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More Than Words

Excerpted from The Sign for Drowning by Rachel Stolzman MFA ’96

Anna’s sister, Megan, drowned when they were children, and Anna taught herself sign language to cope with the emotional destruction of her family. Now she’s the head of a school for deaf children, but her life is still shadowed by that day on the beach long ago … until she adopts Adrea, a deaf foster child.

I had been counseled by a social worker before considering adoption; she tried to prepare me for becoming an adoptive parent, telling me that it is integrally different, at first, from having a child. She said I would be asking myself questions that a biological parent would never entertain. That I would find myself wondering, “Why her? Was this the right child?” I did not tell her that I had met Adrea and then decided to adopt, instead of the other way around. I did not tell her that there were larger questions and doubts in my mind.

One thing she said stuck with me. She warned that in the beginning an adopted child is not your child. You will love her before you will feel at ease with her. You will feel false, unwilling to find anything trying, tiring, or unpleasant about caring for her.

“You will watch yourself with her, from the outside.” She guaranteed it would be a moment of frustration, an admission of anger, in which I would discover she was mine. She swore I’d recognize the moment. She was right. I’d been sleeping poorly for about a month while waiting for Adrea to move in, then we both had insomnia, and when she finally slept, I watched, wondering at having brought her so entirely into my life. I fretted over our mutual awkwardness, remembering the unchallenged ease of our previous relationship.

One Saturday morning I was finally sleeping; although it was probably only eight in the morning, I was luxuriating in sleeping in.

At first I thought it was my anxiety waking me, as from a nightmare, an abrupt shock. But once I was awake, there was a second crash, quieter and more glassy than the first. I ran into the kitchen. Adrea was standing on the counter by the sink. The hanging rack for pots dangled from one chain; the cast iron pans that had been released had rushed straight down into the cart of glassware. The broken glass and pans were all heaped up in a pile, as though they had already been swept. Had Adrea been afraid, the moment would have been delayed. Perhaps such an accident is not frightening without the sound effects. She jumped off the counter, avoiding the mess, and scooting her way out of the kitchen, signed, “You sleep later than Mrs. Carter.”

I grabbed her arm as she headed past me, surprising us both. “What were you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m going to clean this up. Go into your room,” I signed with pointed enunciation, my face compressed. “You are not allowed to play in the kitchen by yourself. This is a rule. Do you understand?”

Adrea ran down the hall to her room. As I stooped to pick up the larger pieces, it occurred to me that I was angry with her, in dire need of my own space, desperate for solitude, and finally, that these were the feelings of a tired mother toward her trying child, her child.

A year after we’d been together, we developed a routine of going to the antique flea market on Twenty-sixth Street; it served us better than any playground. Usually, in crowds, because she cannot hear me, Adrea stays by my side. Yet somehow at the flea market, she is a boomerang. Taking off there, touching back here. I walk up and down the rows. We keep a distant eye on each other. The mother of a deaf child grows to appreciate a controlled environment.

We are well known on Sundays. There are two antique dealers who sign, and who have become like uncles. Benson is the child of deaf parents and a great storyteller. Adrea will sit cross-legged in his stall and forget all about our shopping. Benson is in his sixties. He has lived in the city his whole life. He asks Adrea, “Do you know what happened in nineteen twenty-nine?” She thinks about it a long time. He turns away, gives the history of a particular rug to a potential buyer. I watch my daughter. She believes that she knows anything if she just has enough time to remember. I love that about her. “What would possess a deaf couple to have a child the year the stock market crashed?”

Adrea frowns in misunderstanding.

“That’s the year I was born.”

Adrea smiles happily. This makes perfect sense to her; she would probably have guessed this answer. I expect her to sign the year of her birth, but she is anxious for Benson to continue with the story. She doesn’t bother with herself.

Martin is a young man with clunky hearing aids. He and Adrea spar, trading jokes, even gossip. He’s only a couple years out of the Huntington School. She catches him up on the old-timers, teachers who never change from year to year. She’s in first grade, he couldn’t be older than twenty-one. Her ties with the flea market men are stronger than mine are. They are her friends.

We have bought our rugs from Benson. We each have dressers in our bedrooms from Martin. Almost all of our furniture is from the flea market, found items, or handmade. Our square kitchen table, we painted blue-green, with flowers and turtles, stars and smiling teapots. I inscribed each side with a line from a children’s song: All I Really Need—Is A Song In My Heart—Food In My Belly—And Love In My Family.

One day while we were visiting a plant nursery a grayhaired lady spoke to Adrea about the violets. “They’re African violets. See those fuzzy leaves? You can’t get those wet. So you have to be very careful when you water them. They like to be warm, but not right in the sun.”

It took me a moment to realize this woman was talking to Adrea, who was fingering the African violet leaves. Did she know the lady was speaking to her? I came closer. Adrea’s face was down close to the plant. Touching a hairy leaf to her cheek, she was smiling. She startled when I got in front of her, and signed to me, “Aren’t these so sweet?”

I answered her, “This woman is telling you about them.” I heard the surprised ooh of the flower lady. “They like warmth, but not direct sunlight. You can’t get the leaves wet at all.” Adrea responded immediately to the frailty of the plant, taking her hands off and then gently petting the pot. “Want to get some?” I asked. She nodded furiously. So this would be her flower, her fox, her little prince.

At home she looked up the plant in our botanical book. African violet. Nothing appealed more to Adrea than the perfection of that beautiful name for these warm, caterpillar-like plants. She drew a picture in her thick sketch pad. African violets with pink and purple flowers, jade green leaves with gray fuzz on them. The picture is propped against the window in the living room, the three plants lined up on the sill in front of it. Adrea uses my mother’s old creamer with cracked blue and white enamel, fills it with water, and lifts the tender warm leaves, tipping water beneath them.

At the Hearing Center, the kids work in pairs or do individual writing projects at small tables. When the teacher wants their attention, she stomps her foot on the floor. Twelve heads turn up. To end playtime we flick the lights. Sometimes the hearing teachers smile at each other because of thunder cracking, or fire truck sirens, or cursing from the street that occurs unbeknownst to the children.

At the Bronx Zoo, they were drawn like magnets to the incessant roaring of the lion. Twelve deaf children, turning their heads looking for something, they did not know what. They were lured away from the soundless seals by the reverberation of a roar. The roar of a lion that is nowhere to be seen, a roar of such magnitude is to be felt.

Adrea tells me, “I know when a dog is barking at me. It sounds like this”; she throws her hands up in my face, flings all ten fingers before my eyes. She can put her hands on the big speakers at home and dance to the rhythm. In my office, she’ll touch the radio to see if it’s on. At home, we’ve connected lights that flash when our doorbell rings. On the telephones there are light bulbs that announce a call. I try to imagine when Adrea is older, her being home alone, seeing those lights blink.

Every night Adrea takes an hour-long bath, using almost an entire bar of glycerin soap. The green and yellow bars become wild fish, flipping out of her hands to escape. Loitering in the hall outside the bathroom, pretending to give her privacy, I manage to be afraid even of this innocence.

Saint-Exupéry met the little prince in the Sahara when his plane had to make an emergency landing. He needed to fix his engine before his water supply ran out. After a few days he awoke to a child’s voice asking, “If you please, draw me a sheep.”

Adrea loves riddles. “The stars are beautiful because of a flower that cannot be seen.”

I’ve read her this line dozens of times, signed its incomprehensible phrasing to her over and over. Adrea also loves to sign this riddle. Her fingers flicking the stars, the wave over her face of BEAUTIFUL, her small hand growing a flower out of her other hand, and finally, the “cannot be seen.” It has some unknown meaning for her. Yet another thing I can’t understand about my own daughter.

I curled up in bed, my face to the window. I looked at my hands. They care for Adrea. They speak to Adrea. These hands have touched Megan. These same hands. Saint-Exupéry is tender toward the little prince because of his fragility and because he is loyal to a flower. I didn’t want to feel that way about Adrea, loving her for her vulnerability or her loyalty. And in reality she is tough and durable. She is not returning to some small planet. We live together on the same island.

I felt Adrea climb up on the bed behind me, her silent warmth against my back. I turned over. Her face was flushed. I petted her forehead. “Hot puppy girl,” I signed, “I think you have a fever.”

She yawned in my face, staring at the book cover, her pupils dilated. She pressed against my shoulder, closing her eyes. I smoothed back her hair, imagining her time spent at the hospital while they found a foster placement for her at Mrs. Carter’s. When I shifted in bed, she opened her eyes again heavily.

I got up and signed, “I’m going to squeeze some fresh orange juice.”

She stood up on the bed, wanting to be held. Carrying her down the hall, I stopped in the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet, and signed THERMOMETER. She took it off the glass shelf. I shifted her to my back and trotted down the hall to the kitchen. Bringing down a fever I could do.

Story illustration: girl touching plant

Illustration by Beth Adams