On this "Multitude Monday" I give thanks to God for the "simple" gift of being understood in basic, everyday conversation with those around me.
My granddaughter is deaf. Which wouldn't be as huge a hinderance to our communication with each other if she had been born into our family. She would likely have had otherwise good health and a lively intelligence as do our three grandsons - an inheritance that comes "naturally" to children born to dedicated, nurturing parents with the circumstances, resources and will to provide superior nutrition for body, mind and spirit. Her deafness wouldn't be as huge a hinderance to our communication if she had entered our family as an infant, because our daughter-in-law and son would have taught her symbol and language from the knowledge of her deafness.
But instead, she entered our family as a child alone, an "unaccompanied minor" from the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta) India. Some women who lived with their children on the streets knew our son and our daughter-in-law as people who cared about them and their children's well-being, people who would care about the child wandering the streets alone, and who would - because they were Americans and of course wealthy beyond imagination - find the little girl and do something.
Our son and his wife did search for the girl and find her. She was obviously deaf and obviously alone. She climbed onto my daughter-in-law's lap and fell asleep - a harbinger of other troubles which neither they nor we had knowledge to see. They took her to some trusted others where they knew she would be safe and eventually oversaw her placement into one, then another orphanage, while they talked and prayed and decided to seek adoption to bring her into their family. If the adoption went through she would be their second child. Their first child, a delightful, well-loved son, who would bring the hope and reality of laughter into their lives after the darkness of Kolkata, was already in the womb, growing in darkness.
This "unaccompanied minor" came into our lives 14 months after the birth of the healthy and charming firstborn son, and with her came much chaos and anger and heartbreak. Within six months we all became too familiar with the hope-strangling enormity of attempting to parent a child with reactive attachment disorder (RAD). Terms like "childhood trauma", "deprivation", and "safety" filled our conversations and this child's new parents, who had already spent an inheritance to bring her into their family, faced mounting financial drain and emotional bankruptcy as they faced one problem after another, rising to the surface like bubbles in carbonated water that is being continually poured out - a seemingly unending litany of problems which forced major adjustments to our concept of "normal family life".
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to nurture and train and help heal this emotionally traumatized child was the challenge her deafness added to the mix. We often did not know, could not tell, through much of the next three years of intensive home and professional intervention and therapy, whether her refusal to follow simple instructions, communicated through ASL, pictures, repeated demonstrations and acting out, emerged as a symptom of her psychological emotional disorder or because of her complete poverty of symbolic language.
The RAD specialists available to our son and his wife through appointment, book, and internet spoke only of experience with hearing children, with children who possessed language, children who could at least name everyday objects and understand simple instructions, even if they could not voice with words the great wounding within them, and many of the suggested therapeutic strategies required that the child have ability to hear and understand common language.
This child's adoptive mother and father had invested much time, the year before her arrival, in college level ASL (American sign language) classes and attending local ASL conversation and story-telling events, holding to a thread of a hope that money and instruction they had sent for the purpose of sign language instruction for the girl resulted in lessons. That had not happened, and though this new daughter started public school in a program for the deaf within two weeks of her arrival, the task of teaching her rudimentary language largely fell to our daughter-in-law and son, both consummate and excellent teachers, and for a season of home-schooling, necessary to address the most pressing aspects of her reactive attachment disorder, they were her only teachers.
Little by little, as I listened to my son and daughter-in-law share what they learned from their classes, specialists and books about language development in the deaf person, and as I watched, the unending frustration of getting her to understand ANYTHING we attempted to communicate to her, her utter BANKRUPTCY OF SYMBOL gradually seeped into my comprehension. Her poverty in this regard stunned me then and continues to stun me whenever I ponder it.
I have lived my entire life filled with the richness of words and language and symbol. I love to read and write. I had had multiple arguments with my husband and at least one conference with our son's teacher over the proper use of words. Language and the ability to communicate has been so much a birthright in my thinking, that even working alongside and attending classes and worship events with deaf people in our area did not prepare me for my granddaughter's poverty, because the people I saw engaged in lively hand-conversation with one another, their communication punctuated with loud grunts and stage-quality facial expression, obviously understood one another, and the ASL I saw as songs and sermons were translated for the deaf often impressed me with the richness of the visual symbol.
But this "unaccompanied minor" who changed everything when she entered our lives was poor beyond measure in the acquisition of language. She had come so late in her development to this family to whom language and symbol mattered so much and her emotional wounding stole the remaining "developmentally fruitful" years before puberty.
So on this Monday morning, like every school day of this new year, I am picking my granddaughter up to take her to school. No longer a literal "unaccompanied minor" she is still a stranger and an alien when we attempt to communicate - I with my six weeks of "ASL for seniors" instruction interrupted by three years of "signing silence" between us ( to encourage the establishment of proper bonding of this child with her new parents) and she with her hasty signing embellished with much grunting, pointing and facial expressions but very little grasp of words that are not symbols of things that can be pointed to or actions that can be demonstrated, very little grasp of sentence structure or tense or story telling order.
Last year, I picked her up from school each afternoon, and required her to sit in the back seat - a therapy guideline prescribed at that time for her to feel safe and protected. She usually grunted and gestured with a stream of "signs" tossed into the mix...newly learned words tossed indiscriminately into a list of words that meant something to her....her standard signing of past endlessly repeated events "me-go-fly, dog-my-baby" tossed in with the name-signs of her teacher, therapist, or classmate with no regard for coherency of subject or timeframe to help me understand. I, newly released from the linguistic prison that the constraints of therapeutic process had imposed upon me as grandparent, attempted to revive the tiny remnant of ASL in my brain and understand her.
This year my granddaughter sits in the front seat, her vocabulary has steadily increased, and she feels she has things, sentences, stories! to tell me. But my proficiency in ASL has not increased enough to keep pace with what she is trying to communicate to me, and several ASL "mis-speaks" and mis-understandings are making it obvious to me that our inability to effectively communicate is now my responsibility as much, if not more than hers, and frustrating to her as well as me.
This morning she repeatedly pointed to the outside "bus entrance" to the doors next to her special education unit, circling her fist next to her jaw in a sign I did not recognize. I signed "No. Before, I tell you we not go that way (pointing), we go that way (pointing to the front entrance - the much longer, prescribed entrance route)". Frustrated, she repeated her signs with more vehemence and volume and threw in a "clothes" and a "my" sign among others I did not recognize. I thought she was telling me that her clothes were over there, and when I signed "your clothes there?" twice to confirm that guess, she signed "yes", gave me a puzzled look, then resigned, followed me to the entrance.
We snaked our way through crowded hallways to her classroom door where I asked one of the aides if my granddaughter had left some of her clothes there. When I asked if she knew any sign language she brought the new interpreter over to me. During my parking lot interchange with my granddaughter I'd forgotten the upcoming personnel change. "Are you Sue?" I asked, pulling from my usually inaccurate name files of casual mentions and newly introduced people.
"Susan", she answered.
"How do you sign your name?"
She answered with fist circling at her jaw....and recognition slowly dawned within me of my granddaughter's "S" hand circling at her jaw was meant to signify a female whose name began with "S". My granddaughter had either spotted the interpreter entering the building or had anticipated seeing her, and her "clothes-my" sign had perhaps referred to the clothes of the interpreter or was an ASL sign or partial sign for "interpreter" (I struggle to retain for later repetition and translation a fast stream of signs I do not understand).
So, in my halting sign, with gestures and facial expressions to fill in for my lack, I tell my granddaughter I understand what she was trying to tell me.
Her entire body smiles.
On this Multitude Monday, I give thanks to God for the gift of being understood.