My little boy is hard of hearing and at two and a half he still mostly speaks to us in baby babble. He has three or four words that he only uses occasionally.
When he came into our lives we met and we just clicked. We didn’t need words to understand each other. There was something that ran deeper. As time passed, words were expected but they didn’t come. Life expanded naturally and as more things were added we found ourselves part of the wider world. Language was needed in this world but we didn’t have it. Its absence caused distance between us and others. I also lost sight of what connected us. The answer was to come back to what we had at the start: a world without words. A calm place where we just made sense to each other. Where we danced a silent dance to a song only we could hear. It all came back together one day because we ran out of bananas. That day things went wrong in the most trivial ways, which led to it all going right in a much more profound sense.
My husband woke me up early one morning with the words “I have bad news. We have no bananas”. Bananas are like air in this house. They are the only fruit my eldest child will eat for his school’s ten o’clock fruit break. Endless attempts to broaden his fruit horizons have failed and his unbreakable loyalty to bananas lives on. With such an unwavering bond combined with parental guilt, I couldn’t propose a banana-free day. I said I’d stop at the dairy and get some on the way to school… but it seemed that the dairy was also suffering from an unthinkable lack of bananas. I contemplated drawing a picture of a banana and putting it in his bag. (I’m a monster!) Instead, I broke it to him that his love affair with the yellow fruit would have to take a one day hiatus. He made it very clear that a suburb-wide banana shortage was not a time for joking. He was undeniably right, as he often is. This was not a battle worth entering. Bananas would be happening.
I sent him to school and promised I’d show up holding a banana within the hour. As I started the car, the petrol light came on. We detoured to the petrol station, where there were also no bananas. Our entire suburb was banana-less. Then we had to go home for some breakfast: a lack of food and caffeine was threatening to derail the mission. Disorganisation really was the queen that day. I had half an hour to get to the supermarket and back to school before the fruit break. I could feel my eldest son’s banana-related stress radiating out of the school.
On the trip to get the desperation bananas, a child only slightly older than my toddler shouted at me: “Stop!” His mother looked really embarrassed and told him to speak nicely. I smiled at this awesomely confident little person, and stopped abruptly. Glee ran across his face. His mother was like me, out with a toddler and on alert for behaviour that might bring glares of disapproval. I wanted to reassure her that my mind wasn’t going there, but that’s hard to do with a stranger. I just smiled instead. In truth, I was impressed that her boy was speaking clearly enough for another adult to understand and that she was brave enough to have him walk free at the supermarket. Also, this little guy was hard not to instantly like.
The whole scene blew my mind. The little boy at the supermarket said the word “stop”. That word was the one I most needed my boy to understand. I said it sometimes, but it was only for show. For the benefit of others, not for us. He doesn’t understand any language because he can’t hear it.
My son’s hearing issues became apparent at around eighteen months, when instead of exploding into language he exploded into action. With very little to focus on in the auditory world, he diverted all his efforts into physical play. This meant that when I took him out I had to be physically ‘on’ the entire time. I couldn’t give him any explanations or instructions. I struggled to help him navigate his world. Instead, I intercepted as he destroyed things, tried to escape or darted towards danger. There was a lot of running, hovering, redirecting and distraction during those months. I used non-verbal cues to indicate what would happen next. I did things like pointing and putting my shoes on to indicate we were going out. I would clap and smile to get across praise, and I had response times that were out of this world as he ran towards danger yet again.
We moved away from regular toddler activities. I found them quite isolating. The interactions were awkward and small talk was painful. I grew tired of debating whether to explain him to strangers or not. I could see them wondering what was different about him. I usually didn’t bother explaining as the notion of issuing a disclaimer didn’t sit well. I also didn’t have the answers to all the inevitable questions, and above all I just wanted to talk about something else. On top of that, it was a bit hard listening to other parents interacting with their children. They were talking about concepts like sharing, and being friendly, or shapes, colours and animals. I hovered silently, wondering when and how we’d have those conversations, or any conversations. My child would snatch something and I’d have to silently take it off him and redirect him elsewhere, hoping he understood the concept without words. Concepts like ‘this ball is orange’ or even ‘this is a ball’ seemed impossible to navigate.
We gravitated to solo activities. It felt less exhausting, less daunting and, strangely, less isolating. We made our world a bit smaller for a while. I went to the parks that had fences in case I couldn’t run fast enough to catch him. I had friends over to our house so I could prevent him breaking other people’s things as his need for discovery turned destructive. My son and I both felt more relaxed.
For those few months, I felt like my sole job was to keep him out of danger. Nothing seemed to move forward. I kept searching for signs of who he really was behind all the action. For a way to connect. It was hard to find. Our connection felt fractured. I tried to figure out how to explain things to him so that they made sense and he felt comfortable and safe. I felt bad for him when his frustration and confusion bubbled over. I wanted to help him, but I struggled to figure out how.
I always figured this time would pass. I knew we’d get answers about his hearing, or that we’d find a way through. I knew that the person he is would start to show. In the meantime, we’d keep on using the pram at the supermarket, entertaining at home, and doing what worked for us.
As we left the supermarket I handed my toddler the bunch of bananas to hold. They were safe with him: he can’t stand the taste of them. I’ve come to like that in a person.
I got to school on time. I disrupted the whole class in order to supply a single banana. I felt a wee bit insane. They were all doing something focused but every single set of eyes was now on us. My youngest shrieked: we were at school but not picking up his big brother. We left making a huge scene. My eldest boy smiled and waved. He was oblivious to what an intrusive disaster his family had been. He’s used to our noise, and what did he care? He had his banana.
I felt bad for my toddler. Parental disorganisation and a bizarre suburb-wide banana shortage had taken over his morning. To make up for it, I stopped at the little playground near our house. Just a little something to let him burn off some steam.
I broke my own rules. This playground is not fenced. There is bush all around it. He ignored all the playground equipment and ran down the hill straight towards the bush, his soft toy dragon in one hand, and me running after trying to catch the other. A slight air of regret hovered just above my head unsure whether to take over the situation or depart. Instead, something new began at the edge of the trees. He let the leaves touch his face and then gave his dragon a turn. He ran with sticks, charging up and down the path with glee. He grabbed my hand and led me into the bush. I let spontaneity be the guide. He showed George the Dragon the big trees. His face lit up as the wind blew on him and rattled the leaves. The light danced across us and he loved it all. Our laughter blended with the noise of the birds. His muffled world became clearer as he found a silent communication that made absolute sense. He pointed to ask me to stomp on sticks. He cackled as they cracked under foot: he had two sticks now, not just one. He made me do it over and over. He discovered a tree that hung low with bare twig-like branches. It became a hairbrush. He demonstrated, and I copied. We both came away with fantastic ‘Wellington’ hair. Brushed by trees, tousled by the wind and freed from the exhausting idea of perfection or ‘normal’. Our silent, dirty, wonderful normal.
Our shoes were muddied, our energy restored. He fell over and he put two words together. As I found his language, he also found mine. His muffled world lets some things through. As I rubbed his knee “Bubba ow” left his lips. Baby words for a boy who, for now, is stuck speaking like one.
He’s having grommets put in in a few weeks. I’m told it will make a big difference to his hearing. Sounds will become crisp, clear and unmuffled. Hopefully speech will follow soon after. He will also have his inner ear tested as there may be further issues. That’s ok because we’ll find the right path for him. We also have our silent language that will always be there without the need for words. I’m so glad we found a way to make it work before it changed. Together we found our way back to our silent dance with music only we can hear. That day he took me with him to a place we both now adore spending time in. Out discovering nature, with clear communication, joy, broken sticks, dirt covered dragons and perfectly imperfect Wellington hair.