This one's for Julie Andrews and Wanda!
The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.
- The Sound of Music
“Daddy, what you do?” I asked upon entering the TV room dragging my bear along by the neck. My father sat transfixed to the stack of black boxes along the opposite wall. Not pleased at the prospect of being ignored, I prodded him in the arm and repeated my question.
Breaking his trance and sighing, he turned his head to face me. “I’m listening to music. M-U-S-I-C.” he added, finger spelling the foreign word to match my upturned eyebrows. Not understanding the word ‘music’, I lingered on the arm rest while he contemplated how best to describe the concept of music to a three years old daughter who was deaf.
Sighing, he rested his head in his hands while his attention drew back to the mysterious black boxes. How does one describe the phenomenon of music to a deaf person? It’s like trying to define the color red to someone who hasn’t seen in their life, let alone understand the concept of color. To define music, one would have to define a whole series of foreign vocabulary such as tone, pitch, rhythm, and the most abstract word of all - sound.
The black boxes. Somewhere in my mind a fuzzy strip of memory recalled toddling up to the boxes, being drawn to it by the lights. Such fascinating light shows happened when the buttons were pushed. Then a slap on the hands and a curse of intelligible words. Since then I’d learned to stay away from the forbidden territory.
A few days later, at the neighbors’, I found myself aloft as Wanda picked me up and placed me on the largest wooden black box. It had a cloth-covered disk jutting from one side with tiny holes. Not understanding what was going on and why I was back in the forbidden territory, albeit in someone else’s house, I glanced up to watch my neighbor fiddle around with the buttons and lights until the right combination was found.
Suddenly, the surface beneath me gave away to a series of pulsating vibrations. DUNNN!dundundunDUNNN! I clutched the sides of the box and hung onto my bear. Frightened, I looked up at Wanda for an answer to this phenomenon. She called her daughter into the room and between the two of them, they tried to explain in a series of halting signs and much frequent use of finger spelling, that I was feeling ‘music’. While Wanda explained the concept, Nikki stood there with her hands flowing with phrases being signed every now and then. Gradually I got used to the idea that I wasn’t going to be harmed and loosened my grip on the box. Somehow those pulsating throbs shared their chest-jarring effect of the soul-assaulting music it played. Then the vibrations died out as my fingertips rested on the surface, searching for the pulsating beat.
“Again?” Wanda asked while leaning over to push the button. Nodding, I grinned as I spread out on top of the box ensuring every inch was covered by my body. My face was plastered to the surface, awaiting the thumping sensation. DUNNN! DundundunDUNNN!
From my position on the box, I turned my head to watch Nikki’s hands move in sync to the thumping as she attempted to interpret the lyrics. “In sleep he sang to me…. In dreams he came… that voice which calls to me… “ yet at that time I didn’t relate the tactile thumping to the concept of music as I laid there feeling the melody to The Phantom of the Opera.
The next song played itself - which I would find out upon being told - “Music of the Night.” While Wanda painstakingly created a visual representation of the sound with her hands, her daughter signed out the lyrics - finger spelling the more difficult words and fitting them in between signs she knew. Together, they managed to translate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece in a stick-and-glue fashion.
Wanda let her hands drift up into the universal gesture for “stop” or “wait” followed by a gentle touching of air.
“Night unfurls its splendor…”
She brought her hands to the side of her head as she tilted it down in a sleeping pose followed by a gradual waking-up. Hands opened in air.
“Grasp it.. Sense it…”
A power-fist in the air followed by a heart-touch.
“…Tremulous and tender…”
Wanda shivered in lack of chills. Then she hugged herself.
“…turn your face away…”
Wanda brought her hands up in the “halt” gesture and turned her head sideways, closing her eyes as if she was giving me the “talk-to-the-hand” gesture.
“…from the garish light of day…”
She shielded her eyes with a hand as if there was a glare coming in from the twilight outside.
“Turn your thoughts away…”
A finger poised on the forehead in the univeral gesture of ‘think’. Wanda closed her eyes and thunk a bit more.
“… from cold, unfeeling light…”
The shiver again - and a hand brushing the chest in a feel-expressy way.
“…and listen to the music of the night…’
Here, Wand held her hand up to her ear and pretended to listen before ending with a flourish of conductor-worthy gestures. She touched her heart and pretended to go to sleep.
My parents learned about the cochlear implant - a device that would enable even the most profoundly deaf person to hear - back in 1987. At that time, the device was only approved for postlingually deaf children and adults. So they elected to wait until the FDA approved the device for prelingually deaf children. My turn came in 1991 when I was five years old.
When the Deaf community learned of my parents’ decisions to go ahead with the implant - it was the classic display of robbing ones’ deaf identity and the need to hearize deaf children. They were told that they were being bad parents for doing so.
Nevertheless, they weathered the controversy and once insurance approved us, we drove the three hours south to the Carle Clinic in Champaign-Urbana, IL to have the operation done.
Back, just before school ended for the summer, I recall sitting in my preschool class at the end of the day. After the usual departing announcements, the teacher turned to me. In a systematized flurry of signs and voice, she announced to the class “Kaitlyn is going to the hospital this summer to have a surgery for a cochlear implant.” She went on to describe the finer functions by comparing them to Rose’s hearing aids. From my seat on the edge of the semicircle, I saw that my classmates’ interest perked up at the prospect of hearing sound. Within my head, thoughts swam around. Memories of people stooping down to eye-level and asking if I were excited at hearing sounds - and went on to list things one could hear. But for me - I was confused - sound? What is sound anyways? I shrugged it off when the teacher repeated what others had said it first.
I barely remember being hooked up to the computer via a series of wires, awaiting my first sound. It probably was a series of beeps and warbles, not much different from the remappings I received in later years. Nor do I remember how my mother had wept when my eyes lit up at the first sound I heard. Rather, I remembered the sound that truly touched me - the sound of music.
That moment only occurred a few hours after the initial hook-up I found myself at my neighbor’s house. Stretching out, I awakened from my nap on the floor. Throwing the blanket off, I lifted my head from my bear’s stomach and looked around to contemplate my surroundings. I reached over for the tub of strawberry Jell-O with a spoon resting nearby and sat up. In front of me the TV flashed picture after picture as someone behind me flipped through the channels. Stretching from a relaxing nap I looked up to find Wanda staring down at me with a wide grin painted on her face. She informed me through a series of somewhat halting signs with several gestures thrown in for good measure that my parents had gone back to work.
“You want see a movie?” She asked as she knelt next to the glass case containing several black boxes with the familiar light and button facades. I nodded. My hand raised to my head where the foreign object magnetized to the side of my head just behind the ear. Looking down to my chest I found the pouch-harness with the mini computer nestled inside with its red light constantly blinking in tune to the world turning around me. My neighbor disappeared into the laundry room and emerged with a towering stack of VHS tapes and scattered them on the ground. One by one she securitized the contents of the back while providing a verbal commentary about each choice.
Talking to her own audience of invisible friends (or the cat slethly lurking in the corner), she weeded out movies until she was left with a small pile. Inspecting the pile, she selected a film and said that I would enjoy, aptly named The Sound of Music. (ironically, her second choice, in case it didn’t have closed-captioning, was Mary Poppins. Either way, it would be Julie Andrews who had the honor of bestowing on me the gift of music.)
“A music story?”
She nodded and I shrugged, making myself comfortable among the pillows and bolsters taken off the couch. She popped the tape in and fast-forwarded to the feature presentation. The opening scenes appeared on the screen and I realized that sound was coming out of the speakers - those black boxes with the cloth disks that eluded me a few years ago. Crawling over, I placed my hands on the speakers. Glancing over at Wanda for an explanation of the strange sound filling my head - the audiologist did call it ‘sound’ - but this sound was like no other. It wasn’t harsh and jarring like the airplanes and automobiles that I heard on the way back from the hospital, nor incessantly annoying like the turn signals or the comforting level of speech of people I heard talking overhead.
“Music. M-U-S-I-C. You are hearing music.” Wanda smiled gently as she wringed her hands, watching my reaction. Suddenly, as the aerial views of the snow-capped mountains and little nestling villages of Austria panned by, I realized that the vibrations coming out of the speakers wasn’t just there to scare people, but that music came out as well. Those black boxes on the wall back home didn’t just provide a brilliant light show when buttons were pushed.
Assuming music came out as well when a button was pushed, I crawled over to inspect Wanda’s stereo system. She showed me the dial for the volume which she explained, “made it louder or softer.” Not understanding the concept of adjusting sound, I twisted the dial and the noise intensified, blasting me backwards. Wanda grinned and showed me that I turned the opposite way, the blasting went down to crooning levels.
Mesmerized, I turned my attention back to the film playing on the screen, realizing that movies were no longer just moving pictures but had audio as well.
Bum bum Baum - Bah bumbumbumbum Baum - Bah Baum Baum BAUM BAUUUUM BAAAAH!
Fascinating as it was, I drew breath as Maria came in view and her mouth opened to talk or so as I assumed. Instead, her voiced matched the music floating out of the speakers. “The HILLS are a-LIVE… with the SOUND of MU-sic… with SONGS they have SUNG… for a THOU-SAND YEARS…”
Taking a moment to read the captions, I noticed that the text-blocks on the bottom had little signs on the ends of each row. Pointing them out, I asked Wanda why some text-blocks had signs and some did not.
“Sometimes music can be sung… and that’s called ‘singing’. Maria is singing the song… uh… talking with the music in a flowy way.” She went on to explain that those signs were eighth notes and whisked her daughter’s music book and showed me an example of sheet music with those signs. The closed captions on TV actually differed those singing lines from spoken lines, I noted as the sisters came in to state that they couldn’t find Maria anywhere. I moved over to the speakers to rest my hand on it and felt short bursts of air indicating someone was talking rather than singing.
So that’s what music was… I sat there open mouthed watching Julie Andrews belt her lungs out on that mountainside and reading the captions, I understood every note she was singing. Something I was denied for five years - I had access to it now! Somehow the captions and sound rolled as one, filling the picture and ending my era of silent movies. Aptly, the middle verse of the song presented the euphoria I was feeling at the moment:
“…my heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lakes to the trees / my heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies from a church on a breeze/
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way/
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray.”
My heart (and ears) had been blessed with the sound of music - and I bade my neighbor to rewind the tape and pay the song again, and again. After seven consecutive replays of the hill scene, she informed me that there were yet MORE songs to come and fast-forwarded to “Do-Re-Mi” to teach me EXACTLY what I was hearing. (“After all, Julie said it best - it’s best to start at the beginning with ‘Do-re-mi’!”) By the end of that number, I was singing along (albeit in sign language, matching Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do with deer-sunshine-me-far-sew-belting note-tea-deer and switching back and forth between finger spelling the choral notes and using the igneous signs they represented.)
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wanda sitting there cross-legged with her eyes brimming with tears.
Through Maria and the children, I learned what music sounded like and it paved my path to other great musicals such as Annie, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and of course, RENT. A visit to an old standby allowed me to hear the grandeur of the organ from The Phantom of the Opera and no longer did I have to rely on the earthquakes to create a relationship with the man in the mask. A new world had opened up and I was eager to explore the possibilities that music had to offer. After all, if my parents hadn’t gone off to see The Phantom of the Opera and left me with the neighbor who diligently played the casette tapes for me. If her daughter hadn’t attempted to interpret Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lyrics into crude gestures while her mother tried to play conductor and waved her hands around to imitate the music being played. If they hadn’t put me up on the base speakers and scared me half to death with the earthquakes it produced, I might not have fallen in love with the feel (and later the sound of) the organ music and demanded more…
/end of exercpt.
There, my introduction to the world of musical theater ; ) Hope you enjoyed the tidbit from my upcoming memoirs!