Honoring Leah Coleman

Today, a family who has a deaf child contacted me through Facebook to ask my opinion on cochlear implants and American Sign Language. This is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence and I LOVE it when parents reach out to me.

I first refer them to my blog post “Cochlear Implants: My Two Cents

and THEN, I point them to this video, where I share how SO  MUCH can change because of “One Deaf Child.” But, before you click… I invite you to read on.

TODAY, December 8, 2015 is Leah Jane Coleman’s 19th Birthday.

Leah lives in Rochester, NY where she is attending her first year of college. She received two scholarships and was awarded her high school’s Sterling Scholar Award in Theater.

Yes, I am proud to be her mother, but not just for the reasons you might assume. While you’ve likely watched Leah grow up in your very own living room, and she’s very likely shared American Sign Language with you and yours… my proudest moment happened as she and I drove to her college campus for the very first time.

We arrived in Rochester after a red-eye flight from Salt Lake City, Utah where we had just wrapped the filming Signing Time Sentences hours earlier.

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We are tired. We rent a car and start toward a day of sorting out dorms, roommates, classes and the like.

We turn right and for the first time we face campus, (ahem) now “home.” Leah looking at the red, brick buildings ahead of us says,

“Mom. You know how some people believe in fate?   …I make my own fate.”

I love you Leah Coleman. I cannot wait to see what you choose to do with this incredible, beautiful, brilliant life that you live. You SHINE.

You have already made a profound difference in the lives of countless families. You’ve helped countless “Alex’s” communicate with their “Leah’s.” You’ve helped eliminate so much fear that the “Rachel’s” and “Aaron’s” have had as they enter this new world of deafness.

  • Make A Difference (You can check that one off your list…)

or you can keep doing that. It’s entirely up to you.

You make your own fate.

Love, Mom aka The Signing Time Lady

LOVE

 

Leah’s Thankful Too

A few years ago, both Leah and Lucy began asking for cell phones. (SIGH) Lucy rattled off the names of the other first graders who already had their own cell phones. Aaron and I tried not to roll our eyes. We said we would talk about it.

(Parental Huddle) What would be the best excuse? Did we even really need an excuse? Could we call and yell at the parents who had sent their 6 year-olds to school with phones? What if we said they could have phones when they could pay for phones and the monthly payment… that might put off Lucy, but not Leah. See, Leah has been working since she was four and she is not always paid in sushi.

We had the girls do the math. “Let’s say a phone costs $70,” I said. Their eyes lit up, I could see the wheels turning… Lucy was thinking, “I could earn $70!” Leah was thinking, “I already have $70!!”

AND” I quickly interrupted their wide-eyed musings, “it costs $20 every month. What does a phone cost for the first year?” Leah started adding quickly and her smile faded just as quickly. Lucy was adding slowly, quietly, “20 + 20 = 40, 40 + 20 = 60…”

“THREE HUNDRED and TEN DOLLARS!” Leah hollered incredulously. She weighed it out, was it worth it?

Lucy’s eyes got wide with disappointment.

“Yep” I answered, “$310 and that is just for the first year. You usually have to sign a two year contract.”

Leah was thinking again, I could see it. “Well” she said, “how old were you guys when you got your first phones?” Leah was sure she had us, with pure and simple logic. Aaron and I smiled at each other. “Daddy and I had a cell phone that we shared. I was 24 and daddy was 26.” The girls looked at us like we were lying.

From out of nowhere Aaron stated matter-of-factly, “you can have cell phones when you are in the 7th grade.” I agreed. It sounded good. Besides, that was YEARS away. It seemed pretty logical, I mean I was in Jr. High once… for three long, tedious, painful years and let me tell you, I stood in line for hours and hours waiting for the pay phone when my mom forgot to pick me up day… after day… after day. (Nothing against my mom. There were 9 kids to keep track of, I mean really! Can you blame her? I don’t.)

And so it was said and so it was written: The Coleman girls will get cell phones in the 7th grade…

Ummm… that was the plan. Then, a few weeks ago I kept finding myself saying, “MAN! I wish I could get ahold of Leah before she gets home from school!” or “I forgot to leave Leah a note again!” I received a couple of adorable, slightly concerned voice messages from Leah as she arrived home, finding the house empty.

“Hi mom. This is Leah. You are not home and I don’t know what is happening! (CLICK)”

With Leah, there is no, “Call me back.” Remember, Leah is deaf. I can’t leave her a voice message and KNOW that she will be able to decipher it. Sometimes we talk on the phone. It’s limited. I enunciate and speak loudly… all of the things you are not supposed to do in-person with someone who is deaf. I repeat the important things in hopes she catches them. Have you ever played The Telephone Game? Yeah, it’s like that, but there are only the two of us playing and we’re using real telephones.
I wonder if she understands less than she lets on.

Leah doesn’t enjoy talking on the phone. If a friend calls, she doesn’t take the call. I relay the info to her through sign. It makes me think of something she told me once. I had asked her if she preferred English or ASL. She said, “I am really good at both, but with ASL there is never any question what someone is saying to me.”

When we decreed: “7th grade!” Leah never asked again. As I have said before, she is very literal. Lucy, on the other hand has continued to let us know which other 3rd graders now have phones and how she should join the ranks of phone-toting 8 year-olds. Lucy is insistent, and not just about this, she is insistent about a lot of things. (I really don’t know where she gets it!)

The week before Leah’s 12th birthday, (even though she is only in 6th grade) the rule was broken. (GASP!!!)

Aaron and I went to the AT&T store. We found a great phone with a full QWERTY keyboard, which is also rated for assistive listening devices. We bought it for Leah. Aaron added Leah’s favorite songs to the Mp3 player. He added her family and friend’s phone numbers to the contacts.

The day of Leah’s birthday we told family members to call her new phone and leave “Happy birthday!” messages, or send texts to the phone. That way when she opened it, it would be full of greetings and love.

Aaron and I knew that this gift was not on Leah’s radar. We turned off the ringer and wrapped it in a jewelry box, deep in tissue paper.

We had both of her grandmas over for dinner, as well as my sister Rebecca and her family. After dinner Leah opened her presents. She later told me, that when she unwrapped the black jewelry box, she had the thought, “I like jewelry!”

And then… she unfolded the tissue to see a phone, with a picture of her mom and dad signing “I LOVE YOU” on the screen.

Leah stared into the box and started yelling, “NO! NO! NO YOU… DIDN’T!!!! YOU GOT ME A PHONE? THIS IS… MY PHONE? YOU GOT ME A PHONE! A PHONE!” – and then she BURST into tears. Through her sobbing she continued, “I have a phone! You got me a phone! You really got me a phone?”

An Innocent Box

An Innocent Box

"Hmm, I like Jewelry!"

Hmm, I like Jewelry!

"NO NO YOU DIDN'T!"

NO NO YOU DIDN'T!

A Brave Smile

A Brave Smile

Everyone at the table had tears in their eyes. Leah’s surprise and gratitude touched us all.

A few days after her birthday Aaron and I noticed this card lying on the kitchen table.

Front of Card

Front of Card

Middle of Card

Middle of Card

Back of Card

Back of Card

Sure, many kids are thrilled when they get their first phone, but in my daughter I saw something different. Leah’s world is a world of communication where she is often left uncertain, misunderstood or misunderstanding. Once again, through her hands, Leah is now connected and sure.

(To date, Leah has only answered 1 phone call on her cell phone, though she has sent hundreds and hundreds of texts.)

Being Thankful… for Leah

Being Thankful for Leah

Thanksgiving is over…
and Leah’s birthday is today. She’s 12! (I KNOW, just go back and watch My First Signs and she will continue to live on as a 4 year-old and we can all just pretend that 12 isn’t happening!!)

The night before Thanksgiving, I was thinking about the things I am thankful for and then I thought that I could probably surprise myself by actually diving into my journals and reading how it really was. I have 10 journals, so I opened one up to see what year and what thoughts it held… The first one I opened was from 6 years ago. The entry written about the Christmas after we shot Signing Time 2 and 3.

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December 29, 2002 – Salt Lake City, UT

Christmas was hard. We had nothing and could give little, even to our own kids. Aaron and I didn’t give each other gifts. Two days before Christmas my dad gave us $200. The next day my sister Julie gave us $200. We were then able to get Leah a bike and a Gameboy. She also got all of her Signing Time wardrobe clothes and the “Leah Doll” – it was pretty humbling.
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After I read that I called Aaron in. I read it to him and we both sat there stunned. We had to think, really hard to even remember that Christmas. The following morning, Thanksgiving Day, I pulled my dad and my sister Julie aside and thanked them for giving us Christmas 6 years ago. Neither one of them vividly remembered helping us out. Just as I didn’t vividly remember the Christmas we really needed help. If it hadn’t been in my journal, would their generosity and our need have been entirely forgotten?

Then I couldn’t stop. Each night I have poured over my journals. It’s been painful. It’s been funny. It’s been an interesting journey, to say the least. My journals are stuffed with concert tickets, notes, postcards, scribbles from Leah, photos, and songs I have written.

I dug deeper in time, reading the details of Leah’s birth and then found this:

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December 10, 1996 – Salt Lake City, UT

… Aaron said, “It’s a GIRL!!!”
I started crying, “My baby, my baby girl!”
Aaron kissed me and said, “It’s Leah.”
Leah Jane Coleman. Leah who was called Anna before her birth. Leah who’d kick my ribs, (and sometimes my heart, it seemed) Leah who pushed against my guitar during all of those shows. Leah who gave me the feeling while singing “In Silence.”

Little Leah Jane whose daddy would run his fingers over my belly and say “Here’s your spider, here comes your spider!” Leah whose heels and knees I could slide around, whose little leg would press out hard as I massaged it. Leah with hiccups- Leah at 1:00AM and 10:30AM playtime.

Leah, who I threw up every day for. Leah who I prayed about and worried about. Leah, who made me what I’ve wanted to be most for years – a mom. My little girl’s mommy.

Leah with me while I hiked in Boulder, Utah. Leah in Bryce Canyon. Leah hiking the Zion’s Narrows. She’s my little girl. My sweet little girl now and for always. I love my daughter more than she may ever know.

It’s 3:20AM and I’m crying my eyes out. You’re here asleep next to me and your dad’s on the other side of you and that’s where we will always be, right beside you.

I love you so much. I love you more than you may ever know, maybe when you have a girl of your own. Goodnight my sweet girl, pleasant dreams. I’m so glad you are here with us. I love you, I love you – I LOVE YOU!”

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I went forward in my journal, looking a year after Leah’s birth to find little bits and pieces. Confused entries about Leah’s hearing. Just a line here and there. Things like:

“We don’t know if she can hear us.”
“She has fluid in her ears, but her pediatrician thinks it’s more than that…”
“We can’t get in for the ABR test for 6 more weeks!”
“Still no answer on Janey’s ears.”

No answers in my journal for months and then I found this:

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March 31, 1998 Tuesday
Salt Lake City, UT

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so alone in my whole life. I feel like there is no one I can talk to because no one would understand why I’m crying. Actually I think they would misunderstand. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or for Janey. I don’t want to call our families and tell them what “PK” the audiologist told us today. Half of my tears are simply tears of relief. The wondering and questions are done. A tearful release of 2 1/2 months- fears, hopes, anticipation and prayers.

I know it’s not helpful but I can only blame myself, and it’s eating me up inside. I think that in his heart Aaron blames me too. In only these past few months people have asked if Jane’s hearing loss is because of my band. And playing and practicing while I was pregnant. People ask. Or they say “boy that must be devastating with you being a musician and music meaning so much.” Do they really think I give a S#*! about my music in comparison to my DAUGHTER?

I’d never sing or play another note if it mattered. Music is nothing to me. Leah Jane is my world. She is wonderful. She is beautiful. I feel like the biggest obstacle in her way is me. I don’t know sign language. I came so close to learning it, so many times. But I didn’t. I feel bewildered. But I feel thankful that we caught it as early as we did….

….We may never know what caused it, or if she as born with it. “Deaf” is such an uncomfortable word for me to use. In a way I am glad that I didn’t know when she was born. Maybe I would’ve treated her differently. Maybe I’d be totally over protective. Everyone would’ve treated her a little different. But now I have had 16 months of Janey. And treating her like a regular kid (except that she is more awesome than most kids)…

…I know of 3 people who are deaf. I’ve had conversations with only one of them ever. I hardly know what the term means. I remember the deaf kids in Jr. High and High school. I sure could not tell you any of their names. They all stayed together with their interpreter and I never gave them a second thought.

Severe – Moderate – Mild mean so little all your life. But today, I was told my daughter has a severe hearing loss. And I still barely grasp the concept. But the word SEVERE is clanging around in my brain. SEVERE? What does that mean? And what does deaf mean? Is there a scale to measure it on? If hearing aids help you are you still deaf?

She can sign a few words now. MOMMY, SLEEP, EAT, SHOES, THANK YOU, BIRD. When I teach a sign she always “rolls it and rolls it and sticks it with a B”

She has the most beautiful lips and puckers for kisses. She also puckers when I tell her “NO” because it looks like kisses. How can I keep a straight face when she does that?
When she gets frustrated she hits her head with her hands, or on the floor.

When she’s nursing, she looks up at me then squeezes both eyes shut tight and then pops them open. She nurses, and the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile. Maybe she’s never heard me say the WORDS I love you. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. She probably knows it more than most kids who hear it every day.
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A few weeks ago Leah and I were talking. She asked me how I felt when I found out she was deaf. I told her, “I was distraught. I cried. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was scared.”

Leah smiled at me and said, “That’s so funny mom. You thought it was terrible and now you know it’s not.”

She’s right.