Spirit Fingers, All Anew

The day of her first birthday, my cousin Jetta — a heretofore perfect, healthy child — became profoundly deaf. According to her medical records, the hearing loss was due to either the massive seizures or the incredible spike in body temperature she endured as a result of a nasty case of spinal meningitis. Of course, there was also the issue of a major misdiagnosis early in the affliction and the refusal of medical care thrown into the mix. A (successful) lawsuit, a brief period of grieving over “who Jetta could have been,” and a family-wide crash course in basic sign language followed.

The extended family embraced Jetta’s deafness with something so much more akin to anticipation than pity. I think that, in some weird way, we thought Jetta’s handicap would bind us all in a common purpose so we would no longer each feel like the bad seed in a rag-tag band of misfits whose kin never really even tried to understand them. It was as though Jetta was our Luke Skywalker — our last hope. Those of us who lived near Jetta and her family inserted ourselves into their home and life, practically living with them so we could lap at the fountain of ASL instruction in which Jetta — a toddler by then — and her mother would willingly baptize us. We watched ASL videos. We took field trips to the grocery store and the zoo and through the house to learn signs for common items and actions. Those family members who lived too far away for such literal “hands-on” learning enrolled in sign language classes and would willingly submit to the tutellage of those of us who spent time with Jetta to learn the very basics of sign.

And then life happened. We stopped spending as much time with Jetta’s family. Signing was no longer a part of our daily lives. The last few times I’ve seen Jetta, she seems frustrated with our clumsy sign. We haven’t used sign regularly in years, and it shows. We’re still signing like the five-year-old Jetta was when she taught us.

The last twelve years have not been easy for either Jetta, her parents, or her sister. There were the constant ear infections, the stares by curious and insensitive strangers, the struggle over whether or not to have the cochlear implants, the daily shipping off of a tiny girl on a bus to the state school for the deaf.

Jetta demanded to be removed from the state school mid-way through elementary school and to enroll in the public school system. She has blossomed there, making friends galore. She was on the homecoming court last year — just like you’d expect a leggy, beautiful brunette to be in seventh grade. She makes the honor roll and kicks ass on the volleyball team.

And there’s something else. This spring, Jetta tried out for the cheerleading squad. Her father emailed me a message that said, “Navy and Jetta both made cheerleader. Don’t they know Jetta’s deaf?!?” That was pretty much my question, too. What makes it all the more amazing is that Jetta lives in one of those towns where cheerleading is a religion and most girls who cheer have been taking private lessons since they were old enough to babble. And let’s face it — pretty much all Jetta can do verbally is babble. Apparently Jetta’s going to mouth the words and go through the athletic motions.

Do you think the general public knows that the ASL sign for “applause” is pretty much identical to the “spirit fingers” move the cheerleaders learn in Bring It On? It seems rather appropriate, doesn’t it?

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