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By Megan Nix
In June, we had our second daughter. Anna is a happy baby—calm and large-eyed, and she giggles when you give her rapid-fire kisses on the cheek. She is also deaf. Due to a random virus I happened to catch while pregnant, her central nervous system has been battling infection since her second trimester in utero. She has some gross motor delays we are hesitant to name. She has daily home visits and multiple types of therapy to stave off the symptoms of cerebral palsy. Looking at her, you would never know she’s sick. But because I do know and because our life has changed so unexpectedly, I have been hanging onto my reading habits with clenched fingers during this half-year of learning and surrender and a kind of heart-stretching love.
Actually, since Anna was born, I’ve been rereading more than ever. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because going to the bookstore with two young kids terrifies me, so I’ve just been visiting my bookshelf. Or maybe rereading is easier than starting another new something besides a baby with special needs. Or maybe, since music has become painful for me to listen to, rereading is assuring me that the world is not so different than it ever was. Reading something I already know makes me feel a little more stable. Literature itself, really, has such stability and power; it affords us the use of our senses even when we don’t currently have them or permanently won’t ever.
And only now do I notice the obvious: that reading is not restricted by deafness. Anna loves to look at books, following giraffes and letters from one side of her vision to the other. Zaley, my older daughter, reads to her using her hands. Through a free program in Colorado, a deaf adult is coming to our house each week to teach our daughters sign language using the books we are already reading.
During my read-again binge this summer, I reread Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and big, glorious chunks of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Books I love for their sensory richness and for their side-by-side portrayals of disability and beauty. While the baby woke in the night and I turned the light on to read and nurse and our marriage hung in that scary place between new baby and filing divorce papers (I kid. Kind of), I told Luke, “I know I’m going to be tired tomorrow, but just let me read. I need this right now.”
I was looking for a bunch of randomness (not unlike a virus) collected into something that mattered. I was looking for quiet, intelligent substance taken as an antidote to insurance phone calls. I was looking for people in real life who got through hard stuff. And, selfishly, I was looking for me—the old me dovetailing with the new me, as evidenced by annotations in the margins that I still believe to be true. The old lessons enlightening the new struggles. The continuum of self—a self that improves with time spent and books read—whom we often forget exists when we are trapped inside a busy month at work, an injury, a child’s illness.
I realized that when I see my own handwriting in the margins of a book I love, I am able to find the compassion for myself I may lack in my own life. Re-reading reminds me that I—that we all—are not just us in the moment, as everyone is always promoting us to be. We are accumulative. And as an accumulation of other people’s wisdom, I feel like I can back up my irrational and weak moments by using the things I’ve underlined as ammunition.
Ammunition, as in, reasons. For things as simple as:
Why have I been a bitch to my husband today? In Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, a book I re-read right after I finished it, she explains, “By plain virtue of the fact that [my husband] existed and he loved me, he was at fault.”
Why does my daughter have this illness? In Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street (which I reread, in parts, almost every time I teach), she writes, “I think diseases have no eyes. They pick with a dizzy finger anyone, just anyone.”
Why should I believe that Anna will have as full a life as any of us? Ackerman writes, “Helen Keller’s remaining senses were so finely attuned that when she put her hands on the radio to enjoy music, she could tell the difference between the cornets and the strings…She wrote at length about the whelm of life’s aromas, tastes, touches, feelings, which she explored with the voluptuousness of a courtesan. She was more robustly alive than many.”
At night in our house, we end the day with reading. If we let her, Zaley would read for an hour past her bedtime. Instead, she gets two books—my least favorite of limitations. She, like me, chooses the ones she knows by heart—Down By the Bay, Make Way for Ducklings, Are You My Mother. The ones I also know by heart from childhood.
I’m not sure the origins of this phrase—to know by heart—but I find it so warm, so fitting. Through reacquainting ourselves over and over with words, they become part of our biology. The lines we never forget beat out a looping, internal rhythm. A song you can’t always hear. A mantra. A pulse. In Zaley’s bed, I read with one girl on either side of me, feeling the warmth of their arms, the anti-viral of stories filling each of our bodies.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Megan Nix teaches in the Lighthouse Young Writers Program. She’s working on a collection of essays and has been blogging about her family’s experience at www.megannix.com.