Out of the Mouths of Babes
Q was a year and two months old when she had her first lip and palate surgery. Here in the USA, if a child is born with a cleft, they have their first surgery very early in life - somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 months of age. For an adopted child, it's a bit more of a roll of the dice. Some receive a preliminary surgery from a charity organization, either local or international, while they are still in an institution and waiting to be adopted. The age at which the first surgery occurs is generally later - somewhere around 8 or 9 months of age. Q was one of the rare cases in which the child does not receive their first surgery pre-adoption. Most cleft children have their lip repaired prior to adoption, though usually not the palate. When we adopted Q at nearly one year of age, she still had not had her first surgery, and both the lip and palate were still wide open.
For those not familiar with the condition, any child born with a cleft lip and/or palate usually requires years of speech therapy to learn to pronounce sounds properly, regardless of the timing or severity of surgeries. There are so many muscles in the lips, tongue and soft palate involved in speech as we know it that it's difficult to wrap ones mind around the complexity of it all. Imagine if you were born without the muscles of your mouth connected. Imagine how long it would take to learn to use those surgically-attached muscles to create the sounds that we use for speech, much less to learn how to perform a simple smile. Know also that there is a great deal of scar tissue involved after a surgery performed to the hard and soft palate, and that the scar tissue makes the functional use of those muscles even more problematic.
Now think about how a parent anticipates the time when they will be able to understand the early babblings of a small child. As parents of a child born with a cleft, we have to wait even longer for that joyful and exciting moment.
Q learned sign language quite easily as an infant, but we were warned not to give her too much facility with signing. She needed the frustration factor in order to give her the motivation necessary to do the hard work involved in learning to speak. She needed to have trouble communicating, so that she would be motivated to begin the painful and arduous process of learning to use her mouth and facial muscles to pronounce words. For a many months now, we have listened to her experimenting with the process. We have heard her loosen up and grow comfortable with her own babbling, knowing full well that most of what she says will be incomprehensible to those around her.
Because she is smart and quick and bold, we knew that her comprehension level was extremely high, even for one born to a very different language (Mandarin Chinese) which she heard and absorbed during her first year of life. Very early in life, Q developed her own form of charades, and had little trouble making her emotions and desires clear.
We did not know when to expect to begin to understand her spoken words, much less fully-verbalized sentences. Only in the past couple of months have we begun to see that process unfold. She is now three years old plus two months, and we are only just beginning to know the great joy of understanding her most, if not all, of the time.
Yesterday, Q and I were sitting on the couch while daddy prepared dinner. Suddenly, she stood up and threw her arms around me. Q is an extremely loving and happy child, but she is not overly demonstrative in a purely physical sense, so this was rather rare.
"Mommy, thank you for my Keroppi!" she said.
Keroppi is the stuffed frog (friend of Hello Kitty, and Q's great love) that you will doubtless have seen in many recent photos.
"Oh, you're welcome, sweetheart!" I said, surprised.
"Mommy, thank you for my pink phone (tiny toy cell phone bought for a dollar from a vending machine)!" she said, throwing her arms around me yet again.
"Goodness!" I said, a bit overwhelmed, "You're welcome, my pumpkin-pie!"
She released me from her embrace, sat back on the couch, and looked around her for a moment, her eyes stuttering around the room. Then she spread her arms wide to encompass the whole room, our possessions, our house.
"Mommy," she said, "Thank you for...all this stuff."
Now, I am not a crier. But at this point, I have to tell you, I started to tear up.
"Oh, sweetie," I said. "You are so welcome. Thank you for...for being you. And for being our daughter."
Then she plopped her butt down on the couch, let her hands fall in her lap in resignation.
"I'm sorry mommy," she said, very deliberately. "I just...love you...so...very...much!"
The process of verbalization has officially begun. Just when I thought my heart could not be stretched any larger.