When I was in my mid-twenties, I moved to Washington, DC for graduate school. My decision to come here had a lot to do with who was here already – Jason had moved down a year earlier, and my youngest brother, Ben, was in DC for college. Being near Ben now that we were grown was pretty great. We have several years between us, enough space that we were in different stages of childhood when we were kids growing up. He was only twelve when I left for college. So I loved getting to spend time with him now, and getting the chance to be closer to him in our own place.
One day I went to see him at his apartment downtown. He had just started seeing a girl, Siobhan, and she was there. She and I might have been a bit shy around each other. We might not have had an opportunity to get deep into any discussions that first day. But I knew I liked her right from the start. I had no idea I’d be fortunate enough to call her my sister-in-law several years later. To say I love her like a sister sounds trite, but it is Oh So True.
Siobhan grew up in Philadelphia. The youngest, by far, of four siblings. She is dark haired, fair skinned, and blue eyed. She and my brother balance each other out better than pretty much any couple I know. On the day they were married, a warm November day in 2002, at a beautiful arboretum outside of Philadelphia, I was pretty much overflowing with happiness.
By then, Grace was about six months old, recently identified with a profound hearing loss, already fitted with hearing aids, already starting to understand so many of the signs we used with her. My family, I think, was still processing the fact that Grace was deaf. My in-laws got a baby sign video, and made an attempt to learn a little bit. But learning sign language didn’t make it up very high on our families’ priority list. Maybe it was because all of them lived in Massachusetts and didn’t see us on a regular basis. They had few opportunities to practice. Maybe they hadn’t yet wrapped their heads around the fact that this was how we were going to have to communicate with Grace if we wanted to communicate with her at all. Maybe since she was still such a young baby, the idea of truly communicating with her in any language wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind.
Whatever the reasons, learning sign language was a task and responsibility that fell largely on my shoulders. And then, there was Siobhan. She has always had a natural gift for learning languages, and she seemed to pick up through osmosis almost every sign I learned. They stuck in her brain right away, and she became extremely adept at using them. We saw Ben and Sio almost every week, sometimes more, often having them over to our house for dinner on Sunday nights. Every time they came, I marveled at how easily she seemed to learn and incorporate sign language into her interactions with Grace.
One night, when Grace was about ten months old, I sat at the kitchen table watching them together on the rug. Siobhan was signing with her, not just words, but strung-together sentences, and I felt a wave of warmth go through me as I realized: Siobhan was talking to my kid. Really, truly communicating with her. Their gazes connecting, their hands brushing against each other, their intentions shared and understood.
It is difficult for me to put into words how deeply moved I was, and still am, by Siobhan’s unwavering commitment to learning how to communicate with Grace. As the years went by, they built on their early connection, and it became very clear to me that Sio just “got” Grace in a very deep, very real way. If anyone made the mistake of calling Grace “Ben’s niece,” Siobhan would correct them with daggers in her voice – Grace was her niece as much as Ben’s. From the beginning, Grace’s attachment to Sio, and Sio’s attachment to her, was profound and impossible to miss. There is an image I can see when I close my eyes, of the two of them there, on that little red rug, their foreheads touching, their eyes locked.
The day I learned that Ben and Siobhan were moving to the West Coast was a very sad one. They left for Portland a few months before our second daughter was born. I wanted so badly for kid number two to have the opportunity to know her aunt and uncle the way her older sister had, and for Grace and Siobhan to stay close. But we were going to have to find a way to help forge that bond long-distance.
As years passed, Ben and Siobhan would come east when they could. Every time, Grace would take Sio aside and ask, in her serious and intense way, if the two of them could have a little Just Us Alone time. Then they’d sneak off to go for a walk. I don’t know what they talked about. But I know what it meant to me to witness their connection.
Then, finally, when Grace was nine years old, Ben and Siobhan moved back to the east coast. By now, they had a daughter of their own. My niece, Vivienne Rose, is dark haired, blue eyed, and fair skinned. I have watched Siobhan signing with her own daughter. Now, even my little one year old nephew, Nathan, understands the signs for eat, milk, more. It has become our second language – a backup, used across distances, in noisy rooms, at bath and bed times. But it will never lose its place as the bridge that connected an amazingly devoted aunt and a little deaf girl.