Her disability made her different. It also made her stronger.
Martha cradled her newborn daughter in the crook of her elbow. She kissed the tip of her tiny nose, watching how it turned pink under her touch.
“We’ll be okay, won’t we, baby?” she asked her daughter. She only answered with a soft coo and a gurgling noise. Martha raised her head and surveyed the empty hospital room, the chair that sat vacant in the corner and the forms she was supposed to fill out beside her on the bedside table.
Father’s name and contact information.
Terry Winslow. Contact info? Martha recited his phone number over and over again in her head like a mantra. She would never write it down.
The hospital provided three lines for three different names. Martha’s finger traced each one; no names came to mind.
She turned back to her daughter; though it was a bit old-fashioned, Martha had decided to call her Beverly, and the name was in permanent ink on the forms below. It was the only thing she had written down.
Martha traced her fingers around her daughter’s ears and hoped, fleetingly, that Beverly wouldn’t be entirely like her mother.
Terry’s voice was crackly over the cheap speakers of Martha’s flip phone. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t a touchscreen, but it was loud and hearing aid compatible, so Martha liked having it around.
“What’d you name her?” Terry asked, genuinely sounding excited. “I was thinking we could name her Emory, after my grandmother.”
“Your grandmother?” Martha repeated it to make sure she’d heard him right.
“My grand-mother,” he enunciated.
“Does that mean you’re coming back? That you’re going to help me?”
Terry paused for a long time. Either Martha was missing something or she’d asked the wrong question. Beverly stirred in the crook of her other arm.
“That’s not…you know I can’t.”
Martha sighed. “You always say that.”
“Yeah, well, I have a job. I have responsibilities.”
Beverly is your responsibility, Martha wanted to yell over the phone, she’s your biggest responsibility.
Deep down, though, Martha knew that Beverly would be okay without a father. She was better than Terry. Martha: single, jobless, and deaf, was still better than Terry: preoccupied, selfish, and mean.
Martha hung up on Terry and buried the phone deep within the sheets of the hospital cot. They would be okay.
Weeks after Bev’s birth, Martha sat in the break room of the same hospital she’d given birth in, her hands resting on her abdomen out of habit. The woman had only asked her a few questions before dropping her off here to go and grab her supervisor. The woman had asked her three things before Martha had stupidly—so stupidly—said, “I’m sorry?”
The woman—Mrs. Field, the woman her professor had spoken to over the phone, the one who was supposed to be giving her a tour of the hospital before her guaranteed internship, the one who’d said Martha had earned the spot with her exemplary grades and her dedication to her night classes even despite the break she’d had to take to give birth to her daughter—would most likely not like the fact that she was hard of hearing.
“Weren’t you listening? I said this is the break room,” Mrs. Fields had answered bitterly.
“I’m sorry, you’ll just have to look at me when you speak. I’m hard of hearing, so I read lips.” Martha had smiled, assuming it would be no big deal. What was her minor disability compared to her years of schooling? She was the perfect candidate for the internship.
“Um. Wait in here for a second,” Mrs. Field had said, ushering her into the crowded kitchen area. “I’ll need a moment to talk with my supervisor.”
She had been there for almost fifteen minutes, watching people come in and out with cold breakfast cereal and sandwich bags. She had made conversation with three different nurses; small talk was one of Martha’s strong suits. Finally, Mrs. Field entered and sat herself adjacent to Martha at the plastic table.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t let you participate in the internship.”
Martha leaned forward, wanting to say “I’m sorry?” again but she knew that she had heard her right.
“Is there something--”
“You’re just not what we expected. I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Martha sat dumbfounded, as if she’d been slapped.
“But I earned this internship.”
Mrs. Field stood, guilty, and gestured to the door. “I’m going to have to escort you out.”
A million things ran through Martha’s head as she walked through the doors and down the halls of the hospital, away from her dream. This isn’t fair. I could sue. This is discrimination. I earned this.
Nothing, though, was louder than her heart. It pounded, Beverly. Beverly. Beverly.
Nothing was louder than the hurt.
One Wednesday when Beverly was four and Martha was done working a shift at the Plasma Lab on 8th street, she picked her daughter up at her neighbor’s apartment and the two went to get ice cream sundaes at McDonald’s. It had become a tradition.
It had begun to snow in downtown Denver, as the beginning of Christmas reared its ugly, electric-lit head. Martha watched the fat flakes gather outside through the big window and reached across the ketchup-stained table to grab her toddler’s hand. It was sticky with vanilla ice cream, the rest of which was slathered all over her face.
“Beverly,” she smiled, clutching the tiny hand harder, “Merry Christmas.”
“Mommy, it’s not here yet. Santa’s not ready,” the little girl answered, but Martha didn’t hear her. Instead, still clutching her daughter’s hand, she stared out the window and watched the flakes gather together on the ground.
It was one of those Wednesdays when Martha met Leon. His hair was long and wild and he bared all of his teeth each time he saw that Martha was drawing blood that day. Not in a sinister way, but in the way you knew someone was happy, too happy, to be there.
“My name is Leon,” he said when Martha approached, without any invocation.
“Okay,” she said, smiled, and then stuck a needle in his arm.
“Goddamn it, that hurts!” He flinched in the chair, so much so that Martha had to call someone over to hold his arm down.
Martha found his vein. “What are you doing donating blood if it hurts so bad?”
Leon just laughed nervously, gritting his teeth and trying to keep still under the weight of the giant nurse in blue scrubs who was using both hairy-knuckled hands to pin him to the chair. Even then, he was too happy to be there.
Martha occasionally wondered, when Beverly was a little older, just how different her daughter’s life was compared to her friends.
It wasn’t just the fact that Terry had been out of the picture for ten years. His younger wife had insisted he have no contact with his ex-girlfriend and their illegitimate child together. Martha only missed him every now and then, when Beverly reached a milestone or on lonely Christmases together.
What it was like to live with a single deaf mother? It wasn’t as though Beverly would take care of Martha—she was only twelve at this point, after all—but there was a sense Martha got that Beverly was used to watching over her; hovering close in case something needed fixing or helping with.
Like when the phone would ring. Martha wouldn’t admit that there was anxiety there, but she worried all the time how long she would struggle until finally telling the person on the other side, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to slow down, I’m hard of hearing.” Usually though, if her daughter was home, Martha would hear Beverly clamber down the staircase as soon as Martha grabbed the phone from the receiver and Bev would stand by her side, mouthing whatever words she could hear so that Martha could read her lips.
There was the closed captioning, too. Beverly had a friend over one weekend and while Martha prepared snacks in the kitchen, she heard the girl say, “Can you get rid of those text bar things? They take up, like, half the screen.” Martha didn’t even know how to turn them off anymore.
There was the bigger stuff, like how Martha would just instinctively look to her daughter when she thought she might have misunderstood something. At the doctor’s one afternoon, she turned to Beverly, who was sitting in the corner chair while her doctor stood confused beside her open shirt.
“Breast exam, mom. She wants you to turn towards her.”
When Leon finally moved into their apartment, he would try to help, but he wasn’t quite the same. Martha loved him, but he spaced out during important phone calls and could only give Martha a few words at a time.
“Uh, um, I’m sorry, babe…Appointment….orange….month…”
“Forget it!” Martha would slam the phone back down into the receiver. She’d call them back when Bev was home from school.
Leon at least liked the closed captioning. On their first movie night together, Bev and Martha had looked to each other apprehensively to see if their new roommate would bristle at the change in aesthetic on the TV screen. The beginning credits rolled, the music swelled, and Martha’s gaze went to her boyfriend instead of the first shot. Bev held her breath.
They went the entire movie without Leon saying a word. When they asked him what he’d thought of the closed captioning afterwards, he was dumbfounded.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, “There were words on the screen that whole time?”
He hadn’t even noticed them.
When Martha found out she was a candidate for Cochlear Implants, she thought the doctor had said nuclear implants, and she thought about how insane that would be, and impossible, and completely improbable. She thought of mushroom clouds in her ears.
Then she thought—woah.
It was major surgery. It was major money (but luckily the hospital she’d just started working for provided her with a generous medical package). She’d have stitches, and they’d have to shave part of her head, so a big patch of her golden hair would be razored off the left side. Beverly assured her that the half-shaved look was actually “in” now, thanks to someone named “Ashanti,” and Leon told her that scars were badass, especially one on her head.
Martha had lunch with a woman whose sole purpose was reassuring people who were too afraid to get implants; a middle-aged brunette who spoke in half-sign language since she hadn’t had any speech therapy growing up. Martha found it hard to understand her, despite how similar they were, and she thought about being deaf and how, her whole life, she’d assumed it was the same for everyone. After everything she’d been through, she never assumed that someone else could have it worse.
Not worse, she assured herself, trying to absorb the signage, different.
There was a whole spiel—how the implants would change her life, how the surgery isn’t as scary as you think it is, how it’s like going from black and white to color. Barb—that was the woman’s true-to-life name, honestly—seemed to sense that Martha wasn’t entirely convinced by clichés.
“Fine,” Barb said, “I’ve thought about skydiving but I’ve been too afraid. I’ll do it if you get the surgery.”
Martha imagined Barb’s loose cheeks being blown back by an intense wind as she fell 10,000 feet from a plane with a stranger strapped to her back. She thought about the parachute yanking her back and her hair being whipped around with the velocity, sticking straight up for days.
“You got a deal, Barb.” Martha took a big bite of her Cobb salad and smiled through the egg.
Martha held Leon’s hand, rubbing her finger across the golden dice ring they’d bought at the gift shop last month. He’d made her a promise, too. If she did this, he wouldn’t force her to have a big wedding. He’d take her to Vegas, and they’d elope like she’d always wanted to do.
Two weeks ago, she’d gone under the knife. She remembered how the doctors had wheeled her into the operating room with Beverly and Leon on either side of the rolling bed, only able to follow her so far. Their faces drifted away as the doctors administered the anesthesia and she counted back from ten, nine, eight, siss, fours…
Now, they were turning it on. Her left ear was first, and the right ear would be an operation soon-to-come. The left ear was ready to hear more, like newspaper crackling or birds waking up in the morning.
She felt like a kid on Christmas morning…or like she was in a spaceship, and Captain Kirk was at the helm, about to press the big red button that would turn on her super-hearing.
Activate, she could almost hear him say.
Then, there was everything.
On Beverly’s graduation day, Martha sat alone in the stands while Leon went to see if the man at the front of the auditorium was, in fact, selling cotton candy. She understood why he needed sugar; it had been a stressful morning for all of them, especially considering the fact that Bev had gotten the zipper of her graduation gown stuck in the lace of her dress and she couldn’t find her car keys anywhere.
Beverly hadn’t cried at all today—she wasn’t an overly emotional kid—but Martha had, mainly because Bev was her baby, and she was going to college, and she was going to do everything that Martha couldn’t. She was going forth.
Martha didn’t know if she was hallucinating with nostalgia or if Terry was, in fact, sitting two rows in front of her, but after a few minutes her curiosity couldn’t take it any longer. She leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder.
Her ex-boyfriend turned in his spot; his jaw dropped when he saw who it was. “Mar-Martha,” he stammered. “I…should have known I’d see you here.”
“Do you have another illegitimate child you’re watching graduate today?” she asked him bitterly.
“No,” he looked down at his feet, “Just Beverly.”
“I don’t know if she’ll want to see you or not.”
“I’m her dad, Martha.”
“No,” Martha said, loud enough that the other parents turned to see what was going on. “You are not.”
Martha’s gaze turned towards Leon, who was taking the rickety metal steps two at a time and who had two buckets of cotton candy in his hands.
“The guy was selling them.”
He noticed whom Martha was glaring at and, without thinking, put down the cotton candy and stuck out a hand. “Leon Miller,” he smiled at Terry, who took his hand reluctantly, “Our daughter’s graduating today.”
If Terry was a storm cloud, Leon was the sun, and the warmth filled her up from head to toe at the simple phrase. Leon affected Terry in the opposite way, and the two watched as his face contorted and shifted like he’d smelled something disgusting, and he turned back in his seat, dropping Leon’s hand. When Martha whispered who it was in Leon’s ear, he was so unnerved he didn’t touch his snack until the ceremony was over. When they called Beverly’s name, Martha started crying and Leon jumped up, yelling as loudly as he could. Terry, in front of them, remained silent, and left as soon as Beverly exited the platform.
Martha was in the waiting room picking her nails when Beverly’s husband emerged from the delivery room. His face was bright red, just like his red hair and his pin-pricked freckles. He smiled just like Leon, his entire face filling up with a toothy grin.
“It’s a girl!”
Of course it was. Martha had been having visions of little baby girls in her dreams each night; cradling them, cooing at them, watching them respond to each sound. Perfect baby girls.
When the time was right, Martha was allowed to see her granddaughter. She walked into the room and saw Beverly, sweaty and spent in the hospital bed. Her brown hair frizzed out in a halo around her head and when she looked up at her mother, she sighed with relief. My angel, Martha thought.
“Mom,” she breathed, “This is Harriet.”
Martha’s chest swelled, the kind of feeling you get when you zip down the first dip of a roller coaster. The little baby girl, who had a tuft of red hair atop her head, courtesy of her father, blinked her eyes at her grandmother.
“She’s beautiful,” Martha said, her eyes prickling with tears. “I love her.”
Beverly sent a pointed look her husband’s way, and he nodded and left the room. Martha watched him go.
“What’s going on?”
Beverly put a hand over her mother’s, her other arm still cradling the child. “I need to tell you something.”
Martha tried to keep her breath steady: in, out, in, out. She waited for Beverly’s voice to calm her beating heart.
“The doctor was just in here, and…mom, she’s deaf.”
The words were like an anvil dropping on Martha right there in the delivery room. No, was her first reaction, it absolutely can’t be.
Tears began to stream down her face. “But,” she choked between sobs, “But she’s supposed to be perfect!”
Beverly’s face was a mixture of shock and hurt. “She is,” she urged, “She is perfect to me.”
Martha turned away, leaning a hand against a counter in the room and covering her face so that her daughter didn’t see her tears. Beverly didn’t like to see Martha cry; it made her upset. Now, on a day when she was supposed to be elated with the pure joy of bringing life into the world, she was watching her mother fall apart in front of her.
“There’s nothing wrong with her,” Beverly said softly behind her mother. Martha finally opened her eyes and looked down; her tears were falling onto a document; what looked like a certificate, an ink print of Harriet’s foot and the description of her weight, length, size.
8 pounds, 12 ounces, the document read aside the messy footprint.
“We can get her an early implant,” Martha said as she spun around, “Everything will be okay.”
Beverly’s blank stare told Martha everything she needed to know: stop.
Martha, deflated, returned to Beverly’s bedside. Bev, perhaps realizing that her mother needed some mothering, grabbed her hand.
“I need you to understand that I had a wonderful childhood. I need you to understand that I wouldn’t trade our life for anything.”
Martha choked back another sob, “But it must have been hard.”
“Everyone’s life is hard,” she shrugged, “Mine was just…different. I got to watch you get everything you deserved.” Beverly gestured around at the room. “A job here. Leon. The chance to tell off Terry.”
At that, Martha laughed.
“You don’t wish you grew up without listening in on all my phone calls, or watching TV with captions, or having to translate conversations?”
Beverly gave her a cheeky glance. “If I didn’t, then it wouldn’t be a life with you."
Martha realized how silly she was being. She loved her daughter so much. She couldn’t imagine that anything could have ever trumped that.
She leaned forward, kissing the tiny nose of her granddaughter, and watched as it turned pink under her touch.
“You’ll be okay, won’t you, baby?” She asked, tracing a finger around Harriet’s ears. Harriet looked at her, blinked a few times, and smiled. She cooed.
Beverly laughed and squeezed her mom’s hand.
“She said ‘yes’.”