Letter from Birdland | Father writes about his son's incredible journey

Letter from Birdland | Father writes about his son's incredible journey

Spring has come to Birdland, and it finds me with my nose in a book.

"Ephphatha" (which means "to be opened." Don't be embarrassed to look up the pronunciation: I had to) by Thomas M. Caulfield details his deaf son's journey through the educational system, basketball teams and a hearing society.

The subtitle addresses the book's focus: "Growing up Profoundly Deaf and Not Dumb in the Hearing World: A Basketball Player's Transformational Journey to the Ivy League."

I was excited to read the book, not only because Caulfield is a friend, but because his son, Christopher, was our son, Ellis', classmate at the St. Joseph School for the Deaf.

For me, the book was an emotional read, since the Caulfields' journey through diagnosis and educational decisions was similar to ours.

Like the Caulfields, we banged pots to test our son's reaction, but for slightly different reasons. Christopher's mother, Jennifer, first noticed that he was not responding to sounds before his first birthday, and when they "tested" him by banging pots outside his crib, he did not wake up.

Ellis' story was a bit different. We were lucky enough that he was born at the one hospital in town that was already screening newborns for hearing loss even before state law mandated it (which gave him early intervention and hearing aids at six months).

The Caulfields banged pots to see if their suspicions were correct; we were trying to prove the screening wrong. Since Ellis is not profoundly deaf, but hard of hearing, he jumped at the racket, and then cried. Our reassurances were shortlived when our audiologist explained that he could feel the vibrations, not necessarily hear the sound.

The boys met as toddlers. Christopher, a year older than Ellis, was the first student at the new school in Urbana. I think Ellis may have been the second.

Thus, began our education in deaf education. Like the Caulfields, we learned early (with a lot of support from teachers and audiologists) to advocate for our son, which oftentimes meant educating teachers on the best way to provide accommodations for hearing-impaired kids.

In our case, there was never any malice on the part of the school, but sometimes we encountered ignorance.

For example, when Ellis was about to graduate at age 3 from St. Joe's, we discovered the Small Wonders program at our local grade school was a perfect fit for a hard-of-hearing kid. When we heard that the program might close, I spoke at the school board meeting, asking, "Without Small Wonders, where will my son go?"

The school board president reassured me that Ellis could attend a program in another town. However, I had already visited that particular program, and it was not a good fit for a hearing-impaired child.

If our son was to learn to speak, he would need to be fully included with a lot of little chatterboxes. Thankfully, Small Wonders stayed open.

The Caulfields' experience with schools and coaches was sometimes more harrowing.

So much of the Caulfields' story, from grief and the pressure of choosing the best path, through advocacy, and finally triumph at seeing their son thrive in a hearing world mirrors our own, that I could not get enough emotional distance to review this book traditionally.

Instead, let me tell you why I was not surprised that Christopher went on to be a Division I college basketball recruit; even as a child, his thinking about sports was sophisticated. After the boys left St. Joe's we got together for a reunion.

I remember being impressed a few years later at Christopher's poise and comfort in talking with adults. He was chatting with another reunion dad about football. The Bears would spend a season playing down in Memorial Stadium, and Christopher wanted to see a game in our hometown.

Ellis was pretty oblivious to sports teams, but Christopher said, "I want to see the Bears when they play the Patriots." Ellis probably thought they were talking about a circus or the Fourth of July. Based on Caulfield's 20-year secret diaries (He didn't even tell Jennifer he was keeping notes), "Ephphatha" follows Christopher from his birth to college and beyond. You can read more or order the book atephphathabook.com.

"Ephphatha" highlights some heartbreaking truths about judgment and unfairness, but also about where faith and love and hard work and advocacy can take a talented young man who happens to be deaf.

Walk in beauty; work in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She would like to send a shout-out to Ellis' early teachers and audiologists and thank them for their part in his success. Thank you, Jody, Mary, Diane and Danielle. You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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