Bridge to a Silent World

A family is healed when a nurse teaches sign language to the parents of a deaf little girl.

By Margaret Hevel, RN

As a nurse health educator, I've had many rewarding opportunities, from being a professor of nursing at a community college, to teaching health classes for the hearing-impaired children in an elementary school. The latter led me to teach sign language to the parents of a six-year-old.

One the day I first met her, the afternoon still held onto the sunlight. Inside the wood-frame home, shadows clung in the small kitchen where I sate with Michele and her mother, Carolyn. Michele, a student in the School for the Deaf in Great Falls, Montana, was one a home visit. Huge brown eyes spoke her confusion. The beauty of her delicate features was marred with sadness.

Over a cup of coffee, I explained the home-signing program to Carolyn. Michele sat on the floor in a corner with a few scattered toys. When she got up, jerky movements hampered her walking. Her hand clutched a string to a toy she pulled on wheels; a clown with a kitten tucked under its arm. Halfway across the room, Michele stumbled and sprawled across the coffee table, knocking several items to the floor.

Her mother frowned, shook her head, and gave an abrupt hand motion to wave her away. Her sharp words were cloaked with irritation as she pointed to a small chair in the corner. "Go sit there!" she said, knowing her daughter couldn't hear her.

Mirroring her mother's frown, Michele signed. "Why I go?"

Confusion swept across her mother's face. "Don't' sass me!" She pushed Michele toward the corner chair. Sniffles accompanied Michele's unsteady gait.

My spirits tumbled. "She was signing to you. Asking 'Why I go?'" I explained.

"Well, I didnt' know that. It looked like she was making fun of me. She's always misbehaving. It's difficult for everyone when she's home."

I know of the pain parents felt. I worked with other parents who shared the guilt and the blame they experienced having a hearing-impaired child.

"I think you'll find it easier to have Michele at home when you understand what she's signing to you," I offered. "You'll be amazed at the difference in her behavior after you've learned even a few signs."

I told Carolyn about the school support grogram. We marked her calendar with a schedule for my visits. Occasionally I paused to smile at Michele who watched from her chair a few feet away. I gave Carolyn a book with signs and went over a few sample lessons. I expressed the importance of her husband learning to sign with her and suggested they practice together.

I answered Carolyn's last question and turned to Michele. I gazed at her puzzled expression, wondering what she was thinking. A blue barrette barely hung on to her short black hair. Slowly, I signed … "My name is Peg. I'm your new friend. I'm going to help your mother and father learn sign language."

Michele raised her slender arms, bent her small fingers, and signed, "My name …" she made an M and touched the dimple in her right cheek. But her dimple disappeared when she made the sign for mother.

Before I left, I helped Carolyn sign her first sentences to Michele. "You were a good girl while I talked with Peg. Thank you."

Then to Michele I signed, "Have fun at school. I'll see you when you come home for Christmas."

She smiled and waved good-bye.

All that fall, I met with Carolyn twice a week. Whenever I asked about her husband joining our signing lessons, the reply was the same. "He's too busy."

"Tell your husband that children look to Dad as well as Mom for answers to their questions an support for their fears. 'Where do the sun and moon come from? What are starts? Why do others make fun of me? I'm scared in the dark.' Explain to him that when a parent ignores their child's questions, their thought is, 'Why doesn't Daddy love me?'

At my next visit Carolyn said, "My husband told me waving his hands makes him feel silly. He talks to her by pointing to things."

"Everyone feels a little awkward at the beginning," I said. "Pointing is a fun game for children. But ask him how will he feel when Michele is older and ignores his pointing when she signs?"

At our next lesson, Michele's father sat at the kitchen table. He listened intently and began to slowly repeat simple signs. During my weekly visits, I watched as this family's emotional scars began to heal.

When Michele was home for Christmas vacation, I was invited for coffee one afternoon. When I stepped into the house, pine scent mingled with the aroma of perking coffee. Michele took my hand and led me to the Christmas tree decorate d with tinsel, colored glass balls, wooden beads, and small blinking lights. She pointed to a paper angel on the top of the tree. "I made for Mother and Dad," she signed.

"It's beautiful, Michele."

Her dimple appeared with a wide grin.

"Ask Peg if she wants a cookie," Carolyn signed.

"Mom is learning to sign with me, "Michele signed and beamed a smile. "Sometimes Dad tries and my little brother knows some words with his hands." She giggled. "When his fingers look funny, I help him."

"I'm happy for all of you," I signed.

When I left that day, mother and daughter held hands while waving good-bye.

A year later, my program with Michelle's parents was finished. I planned my last visit to say good-bye when Michel was home at Thanksgiving.

"Mom and Dad's signing lessons with me are all done," I signed. "I won't be coming anymore…"

"But you're my friend. Who will help Mother and Dad?" Michel signed. Tears welled in her beautiful brown eyes.

"You can be their teacher now."

Carolyn signed. "Yes, we need your help."

Michele smiled and hugged her mother.

"I'll come by to see you when you are home at Christmastime."

"I love you," she signed.

"I love you too," I signed.

AS I opened the door to leave, snowflakes drifted, leaving a dusting of snow over the stately pine trees groups in their front yard. I thanked Michelle again for the plate of Christmas cookies she and her mother made for me and her dimple deepened. I looked back at their room dressed for the Christmas season. This year, I thought, Carolyn and her husband opened the best present of all. Speech.

A loving bridge to their daughter's silent world.

This lovely story by Margaret Hevel is excerpted with permission from Chicken Soup for the Nurses Soul: Second Dose.