Can You Hear Me?
Her daughter was born deaf, and so she began to wage all-out war to keep the child from disappearing into silence. Sheila Kohler reports on the most unsentimental education of her life.
I am sitting talking to my daughter, Cybele, her gaze fixed intently on my face, when she puts her hand on my arm and glances around the room. “Where is Masha?” she asks, referring to her eldest daughter.
“Have you seen Masha?” I ask Charlotte, Cybele’s middle daughter, who is playing with the Lego set, but she bites her lip and shakes her head and opens her brown eyes wide. My daughter has three daughters, like the three princesses in a fairy tale. Masha has been named after one of the characters in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. We are a literary family, you see. Words have always been important to my husband and me.
Cybele scoops up the baby and strides fast through the rooms of our West Side Manhattan apartment, calling her child’s name. My daughter takes after my husband’s side of the family. She has endless legs, a graceful neck. When I see her walk in my door, she looks to me, despite the babies in her arms, like a medieval queen.
“Masha, are you hiding somewhere?” I ask, my voice rising with panic as I go through the rooms, looking under beds, behind armchairs, the standing mirror.
Masha, at 4, likes to play hide-and-seek. She likes to dress up. I open closet doors and hunt behind dresses, behind my shoes. Cybele peers behind shower curtains.
“I hope to goodness she hasn’t gone outside,” I say, imagining my grandchild taking the elevator into the lobby and stepping out into the dangerous New York street.
“She wouldn’t have done that,” my daughter reassures me, as she has so often in my life.
Still, it is not until I open the front door that I find Masha, tears running down her face. She is wearing her yellow fairy costume, though it is long past Halloween, and she has lost her wand. She has locked herself outside and has been standing there while we were hunting for her. I kneel down and gather her up in my arms. “But, Masha,” I ask, “why on earth didn’t you just ring the bell?” She sniffs and gazes at me blankly with her gray-green eyes, almost the same color as mine, as I abruptly understand and hold her to my heart.
“If you ever get shut outside like this again, you must ring the doorbell, and I will hear it ringing even if Mummy cannot, and I will come,” I explain.
It was my mother-in- law who discovered Cybele’s deafness one holiday at the sea. It is hard now to believe that our daughter was already a year old and that we had noticed nothing—or almost nothing. I remember mentioning to our distinguished elderly physician that Cybele seemed to have a high-pitched voice. “Is that normal?” I asked him. He looked at me disapprovingly through thick glasses and said solemnly, “What does the word normal mean?” I didn’t dare ask anything else.
My husband and I were just 20 years old and did not notice much except ourselves. We had married, for love, while he was still a student at Yale studying French literature, and had come that summer to visit his mother, who lived on the Italian coast. One hot morning, the three of us sat on the beach in the sun, as one did in those prelapsarian days. I sat on my husband’s lap, my arms around his neck, gazing into his eyes.
Draped across a deck chair, my mother-in-law, a long, lean lady from Kentucky, watched Cybele playing with her green bucket near the water. The calm sea glittered. Nothing moved in the still air.
My mother-in-law called out to Cybele, who went on playing in the sand; she clapped her hands loudly three times. It was then that my mother-in-law put a hand on my arm and said, in her Southern drawl, “Do you know, I don’t believe that child can hear!”
I remember thinking, That woman, that woman, she is always looking for the fly in the ointment. I picked up my little girl, clutched her to my heart, and carried her down to the edge of the sea. I waded in up to my knees, up to her toes. I swung her around and listened to her laugh and watched her bare feet rise and fall and the drops of water glisten in the bright air, and realized, in spite of myself, that I would never see the world quite like that again.
Read this article in full in the May 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.