Editors’ note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the author’s family.
My first words came early. By 9 months old, I was having full conversations and showing off my vocabulary to beaming grandmothers. But I was the first child, the one who had my mother worried all the time. Mothers of firstborns find microscopic germs on every surface with a keener eye than Howard Hughes. No injury is too small to notice. Mothers pore over the literature and brace themselves when their firstborns learn to navigate stairs. There is no worry left for the second.
Photo by Flickr user boltronGabriel was born almost four years after me and into an entirely different world. Fifteen months after the day he was born, he could say only “Maaah, Maaah.” He couldn’t say “Daddy” at all. My mother, who was used to my swift progress in language, studied him carefully playing there on the green shag carpet with his Fisher-Price parking garage and gas station. It had been my Fisher-Price parking garage and gas station. I liked playing with the bell on it, and watching the plastic cars shoot off the ramp and onto the paisley kitchen linoleum. Gabriel liked sucking off the decals and hiding the remnants in that jungle of carpet.
After the cat at the end of Mary Tyler Moore had meowed my call for bedtime, and I had scuffled off in my footed pajamas on a yellow brick road made of Little Golden Books, I could hear my mom in the living room voicing her worry to my stepfather.
“He’s fine! He’s perfect. Elena, he’ll talk in his own time.”
“But Margaret was already talking by this time, and he can’t say ‘Daddy’ to you.”
“He says it in his own way.”
“I’m taking him to see the pediatrician.”
“He’s fine, Elena.”
She didn’t wait to visit the pediatrician. My mom sat Gabriel in his high chair in the middle of the kitchen and stared at him. He was a blotchy-skinned baby, with rolls of fat on each arm and leg. He was a master investigator. Sheets of saliva covered any and everything in his path. Toys that had sat pristine in my bedroom for more than three years now lay in ruins.
My mother sent three separate pans to the floor with a deliberate crash. I rushed to the doorway of the kitchen, terrified at what could only be my mother’s rash anger towards the cat, the stepfather or me. To whom would this wrath be directed? Gabriel sat in the high chair, slobbering on a Weeble Wobble. A pot pointed in every direction at the foot of his chair. I had come running from the bedroom; he hadn’t flinched.
My brother is my earliest memory. It’s not a memory from a photograph, like my aunt Rita spending hours laboring over the icing of my first birthday cake only to have me knock it over my own highchair. I don’t remember that; the family does the remembering for me. I also opened all the presents at my father’s wedding to his first wife. I don’t recall doing that, either. My grandmother tries to get me to remember not being able to sleep unless she laid me on her chest so I could follow her breathing into sleep.
“Ya know, Theresa, you never want to remember the good things, you only want to remember the bad things,” my grandmother says.
Maybe she’s right. I do remember the earthquake in which I fell out of my bunk bed and wound up face-down on my bedroom floor. I recall the neighbor hurling a bottle through that apartment’s sliding glass balcony door. I remember when my mother accidentally almost cut my ear off because she was arguing with my godmother about doing dishes and trying to give me a haircut at the same time.
And I remember Gabriel’s birth.
My aunt and I sat in the back of the orange Volkswagen van in the hospital parking lot awaiting my brother’s arrival into the world, while my grandmother in went to pick up my mother. In the weeks prior, my mother had bought me a book on how babies were made that had Colorform-looking cutouts of bees and flowers, dogs jumping each other, and two humans under blankets. I was never one for inference, so the point of the book went right over my head. But I brought the book with me, hoping it would illuminate the situation.
According to the book, fooling around as a dog or a chicken would cause one of the dogs to have puppies and the hens to lay eggs. Humans should never get under blankets with each other, unless they wanted a baby. I developed a fear of blankets.
My aunt socked my arm and I looked up across the hospital parking lot to see my mother holding something in a big blue blanket and my grandmother leading her by the elbow. My grandmother was weighed down with flowers and diaper bags as she attempted to open the door to the van. My aunt slid open the side door of the van while I crawled on top of the camper sink to get the perfect view. I wanted to know what had kept my mother away from me for two days and nights. His face looked like salami and red with short black hairs standing straight up in every direction on his head. He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t cute either.
“This is your new brother. You’re a sister now,” my grandmother said, smiling. My mother seemed thin and spacy. She was quiet and looked only at this boy lying in her arms. I moved in for a better view. Straddling the camper sink, I hung over the open door. Gabriel looked up at me with beady eyes and screamed right into my ear. I jumped back startled, and like a frightened cat, I retreated quickly into the safety of the back seat, while my aunt cooed over the baby and offered to help.
“Do something with your baby,” I said. And my mother sang softly to him and rocked him gently in the back seat until he fell asleep on her chest. “If he doesn’t quiet down, you should take him back,” I announced to them, and Gabriel seemed to turn his head towards me to cry towards me once more.
This is my first memory. And later when doctors speculated on whether he could hear or not at birth, I offered my testimony.
The stepfather wouldn’t go with her when she took him to the audiologist, so Aunt Rita and I went instead. I’d been in plenty of pediatrician offices, but this one was different. There was a giant poster of an ear that looked more like a scary mushroom than an ear. I could see all these chambers and pathways and recoiled in horror at how intricate and foreign an ear could be. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have ears if they had all of that inside them. I thought of my mom giving me a bath and telling me to tilt my head so she could clean my ears otherwise potatoes would grow out of them. There weren’t many toys in the audiologist’s office, which set me on edge. It was cold and my mother offered me a blanket but I was still scared of them. All I could do was stare at ears to pass the time and hope mine looked nothing like the squashed maze illustrations on the walls.
They let all of us go into the testing room with Gabriel. The audiologist sat me on a table and asked my mom about how my hearing was while putting one of those lighted ear stethoscopes in my ear.
“Ow! I thought we were here for Gabriel!” I yelled.
“We are,” my mother answered.
“Now, we are going to do fun tests, would you like to help?” the audiologist asked.
The audiologist went to a steel cupboard and pulled out toys. A red ball for Gabriel. Toy cymbals and bongo drum for me. They set him down on his pale blue security blanket on the floor. They said I could play as loud as I wanted as long as I sat behind my brother.
I smashed the cymbals, I drummed as hard as I could on the drums. Gabriel sat in front of me on his blanket, staring at his outstretched baby hand that held his new red ball.
“I’m tired,” I said, abandoning my new toys for a seat on my aunt’s lap. I’d done by drum/cymbal solo for all of 10 minutes. The audiologist picked up my cymbals and within six inches of Gabriel’s head, he clanged them together far louder than I had been able to. I covered my ears but Gabriel sat there slobbering on his ball.
“We are going to set up the headphones,” instructed the audiologist. Gabriel was giggling and showing me the red ball. He waved it in front of me; I put my hand out for it, but he pulled it back close to him. The audiologist came up behind him and put headphones on Gabriel that made him look like an astronaut or space monkey. He tried to take them off and he caught sight of the audiologist as he was backing away. Our mom got down on the floor with him and sat cross-legged with him in her lap. He squirmed and tried to pull off the headphones but she held them fast to his head.
He was calm, playing once again with the red ball.
“Take it up another decibel. Another. Another. What are we at? Give it another.” Like a magician, the audiologist swooped around his office with big hand gestures, rattling off notes that his assistant wrote down on a clipboard. Gabriel rolled the ball between his feet and looked up at our mother every now and again. She smiled bravely.
“Take it up again,” said the audiologist.
Gabriel dropped the ball. All baby cooing ceased. He looked up at our mother and pushed out of her lap and held fast to the headphones.
“He’s responding,” The audiologist observed.
Gabriel’s eyes circled around his head as if he were trying to see the headphones.
“He is testing moderate to severe,” said the audiologist. My mother started asking questions. Was he like this from birth? Was it from the bad flu last season? It wasn’t hereditary, was it?
“He’ll be fine, with proper therapy. Who knows? You might be able to mainstream him in time for first grade if you start now.”
The assistant gave my mother a list of people she’d need to call about mold fittings for hearing aids and about eventual speech therapy.
“Should I take the headphones off of him now?” inquired the assistant as she swiftly pulled them off his head.
Gabriel let out a scream louder than the one on the first day I met him. I could feel the terror in his voice vibrating the walls. His hands reached high over his head till I thought he might fall backwards from losing balance. Where were those sounds? The assistant stuck the headphones in a drawer and left the room. My aunt told me to pick up the red ball and give it to Gabriel, so I did. He picked it up and held it to his ear and then to the other ear. He threw it down hard and shriveled up his face with tears. He crawled to the drawer and negotiated against it to stand. Somewhere in the cabinet, his new life lay hidden.
The audiologist rolled the red ball back to Gabriel and smiled at him, trying to coax him back to the middle of the room. Gabriel missed the ball and I ran to it and placed it in his tiny hands.
He stared at it suspiciously, not trying to put it in his mouth. Instead he slammed it over and over on the floor impatiently — frantically waiting to hear it bounce.