Redefining Adventure

By Lydia Denworth | July 29, 2011 | The New York Times | Topics: Hearing and Sound, Parenting and Family

When my husband told me he wanted to move from New York to Hong Kong, my first thought was: Really??!! My second thought was: What about Alex?

The youngest of our three sons, Alex is almost entirely deaf. He uses a cochlear implant and a hearing aid. At the time, Alex was finishing first grade. He had come a very long way. His language, reading, and general learning—all of which hold extra challenges for a child with hearing loss—were close to age appropriate. We had a carefully cultivated support network: a school we loved, a top-notch doctor, a teacher of the deaf, a speech therapist, and three—yes, three—audiologists (one for the implant, one for the hearing aid, one from the Board of Education to service his school).

Could we take him halfway around the world and start all over again?

Did his success depend on his particular situation or did it mean he was ready to move beyond it?

Furthermore, what weight did his hearing loss carry relative to all the other considerations that determine life decisions: your career versus my career, the cost of this versus the savings from that, the happiness of this kid versus the education of that kid, change versus status quo, thirst for adventure versus desire for rootedness? It was an equation for which the answer changed every time depending on how you valued each variable.

Alex’s needs counted for a lot, in my estimation. After he was diagnosed, I had stopped working for several years in order to focus on him. Already, my husband and I had quietly retired some visions of where and how we might live because of Alex. I would make all those decisions the same way again.

On the other hand, was I being more defensive and protective than necessary? Was I reacting out of weariness, clinging to the familiar? Yes, I was tired from the effort of getting to this point, and I felt safe in the security blanket I had woven for Alex. But he really was doing awfully well, and deaf children don’t just live in New York City. I opened the door to a small thought: it might not be impossible. Even such a tentative idea was freeing.

After some heavy deliberation, my husband and I sat our boys down and told them we were considering a move. The older two were shocked and teary, but Alex could barely contain himself. With his eyes even wider than usual and a grin on his face, he cried: “We’re moving to China! You’re the best parents ever!”

We were floored.

The other boys immediately protested. “He’s only six. He doesn’t understand.”

Alex was undaunted: “I want to see the Great Wall. I want to learn Mandarin, more than just Ni Hao. I’ll even try some Chinese food!”

His older brothers had a point. Alex couldn’t possibly grasp what it really meant to uproot our family. Neither could he think through how much more difficult it might be for him in particular to find a school, therapists, and a community that was as warm and nurturing of a child with a disability as the one we had in Brooklyn.

On the other hand, Alex inspired me. I felt he was telling me something critical: “Let me go!” Hadn’t the whole point of the implant been to broaden his opportunities and let him exist in as wide a world as possible?

So I got on a plane to investigate what life in Hong Kong would look like. It wasn’t all encouraging. I left one school appointment in tears. There was no such thing as a teacher of the deaf. One speech therapist I interviewed had such a heavy Chinese accent it was hard even for me to understand her. We would have to buy some expensive, new equipment as the frequencies were different. And who would repair a broken hearing aid?

That last question is no small matter. The technology available for hearing loss today is astounding, but it requires every parent to become a troubleshooting guru. In the space of one two-year period, for example, Alex’s processor (the external piece of his implant) was repaired fifteen times.

But we moved anyway. My husband’s career and the chance for larger life experiences won out. We won’t stay in Hong Kong forever, and Alex’s hearing is one reason, but not the only one. In fact, as we come to the end of our first year, ironically, Alex is the least of my worries. Unlike the rest of us, Alex has suffered no bouts of homesickness, and middle school for my oldest has proved a bigger challenge than hearing loss.

Of course there have been glitches, technological and otherwise, (his hearing aid is in for repair as I write). Overall though, Alex has adjusted beautifully. He was accepted at a good school. He made friends quickly. He is managing to learn some Chinese. We found a speech therapist. He got to see the Great Wall.

Perhaps most significantly, our move has given both him and me new confidence in his abilities. We will factor that in to the next round of life decisions. And I take comfort in knowing that Alex is honing some critical skills: resilience, self-advocacy, and the ability to find an audiologist anywhere in the world.