Lessons in Sign by Jennifer Alise Drew

Winner - 2014 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

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Most Memorable: November 2014 kid's hand print in the sand

1) beach: hold your non-dominant hand out flat and brush it with the palm of your dominant hand, as waves brush the shore.

It’s the Sunday before Labor Day and we have chosen to come to Malibu. We leave the car in a narrow spot along the shoulder of Highway 1 and slide the boy into the red backpack, careful as we work his long legs through the seat and lift him up to Jake’s shoulders. Jake pulls the cooler by its handle and I heave the beach bags and blankets and take the dog on her leash. We follow the path that leads from the campground and up along the ridge, looking for the line where Ventura County starts, for lifeguard stand number four, where the dog becomes legal. The wind is in our hair and the scrub brush along the path. It is wild and we all feel it, the way wind wants you to feel that it alone has the power to change everything. The boy’s grin is a hovering moon behind Jake’s head. For a moment I wish we could drop our stuff somewhere and keep walking along the ridge and not go on down.


2) sand: rub your upcast fingers together, the way people sometimes punctuate “expensive.” This can also mean “dirt.”


There is a small island in the crowd, a rise in the dunes still warm from the day’s heat, where we spread our blanket, lift the boy out of the backpack. A hatched turtle, he immediately crawls toward the sea; he is practically running on his hands and knees, spraying sand everywhere, his happy shrieks tethering him to us across a widening space. Then he stops and sits up and signs “sand,” not minding when it blows from his fingers across his face. Jake and I sit too and pretend we are not both waiting for the moment when he takes off again and we will run after him. The waves are full of wind, eroding the beach, coming up over the steep drop they have made and catching towels and picnics by surprise.


3) hearing: show words falling from your mouth—hold your index finger horizontally below your lips and circle it twice.


People often ask if our boy is deaf. When I tell them no, they ask why he uses sign language. It is hard to convey the answer to this in casual conversation, to say how brain injury can disrupt certain muscles’ ability to function the way they are meant to, including those in the mouth. Long before we learned that he has cerebral palsy, but after we were told he was developmentally delayed, I took him to a baby sign class. There were three other mom-baby couples there and none of them knew what to make of us. We sang songs and practiced signs like “rain” and “cereal” and “giraffe.” At the end of the course, the teacher, an actress, asked me if I planned to take the boy to a movement class, because he kept falling over.


4) rock: knock your dominant fist against the top of the other.


Our friends arrive, two-year-old and ten-year-old in hand; we pour beer and wine and the kids get shovels and dig in. They are making a channel for the water to follow around a small boulder. Our boy, only momentarily interested in this project, wants to crawl back and forth across the channel, crushing the sides, testing the patience of the ten-year-old. Our boy doesn’t want to dig or help, walk or stand. The waves are also testing, strong enough to sweep the smaller children away. One comes and nearly takes the two-year-old down.


5) handicap: sign the letters h and c, where h is your first two fingers shooting from your fist horizontally, and c is your hand curved into the shape of the letter c. Circle them clockwise as you do this. For disabled, sign the letters d and a, where d is your pointer finger standing up from circled fingers, miming the shape of the letter, and a is a horizontal fist with your thumb pointing up.


Sign language incorporates spelling into many of its words, for which I am grateful—I would not want to see a manual representation of what “disabled” looks like. Other than spelling, ASL and English don’t have a whole lot in common. ASL uses the hands and face to convey the intensity of words where English relies on adjectival description. A person hiding behind their hair or sunglasses can’t communicate in sign. There are no walls of words. There are no “be” verbs, there is no “am.” You wouldn’t say “I am a mother.” You would sign “I” by pointing at yourself, then sign “mother” (open hand at chin), then point at yourself again, all while nodding your head. The subject is always first. You wouldn’t say “Look at that boy running,” because the person might look away from you at the runner, thereby missing the rest of the sentence. There is a sign for “please” but it is not perfunctory. Instead, just say “want.” Want, where you hold out open palms and bring them in, like you’re grabbing something from the air.


6) shit: the way you think it would go—pull your dominant thumb out of the opposing fist.


The two-year-old has a new proud skill: he is potty-trained. He is ahead of the game, little blond curls whipping, his hand on the crotch of his bathing suit. “I have to poop,” he says. I recognize his sweater from last winter, a thick oatmeal sweater that looks both seventies and well-made, with brown leather buttons. I try not to have any feelings about this thing he is about to do, this act of holding his body aloft while his butt hangs out, the requisite thigh muscles and balance not themselves considered skills, or that our boy isn’t anywhere near acquiring them. I know I have to get better at seeing joy for joy’s sake, when younger children advance past my own. I look at my boy and sign “shit” and this makes him laugh. Recently his aide at school showed me the polite way to sign “poop” by pinching the end of her nose with her thumb and closed fist, but his laugh is a buoy, he is signing it and we are all laughing now and I don’t care if teaching him “shit” is wrong. The other mom hands her two-year-old off to his dad, who takes him to the edge of the dunes. People are barbequing behind, but it’s getting dusky and no one seems to notice the small shape squatting over the sand. I’ve already used our plastic bag on the dog.


7) treadmill: hold your non-dominant hand upright, flat, and run your other fist in circles against it, like it’s a fishing pole and you are reeling in.


I am putting off the potty-training and occasionally this becomes a discussion I don’t want to have. I think about when my boy is on the treadmill at physical therapy, in the leather harness and padding that takes ten minutes to put on, and then a few more to attach to the bungee cords that suspend him above the machine. I can already see the impish cheeky grin that will accompany the fist he shakes at me, little thumb poking between his first two fingers—unshaken, this is the letter t; shaken, it means toilet. On the potty he’ll insist on a book, and I will refuse, counting the minutes, and we’ll sit there while he tries to pull all the paper from the holder. In the harness again he’ll take ten steps, and then he’ll ask me again, and maybe this time he will actually have to go. He is three and a half. I can’t really blame him for this. It’s mostly me who’s not ready.


8)wheelchair: put your hands by your sides the way you would if you placed them on the chair’s wheels, and pretend to move them forward.


The other mom and I have known each other since we were thirteen. We met at summer camp, she, my sister, and I, an academic camp at which we spooled DNA and made the Logo turtle cross the computer screen and fell in love with skinny boys and watched Steel Magnolias and learned karate. We lost touch until Jake—who became friends with her husband also in the seventh grade—and I moved to Los Angeles and we found each other again.

We watch her son hunkered in the dunes and mine, facedown and giggling on a foam surfboard Jake is pulling through the sand, and I tell her about our morning, how I put the boy on the treadmill we have at home but he didn’t want to walk, he never wants to, and how it takes a herculean effort to make him try.

“What happens if you don’t do it?” my friend asks. “What’s the downside?” She waits kindly while I think about answering.

“The downside?” I’m still seesawing between Debbie Downer and Positive Pig, not quite able to find the middle. My friend is a painter, a talented one, and we are both from the South, raised to be polite and generous, and this is another thing at which she excels: I have too often been on the receiving end of her roast chickens, her sage and squash pasta. I want to be generous with the facts, but positivity is sometimes only an elision. “The downside is that he ends up in a wheelchair,” I say.

As dialogue, this is the sort of prefiguring I regret. The wheelchair is there whether I mention it or not, but saying it feels like Chekhov’s gun, a provocation. Too blunt for English, but maybe not for ASL.


9) magical thinking: to sign magic, throw your hands open and out, then close and pull them in, then throw them out again, like you’re flinging water, or saying “abracadabra.” Think is placing your index finger just to the right of your forehead; to think about, you circle it there. But you might as well just point at your head and draw big circles in the air, a gesture both deaf and hearing recognize to mean “crazy.”


At first we don’t notice the California crowd that swells in around us, like a city bus just dropped them off. The women are wearing expensive flowy things over jeans and flip-flops, the men and children in swim shorts and Patagonias. They form a circle on the beach next to our rock, oblivious to the work happening on the channel. Their arms go around each other. Their leader is in the middle, saying something about letting go, something about an old man. We lift our plastic cups and whisper. Are they going to scatter ashes? There is too much wind. The tattooed couple on their bellies to our right go on sleeping, the smell of cooking meat still carries from the parking lot. We hear “Jesus.” The circle breaks and one by one a child and his or her father run into the water to claps and cheers.

Later, I will read on a blog called Hope Heals about a church in Bel Air that practices these baptisms in the sea, and I will wonder if perhaps it was them that we saw. I will read about the woman who writes the blog, about the brain stem stroke she had at twenty-six, this young Georgia-born mother whose lipsticked smile would not have compelled me before, before it became crooked and looped up the left side of her face. She writes about falls and deafness and double vision, about having to re-learn to eat, walk, speak. She is religious and I am not, but there are many things in her story that move me, even the “hope” logo she sells, which looks more like a maritime anchor than a cross.


10) monkey: pretend to be a primate and scratch at the sides of your waist.


Now the boy is on Jake’s back, playing the game they call “monkey”: Jake is a hunched gorilla, hooting his arms and running back and forth along the shore, and the boy hangs around his neck, laughing hysterically, his toes pointed and knocking. Now they are all running across the channel, the ten-year-old, the two-year-old, and the monkey pair, Jake’s legs for the boy’s. The dog barks at them and my friend photographs, the sun a red bomb at the horizon. They are like garden silhouettes, the light coming in all oranges and oatmeals behind them. Youth will be what we take from the photo, but I will remember the wheelchair I placed in the first act, and I will want to take it back.


11) please: place your right hand flat on your chest and circle it there, clockwise. But if you’re asking that someone do something for you, sign instead [would] you mind by touching your index finger to your nose, then swinging it outward, while also pleading with your face.


Unwrapped Babybels attract sand on the blankets. The boy is having none of it; he wants more monkey time and says this insistently, bouncing up and down on his knees. His version of the imperative: signing the same thing again and again until we give him what he wants. I show him the two-year-old’s toys and he finds a Kelly green pickup truck of the vintage Matchbox variety. He holds it out in front of his face and studies it carefully, knees digging into the sand. That’s pretty cool, I tell him, forking pasta into his mouth. He loves vehicles, anything that goes. “Truck”: you’re supposed to fingerspell it, but because that’s hard, we cheat and make a larger version of “car”: put your fists in opposing positions on a steering wheel and drive.


12) deaf: point your index finger on your cheek near your ear, then on your cheek near your mouth. You can also do this in the reverse.


In ASL you sign what you see, or what historically was. Take boy/father/grandfather/uncle and their female opposites: male signs are located at the forehead, where a hat brim would be, and female signs at the jaw; think of the strings of a bonnet. Take “farm”: slice your thumb, hand open, across your neck, because that is what happens on many farms. If a friend greets another after a long absence and finds her rounder, she might say “You’ve gained weight.” The way my grandmother used to do. Inflate your cheeks and open your hands on either sides of your face to sign “fat,” or open rounded hands over the body part you mean to specify, like the stomach (though this can also mean “pregnant”). If the friend finds the other thinner, she might suck in her cheeks and draw forefinger and thumb down the front of her face, as though it had become a pane of glass.

When the teacher from whom Jake and I are learning ASL told this story of two friends greeting one other, I asked her why. Why would deaf people be so impolite? Unlike other groups of people with disabilities, the deaf are a close-knit culture, the teacher, deaf herself, explained; familiarity is part of the enterprise. Sign language doesn’t waste time with metaphor, it is itself metaphor: it is a figurative expression of what we see. You’ve gained weight. What happened, you okay? We are always up in each other’s business, she said. You go to a party at a hearing person’s house and find the deaf guests hiding in the coat closet, where the light is brightest, so they can see each other’s hands and faces. You go to a deaf party and find fluorescents and music so loud you can’t hear yourself think. Deaf people like to feel the beat.

In the beginning I couldn’t see the beauty in ASL. What kind of language has no use for articles, or adverbs? But now I’m in an upside-down perspective shift. To think of words as stories made in the air: to think not as a writer but a painter. To think of what is, and show it there.


13) cerebral palsy: sign the letters c and p, where c is your hand curved into the shape of the letter and p is an upside-down v made by your first and middle fingers, with your thumb hanging between them: think of a person walking.


Six months from now, in the spring, we will go with our boy to a different class deep in the valley, where hearing parents of deaf children gather in a tiny school auditorium with an unswept floor. This deaf teacher will introduce us to twenty-odd strangers by pointing out who is hearing and who is hard of hearing, who has a deaf child, whose child has a rare disability that causes him to have no voice. We will say that our boy has CP, and they will ask how it affects his speech, and I will fail the explanation, fingerspelling “muscles” and pointing at my head. Then we will get on with the lesson—that day it is “ailments”—this joyful group of people who take no pains to hide why they are here.


14) can: make an s with both hands, thumbs outside and crossing closed fists, and hold them out in front of you, thumb-side down. Drop them once for “can,” twice for “possible.”


All at once it is inky dark and the horizon is tinseled with lights from the oil barges. We are blue-lipped and shivering. The boy doesn’t want to relinquish the green truck. Maybe we can find one at the store, I say.

Our relationship is sometimes a series of trades, and this is my mistake. I can’t help it: I will look for an exact replica of this thing that has grabbed his attention. He will remind us again and again that he wants it, waving a carefully paralleled thumb and forefinger (“green”) and driving his fists, and Jake and I will spend the better part of another evening out searching. We will end up in the clearance aisle at Rite Aid, half drunk and laughing at ourselves, rooting through a Justin Bieber puzzle and cans of Alpo and Campbell’s tomato soup and a snow globe with the sun in it. Jake will come running with big plastic construction trucks and race them down the aisle. By the time I find a custom Matchbox grass-green ’59 Chevy on Amazon, the boy has forgotten all about it.


15) can’t: isolate the pointer finger of your dominant hand and swipe it down in front of the pointer of the other, like it’s a knife cutting something off the end of your nail.


He is sandy and very late to bed, and I tell him we have time for just one song. He lies waiting, gazing up at me with the kind of look that reminds me how little time I have left to know it. Until he’s old enough to realize I don’t in fact know very much at all, until I irritate the shit out of him. He requests a song about Curious George and Fireman Sam, and I have to make up the song and also sign the words at the same time, which is impossible if I don’t stick to vocabulary we know. Fireman Sam is playing baseball and Curious George wants in on the action and as usual he gets into trouble, because monkeys can’t play baseball!, I tell him. We’ve just learned the sign for “can’t,” and I’m signing it when it occurs to me that the Curious George paradigm is also a mistake, because in nearly every story, George is trying to do something that, as a monkey, he is constitutionally incapable of doing.

What does this say to our boy, the only non-walker in his class, the only non-talker on the beach (though happily not among some of his deaf classmates)? I am never sure how to portray him to himself when I sing these songs. He always wants to be in them. Do I show him as he is, or do I show him as he may become, as perhaps he imagines himself now to be, because those abilities are what he sees in us and nearly all others? Will he speak to George with his voice or will he use his hands? Will he play baseball on two running feet or will he take the bases slowly, pushing the yellow walker he hates to use? Will he grow wings and fly or will he ride, monkey-style, on the dragon’s back?

The boy loves George. And maybe ASL has something more to offer us than just language. He is taking it all in, the signs, the story, everything.

jennifer alise drew by oceanJennifer Alise Drew is the prose editor for AGNI magazine, and has worked as an editor for numerous other magazines, publishing companies, and authors, including Hunter S. Thompson, who taught her that writing should be fun, though it often isn’t. She holds an MA in creative writing from Boston University, and is currently completing a memoir in essays about her son, cerebral palsy, and other stories, excerpts from which also appear in LUMINA and are forthcoming from The Iowa Review and The Chattahoochee Review.

  38 comments for “Lessons in Sign by Jennifer Alise Drew

  1. This speaks so beautifully to the things we assume, the things we can’t assume, and the reading of signs, literally and figuratively. A wonderful read!

  2. Jen I just happened on this link on Facebook which I haven’t checked in forever. I am so glad I got to read it. It’s beautiful. You wrote something truly beautiful. Thank you. Xo. Loni

  3. Jen, what a stunning and elegant piece of writing! It reminded me of how words (the spoken ones) are really just “signs” of the real experiences of our human condition and how much is lost in the translation. You also reminded me that facing the unknowingness in each of our lives and how to proceed is so challenging. I am grateful for your artful articulation. Warm wishes to you, Jake and your beautiful boy.

    • Gail, what a beautiful thing to read. Thank you — I can see your face as you say this and appreciate it so much.

  4. Jennifer-The craft, the segments, keep this essay on tract, bold words and definitions, followed by personal narrative. It is beautiful.

  5. Congratulations, Jennifer. What an intriguing, original structure. I loved how you wove the range of emotions into such a beautiful tapestry. Honest and heartfelt without being sentimental. Truly lovely work.

  6. Congratulations!! An exquisitely written piece. I loved how you weaved together the vignettes with the sign descriptions, and the raw honesty with which you share your story.

  7. I remember when I was reading this piece, I found myself attempting each of the signs described–what a testimony to the way you reach and engage the reader with this narrative. I was blown away by the images, immediacy and elegance of this piece then, and again now that I see you’ve won the contest! Congratulations on a beautifully-crafted piece of CNF, Jennifer. Kudos!

  8. Jennifer, one of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I’ve read!! I love the interaction here. I signed every word. Love the structure, the message, the writing, the creativity!! SO HAPPY YOU WON!!

    • Thank you! It’s a fascinating language! Lifeprint.com is a great resource if you want to dip a toe in.

  9. Jen, this is beautiful. Parenting two children who have come out of the foster system, I consistently struggle with how to tell the truth of our experience and yet remain supportive of my children. You find a way to strike this this balance in the most touching and exquisite way. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Kendra — it’s so nice to read this, and I hope I will get to meet your children soon. We live much too far apart.

  10. Congratulations, Jennifer Alise. You’ve deftly capture all the ordinary aspects of parenthood seen through the extraordinary filter of your experience as a parent of a child with Cerebral Palsy. The very notion of language; verbal and non-verbal, signed and spoken, that which said and that which is left unsaid, is woven in seamlessly. I really, really enjoyed this. Congratulations again.

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