I wrote this story many years ago and read it recently at a Personal Stories Production at Center Stage Theatre. The daughter who stars in it—and gave me permission to read it– is now a happy adult who works at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. This day is still vivid in my memory, so the story is in the present tense.
Today is Crazy Hat and Hair Day at school. This is a big deal for my daughter. At 13, she’s become self conscious about things that never bothered her before. She’s unhappy about her voluminous, naturally curly hair that has been called crazy by her peers on more than one occasion when it wasn’t Crazy Hair Day. She’s exasperated by blemishes that became a problem only a few months ago. But mostly she’s angry about being deaf, something that’s been true since she was born but has become more of a challenge now that she’s mainstreamed in our local middle school.
Last night, we conferred. My daughter instantly rejected my suggestion that she liberate her hair for a day and let it follow its wildest inclinations. Instead, she asked me to braid a single skinny strand over her forehead so it could be wrapped in red, white and blue thread. When I finished, the wrapped braid, complete with a moon charm, flopped over and hit her in the nose, but she seemed satisfied.
This morning, when I went to wake her, she was already standing in front of her mirror. She does this a lot as though she’s as startled as I am by the almost grown woman who stares back at her. Today, she was scrutinizing her visor which was festooned with decorative buttons. Her hair was slicked back into its customary ponytail, but the wrapped braid hung over the top of the visor at a jaunty angle.
I offer to put glitter in her hair. And she says “Sure”, the most rousing endorsement I’ve been able to get from her lately. We head outdoors. I make her hair gooey with gel and then sprinkle her with all the glitter in the craft box—blue, silver, gold. A sparkling ring forms on the driveway around her feet. For a moment, I’m tempted to tell her it’s magic, but my sensible daughter was skeptical about such things even when she was little. I’m the one who wants to believe there are charms and incantations that will protect her from the world’s perils. I let her step out of the circle without comment.
Inside, a smile spreads across her face as she examines herself in the mirror. When she turns to me, she says simply, “Mom, I didn’t know you were so cool.” My first reaction is a “yes” of triumph from the 13 year old girl still living deep inside me. That girl used to study the popular kids in the class wondering how they achieved cool without apparent effort.
Now it turns out what I suspected all along was true. The secret to middle school success is glitter—the surface shimmer and flash that has almost nothing to do with durable happiness. Even knowing how little it matters in the long run, I can’t help feeling pleased that I’ve finally achieved middle school cool.
The second feeling is an almost irrational happiness that my daughter is the source of this compliment. Lately she’s been increasingly critical in her appraisal of me. Like most daughters, she assumes I can’t possibly understand her.
She’s often wrong. I remember perfectly well the other side of our battles about bedtimes and boys, movie ratings and tight tops. But she’s right about one thing. I don’t understand what it’s like to be her because I’m not deaf.
When she was little I used to wish I could live inside her head for a day. She’s worn powerful hearing aids since she was six months old, and I know they help her hear the bass notes of music, many (but not all) of the sounds that make up speech and, if the world is quiet enough and the birds are insistent enough, the chirp of sparrows.
Like all families in which the parents hear and a child doesn’t, my husband and I have had to make challenging decisions about what’s best for our daughter. We’ve made each one knowing that, in crucial ways, we can’t know what it’s like to be her.
That’s true for every parent, of course. Much as we want to believe our children will benefit from our experience, a huge amount of what each of us knows matters only in the context of our own lives. All the tricks I’ve learned for coaxing curl from my stick straight hair don’t help my daughter with her corkscrews. Much of what I thought I knew about communication and relationships has been challenged by her experience as a person who doesn’t hear.
Like all adolescents, my daughter is becoming aware of the gaps in my wisdom. I know this is inevitable, yet I often find myself missing the little girl who laughed without condescension at my goofiest faces and trusted my judgement even when she didn’t like it. The child I live with now has powerful opinions without the tact, self control or empathy to realize I might need protection from her harsher observations. She’s franker than she needs to be about my fashion sense, my friends and my physique. And she can be downright vicious when I need to exercise parental authority. “You hate deaf people,” she’ll shout as she heads for her room. “I’ll never love you again.”
The fact that she often appears thirty minutes later cheerful or even apologetic doesn’t erase the hurt I feel. I find myself bruised by our encounters even though I know the intensity of her feelings is necessary and even healthy. As vividly as I remember the shy version of myself who showed up at school, I also remember the volatile version who lived at home. I understand that the gravitational pull of loving parents is often so powerful that a girl can’t sense the uniqueness of herself unless she exaggerates the extremes.
And I know, perhaps more clearly than other moms, that my daughter will not replicate my life. Her deafness is not her destiny, but it shapes her experience in ways I sometimes glimpse but cannot inhabit. One thing will, I hope, be the same. Eventually I learned to love the wistful middle school girl who longed to be noticed by the popular kids. In time, I trust, my daughter too will love the hair—and the ears—she has.
I know her volcanic eruptions are part of the process. I recognize and even respect that. But it’s hard to enjoy it. So, this morning, I bask in my daughter’s glitter. As glad as I am to have achieved belated cool, it is nothing compared to the gratitude I feel for this charmed moment when she is as glad to be my daughter as I am to be her mom.
@2015 by Carolyn Jabs. All Rights Reserved.