Shira felt a thumping on her bedroom floor. She got up from her desk and ran into the living room. Sure enough, Dad was home. Shira watched him lug his bulky cello case through the door and over to the corner by the piano where it was stored. Her father taught cello at a nearby university and had an hour’s drive to work. He always got home later than the family wished. Now he went over to the kitchen doorway where her mother was wiping her soapy hands on a towel. Shira saw her mom say something to her dad, and then he hugged her. Seeing his daughter, Dad walked back into the living room and did the same to Shira.
“How’s my little songbird?”
Shira read his smiling lips. Shira. The name meant song, which was ironic for a girl who had been deaf since she was seven years old. The last sound she remembered as she lay in the hospital bed was her mother saying, “It’s getting worse.” That night had been a sleepless one. When morning came, Shira was frightened when she watched her mother greet her but could not hear what she was saying. She’d watched her brother, Nolan, go off to school in the days that followed, disappointed that she had to stay home to be taught by her mother, who was struggling to learn signs herself. These days, however, Shira didn’t regret staying home since Maxwell Junior High kept Nolan on an undesirably busy schedule. There were better things to be doing than sitting in a class at seven-thirty am—like sleeping! A few hours of extra rest, though, could hardly make up for the discouragement she felt in being so different and difficult to talk with. She was grateful for the group of faithful friends who saw past the speech barrier, but at times it could be frustrating when others were afraid to talk to her. She also longed to hear again the warm tones of her father’s cello. She cherished the memories of when he used to take it out and play for her after suppers long ago. In those days she’d had a cello of her own, and many a happy lesson she had spent scratching blissfully away as he patiently instructed her.
Now she turned to him and asked, “How was teaching today, Dad?”
“Not too bad,” she read his lips in answer. “Only, the kids are so worn out from their lessons with Mrs. Etterson. Their technique is so stiff and they have a hard time playing relaxed. I’ve tried talking to her about it, but she seems to be set in her ways.”
Mrs. Etterson was the other cello teacher at the school. Her lessons were always unpleasant and her practice requirements always unrealistic and unhealthy. Shira had gone to school with her dad several times and admired the way he not only demonstrated passages with skill but encouraged the students to experiment and figure things out for themselves. Mrs. Etterson did not. With her, everything was “my way or the highway.”
“I’m sorry about that. You should really talk to the board. They need a different teacher.”
“You’re probably right, but for now I’m just happy to be home. Howdy, Nolan!”
Nolan came down the stairs, having just emerged from the shower after a vigorous basketball practice. His short, towel-dried hair stood up in wet spikes on his head. “Hey, Dad,” Shira read his reply. Dad went on with something like “How was practice,” to which Nolan, looking very tired, gave a short answer and plopped down on the old, overstuffed couch.
After a while in which Dad read the paper, Nolan did homework, and Shira doodled a picture of their old collie dog, Whetford, who was curled up in front of her rocking chair, Mom called them in for dinner. There was a steaming pot of broccoli with a basket of warmly buttered rolls, and Nolan devoured a heaping portion of mashed potatoes. Staring at her forkful of broccoli, Shira remembered the family dinners of long before, which had been full of chatter. Nolan had been a talkative little six-year-old then, and Mom and Dad used to laugh at the disappointed faces their little ones made when there was broccoli on their plates. Laugh. How long ago that memory was. Sure, she still saw Dad’s eyes squint and twinkle and his whole frame shake at times, and Mom throw her head back at one of Nolan’s jokes, but even those soundless occasions were getting much rarer. Nolan frequently came to the table looking tired and sat in a silent stare through most of the meal. Dad appeared similar, though he sometimes tried to liven things up with a joke. Shira sighed and looked around the table. Even with Dad’s busy teaching schedule and Nolan’s long school days, she was thankful that they could all be together at the end of the day. Her friend Amy, though she lived in a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, was less fortunate in this respect because her father was frequently away for weeks at a time with his consulting job. Shira sighed once more and popped the bite of broccoli in her mouth.
After dinner they all sat down in the living room, and Nolan turned on a football game. Even though football had never really interested her, Shira was secretly glad that they were watching a game because her family never watched with the sound on or, if they did, hardly paid attention to the commentary. In this way Shira didn’t feel left out. She was curled up on the couch, coloring in the drawing of Whetford, when her mom leaned over from her magazine in the rocking chair.
“That’s a very good drawing,” she signed. “It’s just like his soft little doggie eyes are looking at me.”
“Thanks. Really?” replied Shira. “I was just doodling.”
* * *
The next morning dawned gray and rainy. Shira rolled over in her bed and looked at the clock. Eight-twenty. Nolan was long gone to school by now. She turned back over and stared out the window. Today was going to be a gloomy one. As she looked across her room to the window, her eyes fell on the little cello case lying dusty in the corner. How she missed the evenings when Dad would take out his cello and start a tune, Mom would chime in on the chorus, and Nolan, who was just learning piano, would try his best to pick out the melody. No one minded when Shira added her own scratchy cello playing to the mix. She had always loved those times, not only because she could hear then, but because there was always a wonderful satisfaction in making music together. Evenings like that were less frequent now. Shira hoped it wasn’t because of her; she would not have minded merely watching her family’s faces glowing again in joyful music-making, even if she couldn’t hear it. She supposed it was also because of Nolan’s basketball, since the piano would sit dusty, unplayed for long stretches of time. Still, Shira sometimes felt out of place in a family that was musical by nature and longed to be able to join in once more, if not aspire to be a skilled cellist and tour like her father used to do in his younger days. She saved the programs of touring musicians and even had a signed poster from Yo-Yo Ma, which her dad had brought back from a concert in New York.
Shira sighed. It was in the middle of the morning and she had been struggling over an algebra problem for quite a while. She put her book down and went over to the window. Still raining. How long would this morning last? The other day she had called her friends Amy and Katya, and they planned to come over after school to spend the night.
At last she finished algebra and was munching on a turkey sandwich while she sat staring at her laptop. She found herself reading articles such as “Young Cellist Debuts at Carnegie” and “Greenberg Writes Fifth Symphony at Age 15” and wondered what Dad was doing right now.
* * *
“And do you know what my dad said after that?” said Katya. Both friends had been eager to learn sign language with eight-year-old curiosity at befriending “the deaf girl.” They had proved genuine friends, and even through signing they were no less talkative than any other eighth-grade girls.
“What?” asked Shira and Amy simultaneously.
“He said, ‘You can’t go unless you’re together’— meaning Nick, but… yeah.”
Shira smiled and Amy burst out laughing. Katya had been invited to a church dinner, and Nick was her older brother.
“Hey, that’s good,” said Amy suddenly, pointing to the drawing of Whetford that lay on the attic desk.
“You think?” asked Shira. “I was working on it up here this afternoon, but I was really just doodling.”
“Well, your doodling is pretty good! What’s this?” Amy held up another drawing that had been lying underneath the first.
“Yeah, I did that one, too.”
“Wow!” signed Katya. “Is that me? It looks just like me.”
“Maybe,” smiled Shira. “OK, I was thinking about putting that one on your birthday card, but I guess you just spoiled the surprise!”
“Sorry,” Katya smiled back. She turned thirteen in two weeks. “Anyway, you should find a way to enter it in a contest or something. I’ve seen drawings in art class that are honestly no better than this, if as good.”
Since Amy and Katya were spending the night, Shira’s mom fixed a special spaghetti dinner. Nolan ate quietly and then awkwardly excused himself upstairs, unused to having three chattery girls in the house. He returned soon enough when they turned on the TV after dinner.
It was America’s Funniest Home Videos tonight. The girls laughed over mouthfuls of popcorn as a hyperactive Chihuahua ran in circles after his tail. Midway through the show, however, the screen was suddenly replaced with scrolling red letters that read: “We interrupt this program to bring you news of the terrible catastrophe that has just occurred in Haiti. A 7.0-scale earthquake has devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince, as well as several minor towns, burying many inhabitants alive. Rescue workers have responded to the crisis from all over the world with amazing speed, coming from nations including the USA, Israel, UK, China, Switzerland, Brazil…” the list went on, and the family sat in silence as the screen displayed troubling images of Haitians being pulled out from under enormous piles of concrete rubble. It showed a man in a full-body cast, and many search-and-rescue teams scouring the ruins of giant buildings. Not a single structure was left intact. The masses of trapped and injured people, and the power of the quake itself, left everyone in the living room in stunned silence. Mom led everyone in a prayer for the people in Haiti, and it was a while before they turned on the show again. Even then, AFV wasn’t as funny anymore. The popcorn sat unfinished in the bowl.
Shira had a hard time getting to sleep that night. Disturbing images of Haitians buried alive kept flashing through her mind. It would almost have been better to be blind, not deaf, if it could prevent her eyes from seeing such nightmarish pictures. The devastating crisis affected everyone, even if they lived far from Haiti, and Shira knew she had to do something to help.
* * *
Amy and Katya had to leave early for school the next morning. Shira waved goodbye as she watched them pile in the old station wagon with Nolan and Mom. As the car puttered off, she went back inside the house and poured herself a bowl of cereal. She wasn’t used to being up this early but decided to make the most of it by finishing her schoolwork before lunch. She went into the little glass-walled “schoolroom” off the kitchen and took her math book from a shelf.
Shira was just biting into an apple at lunch when her mom sat down beside her. She was holding a folded piece of slick paper, which appeared to be some type of brochure.
“I found something that might interest you,” she began. Shira read her lips as she continued, “The Fine Arts Center is having a youth talent show. It’s on Saturday three weeks from now. Katya showed me a couple of your drawings yesterday, and I was surprised by your talent. When have you been working on all of these? I think you would definitely be eligible to be featured in this show.” She opened the brochure on the table in front of Shira. “I picked up their information when I dropped the kids off at school.”
Shira stared down at the colorful brochure. An art show. She barely considered her drawing more than an occasional pastime. If she was ever going to be featured for something, she had always dreamed that it would be the cello. As she thought about it now, though, the idea didn’t seem half bad. Wasn’t music an art? Then why should there be much difference between playing an instrument and drawing a picture? Most of all, she knew what she was going to do for Haiti.
Shira could be found at the desk in the attic for most of the rest of the week. She had taken to working on several more drawings and had even experimented with acrylic paints. Her father had given his consent and encouragement when they had approached him with the idea when he returned from work, so no one minded when Shira shut herself up in the attic for long stretches of time to work on her art. Her father had even bought her a sizeable canvas when she elusively told him that she had tested an idea which worked on a small scale and needed a larger medium. Now she was going busily to work on the secret painting.
* * *
A week before the art show, Shira woke early and, carrying a large bag, headed downtown with her parents. In the prior weeks, she had completed her painting and found a print shop to make copies of it. She also bought sets of greeting cards on which she had it printed and even found a T-shirt company willing to screen it on their shirts. Everywhere she went, the companies were eager to help her, after hearing her story. The title of the work was “The Cry of Haiti,” and it depicted a desperate mother holding her injured child, in front of a collage showing scenes of the struggling people and the vast devastation. The title was born when Shira showed it to her mother, who said slowly, “Your ears are deaf, but your eyes have not been sheltered from the sights of reality. I know of no one with the keenest hearing who has captured the cries of these people any better.” Shira caught sight of a tear on her mother’s cheek as she gave Shira a hug.
The fundraiser was very busy long into the morning. Shira sold out of the T-shirts, which read, “I heard the cry of Haiti.” She had raised nearly $870 and knew Red Cross would be grateful.
On the day of the art show, word had gotten out about the deaf girl who had created a painting that would speak to your heart, and a stream of people poured into the room. A woman from the newspaper made her way around the displays, interviewing the young artists. When she came to Shira, she wrote out on a notepad, “What inspired you to create all this meaningful art work?”
Shira replied, “It’s my music.”