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The boy who lived
My deaf son was not born deaf. He also came close to not being born at all.
 
"So we'll have another kid," I said. I guess I still thought it was half-crazy. No, let me rephrase that. I knew full well it was more than half-crazy.
"So we'll have another kid," I said. I guess I still thought it was half-crazy. No, let me rephrase that. I knew full well it was more than half-crazy. (André Babiak/Westend61/Corbis)

I'm pretty sure our fourth son, who wears a circular radio transmitter attached to the side of his head by way of a subcutaneous magnet, will not use the burr-head haircut his older brothers gladly sported between the ages of five and twelve. It's not that the little guy, Theo, would mind. He's unselfconscious about the thing he calls his apparecchio, the external part of a cochlear implant, which also has surgically installed cranial and trans-cranial elements. But Nicoletta, the boys' mother and my wife, likes the way Teíto's silky brown hair partially hides the half-dollar-sized disk and the dark gray crescent of a capsule (tiny microphone and micro-processor) hooked over his left ear. If he had that Marine cut, the device would be too obvious, she says. On that small head, "It would jump out at you and become the first thing you see, and the defining thing about him." As usual, she's right.

Bruno, Joseph, and Tobias, who as I write this are nineteen, eighteen, and seventeen, were all happy to sit on a stool once a month or so throughout their elementary school years (GW Carver in Miami), and even into middle school, to be shorn by dad with his trusty electric clippers. It's the haircut I've given myself for the past few decades because of its simplicity, and in those days when the big guys were small, there was nothing wrong with being like pop. Everyone says all four of our sons are good-looking, a handsome mix of mom's Italian and my mongrel American WASP. They have pleasantly shaped skulls. So a closely cropped hairstyle, or non-style, didn't look weird. Even as little boys they seemed to appreciate the absence of hassle it entails.

Who knows if Theo, who is four-and-a-half, will want a burr-head when he's an adolescent? Most of the kids you see walking around these days have wires attached to their noggin anyway, buds stuck in their ears. Maybe in a decade Theo will think it somehow hip, in a Robocop way, to flaunt his technology and be way up front about his deafness.

Which really isn't deafness anymore. Thanks to the implant, he hears quite well, at least with regard to the spoken word.

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That's what this marvelous contraption was invented for — to allow its user to perceive language, to "hear" human verbalization, to learn to understand what people are saying and in so doing develop the capacity to speak and become integrated into society. The method both approximates and circumvents the (here un-functioning) biological components of natural audition, an astounding process common to all mammals in which physical signals — vibrations — run through the ear and the timpani and the cochlea. There, miniscule hair-like cilia cells convert the message into low-grade electricity and pass it on to the acoustic nerve, for relay to the gray chunk that relates that info to the myriad other sorts of perception, instinct, thought, etc., flashing along the convoluted cerebral circuitry.

In Theo's case, the mic behind the ear picks up sounds, prioritizing language, and the processor produces a code that travels on the four-inch wire to the transmitter for "broadcast" across the centimeter or so separating the disc from the receiver glued into a depression scraped into the skull and covered with scalp. The radio-wave step is necessary because there's no way to have a watertight physical connection between components on opposite sides of the protective sheath that is our skin. The embedded receiver catches the transmission, processes it again, and shoots the data along another wire through a tiny hole drilled in the cranium to the inner ear. This metal thread, encrusted with electrodes, winds through the cochlea, where auditory cells are stimulated electrically and the message hops the train of the acoustic nerve.

Theo was not born deaf. He began losing his hearing at around sixteen or eighteen months, by which time he was saying "mamma" and "ciao." It took Nico and me a while to realize what was happening. After a period of having to call him with an ever-louder voice, then of his not turning around even if his name was shouted at his back, we had a preliminary check-up of sorts with an otolaryngologist acquaintance whose two grammar-school boys were doing an hour a week of playtime-cum-English lesson with Bruno. Sonia, la dottoressa, came over and we engaged in the empirical procedure of sneaking up behind an otherwise engaged Theo and whacking pots with spoons and clapping lids like cymbals. Yes, Sonia said, he definitely is at the least very hard of hearing.

But this story is not about Theo's yearlong gradual slide into deafness, or the way that condition has been virtually overcome with amazing modern technology and the expert medical attention provided by the Italian national healthcare system. I have to back up, because right there after saying he wasn't born deaf I really do have to say that Theo came close to not being born at all.

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It was early December of 2008. I was fifty-five and Nicoletta was forty-four. She had always been clockwork regular with her periods, but over the previous year or so they'd become sporadic. Her sister Federica had had an early onset of menopause and Nico suspected she was headed down the same road. She got a bit lax in the taking of her nightly birth-control pill, sometimes just traipsing half-asleep past the bathroom to bed from the couch where, after a demanding day of teaching graphic design at a Fano's Adriano Olivetti High School, she'd conked out watching TV. Our sex life was considerably toned down compared with the days when we'd produced three children in the first three years of our marriage. In any case, and despite that early demonstration of perhaps uncommon fertility or biochemical kismet attending our union, the idea that she might become pregnant again had receded in her mind to the edge of the realm of impossibility. I wasn't worried about it either, and certainly wasn't asking her every night if she'd popped her pill.

So as she rolled through the middle part of middle age and I waltzed into its farther region, and as that fall morphed into winter and Nicoletta's period didn't come, and two weeks of lateness stretched into three and four and five, she seemed eminently unconcerned. "Verranno, verranno," she said, if I inquired as to what was the story. ("They'll come, they'll come," le mestruazioni being a plural noun.)

Finally, on a cold, gray, drizzly day when the three church bell towers arrayed across the centro storico were discernible only as shrouded sentinels from our apartment balcony, a kilometer away, I announced that I was going down to Pierini's (our local pharmacy), to buy a pregnancy test.

We'd been living in Fano, a charming city of 50,000 on the Adriatic coast, for only a few months. We had moved here from the inland town of Acqualagna, where we'd spent our first two years in Italy (for me and the boys, at least) at the rebuilt ancestral family farmhouse on twenty hilly acres of woods, fields, and orchard. During that bucolic and mildly rigorous stretch (the house was heated only by stoves and fireplaces, and we wore two sweaters and knit caps inside during much of the winter), I eased out of a three-decade career in daily journalism, the foreign correspondent phase of which had seen my innamoramento with the pretty Italian artist who'd come to El Salvador to teach a semester of design at la Universidad Matías Delgado shortly after the civil war ended. And hers with me, per fortuna.

By the time we moved to Fano, where Nico worked and Bruno was starting high school, my wife and I had set up a little publishing house. We were putting out a magazine of kids' (middle-school-aged) short stories, poems, and illustrations. Our project, called Scarpe Cotte, was unabashedly modeled on Stone Soup, the brilliant Santa Cruz, California publication that had delighted our boys, along with many thousands of other young people around the English-speaking world, during our nearly nine years in Miami.

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It wasn't as if Scarpe Cotte (Cooked Shoes) was a runaway success. But we were enjoying its production, dealing with creative kids from up and down the peninsula as well as with generally stimulating adults involved in aspects of the exposure of young people to the craft of writing, mostly teachers and librarians but also authors of children's books and public officials in the cultural sector. We knew that, as is the case with Stone Soup, the longer-term success of the enterprise would depend on the degree to which it was used (and subscribed to) by middle schools, and that obliged us to delve into the world of Italian bureaucracy. The educational model in Italy is very different from America's ultra-local administrative system. Here it's centralized and national. Both frameworks have their strong and weak points, but suffice it to say that our visits down to Rome for dealings with Education Ministry officials were for the most part hikes into a bog.

Even so, we were showered with praise wherever we presented our project and product, because it really was a beautiful thing, a worthy emulator of Stone Soup in its own small way. And all the congratulatory recognition had us feeling good about ourselves and our work, and the work of the talented kids who were the contributors.

Nico also was enjoying being back in the full-time professional world after a near-decade hiatus while the three boys were little, interspersed in its later stage with part-time teaching in Miami. She's an exceptional teacher, and is recognized by her students and peers as such. It's fun for me (not to mention for her) to see her current and former charges, during a Sunday afternoon stroll along the corso downtown, call out to her, “Buona sera, prof!” with a big smile as we pass.

Overall, our decision nearly three years earlier to pick up and move from the United States to Europe was working out pretty well. The main reason we'd come was so our sons, who already were Americans, could also become full participants in and beneficiaries of their mother's culture, a particularly rich one. It was something of a "now or never" moment in that, though Nico had made sure in Florida that they'd learned decent Italian, none of the boys, then twelve, ten, and nine, had ever written in that language or had any formal instruction in the intricacies of its grammar, which is a subject of emphasis throughout elementary school here. Bruno was about to start seventh grade, and that seemed to us like the last point at which he could be dropped cold-turkey into the Italian public school system and be expected to catch up.

The big idea was that the boys would somehow come to combine the good things from both sides of the Atlantic, from the New World and the Old, and it seemed to Nicoletta and me, at that point in late 2008, that things were proceeding just fine. Bruno, Joe, and Toby were not and still are not some enlightened miracle hybrid. But they're good guys, and they enjoy the uncommon condition of being thoroughly bicultural. In an American context, they're indistinguishable from U.S.-raised kids, yet if you see and hear them fooling around with their friends on the beach in Fano you would think they were born and raised in Italy.

I came back from Pierini's with the kit. Nico went into the bathroom and peed on the stick, then brought it out. We were standing in the part of the living room with our dining table of polished pine set before French doors giving onto the broad fourth-floor terrace, where we take many of our meals between late spring and early fall. A pink-fading-to-white speckled orchid (a horticultural hobby Nico picked up in Coral Gables) was in splendid bloom on the table.

Sometimes a minute can seem like a long time. There as we huddled, shoulders touching, it started to show, a pale lavender strip that flushed unbelievably yet implacably through violet into full-on purple, trumpeting like the crescendo of a Maria Callas aria the news that, Yes, folks, Yes Don Pardo: Nicoletta Spendolini, daughter of Livio and Elvira and formerly of Fossombrone, Le Marche, was indeed knocked up.

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