A big feature of Asa’s toddlerhood was sign language. She had a scope of her trachea at age one, with zero sign of improvement, and as such we didn’t know when she would be able to talk. In order for Asa to use her voice there would have to be enough air bypassing her tracheostomy tube and going through her vocal cords to make sound. So far we didn’t have that. We could hear her breathing through the tracheotomy tube, coughing and sneezing, and the way her breathing changed when she cried, but no voice. I wanted to be sure Asa’s language development would be on par with her age, and of course we wanted her to be able to communicate, so we got some books on baby sign language from the library and started working on our vocabulary.
Pretty quickly we ran out of baby signs, and found that most standard signs were too complicated for Asa to make, so we started inventing. In our case it didn’t matter that the language we were inventing was wholly idiosyncratic. We figured it was all temporary. Asa could hear and this was a stop-gap measure to use until she could speak in the usual way. By the time she between a year and a half Asa knew about 300 signs. We were pretty proud of this and didn’t mind bragging to friends about it once in awhile. But much more important for us was that it was a constant window into Asa’s mind, and she had a lot to say.
Once we went into a doctor’s office and there was music playing in the waiting area. I had scarcely noticed the music, but Asa did the sign for “piano”. It actually was piano music. Another time, at the hospital, she noticed the color grey on the floor and did the sign “grey”. Before long she could put together simple sentences. She might say “Park. Yesterday. Story.” This meant she wanted to hear the story of what happened at the park yesterday. Just because she was there didn’t mean she didn’t want to the story, in fact, Asa’s favorite stories were about things that had happened and she was trying to make sense of. The sign for “story” became useful in meaning “explain, please”. Once we were crossing the street in our neighborhood and an elderly Chinese neighbor looked at Asa and exclaimed, “Aaaaaaahhhhhh!” This was a cultural way of saying, very kindly, “oh, what a lovely child!” that Asa had not heard before. After we passed she looked at me and signed “Story!”
We also learned that certain jokes were possible with signs that weren’t possible just with regular words. Once Chris and Asa and I went for a walk and when we got to the corner, after leaving our house, we realized we forgot the suction machine. Chris turned back to get it and Asa and I waited on the corner. She was having a snack and was not paying attention when Chris left, so a minute or two later she noticed and signed “Where’s Daddy?” The sign for Daddy involved an open hand and touching thumb to forehead two times, but because of her snack Asa signed “Where’s crackers on my head?” Which we all thought was hilarious and retold the story of many times, and for years to come.
Chris’ dad is called “Pop Pop” by all his ten grandchildren. Once when he came to visit from Philadelphia we made a tape recording of him reading stories to Asa, that she listened to countless times after he left for home. One day Chris told me Asa signed “Asa wants Pop Pop talking, please thank you Daddy” which meant she wanted to hear the tape. We also got extra use out of the sign for Pop Pop because we used it for “papas” the Spanish for potato. By then I was also talking to Asa in Spanish. Asa made up a few of her own uses for signs. We had a sign for “beach” and she decided to use it also for the food “beets”, and we had a sign for “chicken” and she decided to use it to also mean “kitchen”.
Asa was two and a half by the time she could actually start talking, but once she started she was talking almost overnight. Her voice came out very squeaky and with a lot of effort, but it was talking. After that we used sign language once in awhile to communicate when we had to be quiet, or through the car window and like moments, but pretty soon we dropped it entirely. Life zooms forward and suddenly signing was a tool we didn’t need.
Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU
Jenny Jaeckel is author of Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU, the graphic novel coming out this October. Visit the Spot 12 website for more information or visit the publisher’s website: www.raincloudpress.com. You can preorder the book directly from the distributor here: IPG (in English or Spanish).
Or go to your favorite online retailer to preorder.