Jumping Higher

By Lydia Denworth | September 4, 2009 | The New York Times | Topics: Hearing and Sound, Parenting and Family

We had three light-saber-wielding, tree-climbing, rough-and-tumble boys. Everywhere we looked, potential danger lurked. Instinctively, though, we knew we didn’t want Alex to live in a bubble—and I suppose we knew it would be futile to try.

For years, my youngest son, Alex, who is now six, has watched one of his brothers do gymnastics. Jumping on the trampoline and swinging from the high bar looked like a lot of fun. Every time he was in the gym, Alex asked if he could do gymnastics, too.

Every time, I had to say “no.” Alex is hard of hearing. He has a cochlear implant in his right ear and a hearing aid in his left. He also has a condition called Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct, or EVA, which means a bump on the head could cause him to lose what hearing remains in his left ear. Gymnastics didn’t seem like a good idea.

But this summer, I surprised myself. I let Alex go to gymnastics camp. When I asked myself the question of how far we could and should go to protect Alex, I found that my answer—my line between fun and danger—had shifted.

Three and a half years ago, after Alex’s hearing loss had been diagnosed, a CT scan revealed that the underlying cause was both a congenital deformity of the inner ears and EVA. “No Contact Sports,” I wrote in my notes when the doctor called with the news. “No soccer, football, karate, scuba diving, etc.”

I hung up and turned to see Alex, then two, and his brothers leaping off the couch and crashing to the floor. Scuba diving was not going to be the problem.

We had three light-saber-wielding, tree-climbing, rough-and-tumble boys. Everywhere we looked, potential danger lurked. Instinctively, though, we knew we didn’t want Alex to live in a bubble—and I suppose we knew it would be futile to try.

We decided on a policy of relative normalcy. Yes to bike helmets, no to helmets on the playground (which anxious school administrators suggested). Extra admonitions about why the boys needed to be careful, but no extra rules about couch jumping (which was already forbidden anyway.) We would avoid contact sports, but would otherwise let Alex be a boy.

At the time, Alex had moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears. Three months later, he’d lost all the hearing in his right ear. Presumably, he had bumped his head somehow, though we couldn’t pinpoint the moment and it certainly was nothing dramatic. He got the cochlear implant a few months before he turned three.

Three years passed. The implant was a tremendous success, and the remaining hearing helped. Within the first year, Alex made up the delay in his language skills. Within two years, he was in preschool—on grade level—at the same school his brothers attended.

Every time he smacked into a table or came too close to a flying toy, my heart skipped a beat. We would frantically do our listening checks, but everything stayed wonderfully, marvelously the same. Eventually, my anxiety level lessened. And because he was still little, it didn’t matter much that he wasn’t on a soccer team or turning cartwheels.

Then last winter, our worst fears came true. Alex fell off the ladder to a sleeping loft we have in a cabin in the country. That night, everything was fine except the spectacular bruise developing across the bridge of his nose. The next morning, I was outside with the dog when I heard him screaming for me from the front door. “I can’t talk! I can’t talk!” He was crying hysterically, panic-stricken. It took me a few minutes to realize that he couldn’t hear himself talk. There must have been internal swelling in the night, and his hearing was gone.

Underlying the sadness and fear I felt was this echoing thought: why did I ever build a sleeping loft? How could I have added to the danger in any way? Wasn’t that the one part I could control?

Except of course, I couldn’t. We have bunk beds and monkey bars and bikes and bumpy sidewalks and unruly kids in our lives. I built the loft because it would be fun for them; and it is. Alex loves it more than anyone; he has claimed a corner with a sleeping bag and pile of books and toys, and he’s the only one who actually sleeps there.

Even as the accident unfolded, I knew my focus needed to be on what to do next. This time, we were fortunate. I got him to the doctor immediately. Although it doesn’t always work, a course of steroids returned Alex’s hearing to where it had been before he fell.

By spring, Alex was asking about sports again. Still shaken by his fall, I pushed for swimming and tennis. He did those things, but he wanted more. Summer came. I called the gymnastics camp my middle son would attend and explained the situation. They had other kinds of sports camps. Which was most appropriate?

“Gymnastics,” the director said without hesitation. At Alex’s age level and with the coaches spotting every activity, he thought it was a far better choice than running around a gym where Alex was more likely to careen into another child or get hit with a ball.

So we let him go. One day, my husband and I went to watch. Alex was swinging gleefully in long arcs on a rope high off the ground. He was joyous, he was free; it was everything good about childhood. “Let go,” yelled the coach. Alex flung himself into the air with abandon and dropped into the pit below. When he scrambled out, his grin was infectious.

Watching him, I knew I have to let him swing; and, sometimes, I have to let him fall. If I can’t be there to catch him, it’s good to have four feet of foam in my place.