On Balance

Published on November 10th, 2017 | by Sarah Bernstein


Isla: A Love Study in Noise

When my middle daughter, Isla (eye-la), was a toddler we used to say it was like living with Animal from The Muppets. I’m sure a lot of parents think their toddlers are maniacs. It’s probably the best part about being that age, really, all frontal lobe impulse fun without any back brain logic or humility to drag ya down. Most of us only ever live out that delightful combination as toddlers and then, if lucky, again as college freshman when we take out big student loans just to puke in the R.A.’s shower caddy and make out on futons – often in that order. But, Isla, man, as a toddler she was extra wild and LOUD like that amp from This Is Spinal Tap: your kid might go to 10, but mine goes to 11.

When Isla was two and would eat spaghetti it wasn’t just cute sauce all over the face and noodles in the hair. When finished, she would yell, “AWW DONE!” and use her forearms to swipe everything (plate half full of sketti, silverware, glass of juice) onto the floor. I remember bowls full of cereal and milk hitting the wall and exploding. Bernie and I used to position ourselves on both sides of her because there was no stopping it, only catching it.

Our first born, Audrey, could be difficult as a toddler, too, but it was different. True to birth order theory, Audrey was always mature and Type A. She would lose her shit if, you know, her Legos weren’t fitting together properly, or her stock portfolio performed poorly that quarter, or the drycleaners couldn’t get the Merlot stain out of her favorite blazer. That kind of stuff.  And her fits were intense but frighteningly contained: I remember her little face turning red, fists tightly bawled. One expected steam and train whistles to come out of her ears like in the cartoons.

In contrast, Isla would throw wild tantrums if I wouldn’t let her keep pennies inside her cheek or take dead beetles to bed. And her howling was so LOUD that my eardrums would pop and get that hollow, achy sensation like I was at a rock concert.

At the same time, it was impossible to not appreciate all the wonderful things about her, too – her joyous spirit, innate generosity, and the comedic stylings of an early Chris Farley – but, I didn’t/don’t always know how to parent her. Audrey responds to rationale and rewards – things we can work with.

Isla doesn’t give a rip about some lame sticker chart, nor is she scared of getting in trouble, and when she wants, “A PIECE OF GUM RIGHT NOW” at the grocery store, there is no quieting or averting the demand. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gotten rough with her when she wouldn’t listen, grabbing her shoulders too hard and giving mean threats through clenched teeth. But it doesn’t do anything to stop the behavior, and she will scream, “YOU AWE HUWTING ME, MOMMY!” which makes strangers give me the stink eye. And then I’m terribly ashamed and we all get gum.

And it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention now that at nearly six years old she’s far easier. No child is more exuberant, or warm or looks better in a fake mustache. She’s the kind of kid who will without provocation offer you the best bite of her ice cream, the one with the biggest chunk of peanut butter cup. She is lovely, actually, even when naked in the kitchen and clenching Easter Eggs in between her butt cheeks and pretending to lay them as a gag. She had us rolling with that one.

But, she is still a loud talker, and I find myself speaking in low tones to influence her volume. I whisper, “What kind of yogurt do you want, darling?” “STRAWBEWWY, PWEASE,” says Isla.

When I teach my high school students about the literary concept of dramatic foil I explain it as two characters so opposite that they exaggerate each other’s differences. Five months ago I gave birth to our third daughter, Ruby, who is so quiet and easy going that it makes both older girls, but especially Isla, seem louder and impossibly big. Whereas Ruby is peace and quiet incarnate, I can now feel Isla walk into a room and break something before she actually gets through the door.

One day when I was nursing the baby and the older kids were wearing on me, I swear I said something insane like, “Why can’t everyone be more like Ruby?” And Audrey looked at me quizzically as if to ask, “You mean narcoleptic and non-verbal?” Yes, actually, I think I did mean that. Sorry.

It was about this time, when Ruby was born, that Bernie and I started to suspect Isla might have a hearing impairment. There was a strange exchange where she walked away from me mid conversation and didn’t turn around despite my calls. I tested her hearing on the sly a couple more times, and, again, her responses indicated she might not be hearing fully.

It actually made a lot of sense. The loud talking, the not listening, the cute speech impediment – we called the doctor and got her an appointment at the fancy hearing clinic and then began the work of feeling guilty for all the times we were short with her. So when I told her (three times) to please stop poking the package of raw hamburger with her finger, but she didn’t, and eventually there was a hole in the cellophane, and raw beef juice dripped all over the other food in the cart… she didn’t know!

The poor pumpkin couldn’t hear us, and we thought she was insolent! How strong and adaptive she is! We started kneeling down to talk to her and doing things like patting her hair and offering her Dum-Dum suckers just because. (Just because we feel like a-holes.)

The day of the appointment I had her in the waiting room, and we looked at the hearing aids in the display case. We noticed the smaller, brightly colored ones for kids. I can do this, I thought. I will devote myself to my hearing impaired child. She will never feel less than or limited. Not with me as her advocate! Look out Carnegie Hall, here comes my can-do deaf kid!

We went into the sound proof room and she was tested. She aced it. Her hearing is perfect.

I took her back to kindergarten, gave her a kiss goodbye, and called Bernie. I said, “Isla doesn’t have hearing loss. She is just a five year old loud talker with a speech impediment and low impulse control who prefers not to listen to us when we speak.”

I couldn’t help but think of my middle child all that day. And when school was done I picked her up, and I stared at her, really stared at her, sitting in the car. The sun was coming in on her thick chestnut hair: her big hazel eyes were sparkly gold/green diamonds in contrast to her sweet, creamy apple cheeks. Beautiful.

Although it is cliché, I can’t explain what happened except to say time stopped. I saw everything at once, her whole life happened in just one second. I watched Isla unleashing her physicality and exuberance on a lacrosse field and killing it. I heard her using her voice and boldness to speak for people who cannot. I imagined all the friends she will make belly laugh and how many people will be grateful for her wild, joyful company. I saw her at a New York gallery doing performance art in a kiddie pool of butterscotch pudding. It all happened in that rich moment; everything happened, and I saw her perfection, and the life she is certainly promised which is nothing less than vibrant and big.

I don’t really want her to be quiet. Even if my ears bleed. And everything in my house breaks.

While I have always loved Isla deeply, it was only in that minute that I fell in love with her. Like, desperately in love with my daughter. My throat got lumpy; my eyes welled with tears, and I had to pull over because I felt a sob coming up. When I did stop the car, Isla looked at me and both her sisters and said, “WAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU WIKE MEATBALLS!

I raised my hand. I raised both hands, actually.

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About the Author

Sarah Bernstein is a teacher, a sorta writer, a wanna be stand up comedian, and she runs an adventure club called Dream League in which women who join each commit to making a secret, long-held dream come true over the better part of a year. It’s terrifying; you shouldn’t look it up unless you’re some kind of renegade optimist, star-gazing badass, epic lollygagging daydreamer with a penchant for discomfort and a crush on infinite possibility.

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