Maybe my mother felt like all the other girls as she danced, and maybe her mother felt like all the other mothers there, at least in those moments.

Let’s all pretend. Let’s all pretend Aileen can hear.

This game of make-believe took other forms, too. My mother wound up educated in the so-called oralist tradition. You learned to speak the same as hearing people, with your mouth rather than relying on your hands, and to read lips. Use of sign language, whether at home or in school, was expressly prohibited. Nobody should be able to detect your deafness, lest you be stigmatized.

In those days, back in the 1930s and 1940s, deafness was still seen largely as a version of stupidity. More than a few deaf children were misdiagnosed as retarded, even institutionalized as such. So one must understand the times, the cultural context, rather than be quick to condemn.

Still, my mother and her friends used sign language in school anyway, secretly, under the desks. Nothing could suppress this elemental means of communication and expression. Nature will out. Plants will break through the soil, no matter what the environment.

I see my mother as a girl in class, perhaps wearing pigtails and a uniform. She is shaping words with her fingers under her desk for the next girl over to see.

Did you see the new boy. I think he’s cute. What do you think? They’re both smiling now, my mother and her classmate, and the conversation goes on, silent but hardly wordless, bridging the barrier of sound, making a connection. My mother is deaf and she knows she’s deaf, but she’s happy. She’s letting herself be deaf and adapting to it rather than pretending otherwise or letting her mother pretend otherwise. They’re giggling, my mother and her friend, and the teacher has no clue, and neither does my grandmother. Freedom of expression at its most basic and most beautiful, unchecked and unstoppable.

My grandmother meant well – she always meant well, no one ever really doubted that, though you know what people say about the best of intentions – but games of pretend, carried too far, can have consequences unintended and unforeseen. A deaf girl can grow up without quite accepting herself as deaf, without quite believing her own mother accepts her as deaf, suspecting society at large refuses to accept her as deaf, too. She can grow up feeling, if anything, even more apart, more an outlier, than she otherwise might.

It’s a question of identity. Who am I, that’s the question, and is the person I am different from the person my mother wants me, expects me, to be? That’s the issue.

You can hear, my grandmother seems to insist. If you just try hard enough – if you take piano lessons and learn to dance the waltz to music and speak with your mouth rather than your hands – you will be able to hear. You just have to try hard enough.

But my grandmother got that wrong, and her daughter paid the price. Denial is also a disability.

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