That dark September morning was both the happiest and the most devastating day of his life.
Under the grey light of dawn, his daughter was born, and by midmorning his wife had passed away. She was only eighteen, and he was just one year older. Now he was left with nothing but the help of his elderly father to raise his little girl.
He sat by the window, cradling the tiny creature in his arms.
‘She’s not normal,’ said his father, who sat at the kitchen bench nearby, sipping on his glass of whisky.
He looked up, still pale with shock. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean she’s not normal because she doesn’t cry. Most babies come into this world screaming like banshees, but I haven’t heard a peep out of her yet.’
‘She’s just tired, dad. Look, she’s nearly asleep.’ He lifted the crook of his elbow to reveal the little pink face. The old man’s lips tensed into a thin line.
He looked at his son holding his new-born daughter. Despite the deep crease in his weathered brow and the cool detachment in his eyes, the old man felt his heart break at the sight of the broken little family.
‘Well, what’s her name, then?’
The new father looked out at the robin which sat on the branch outside the window, trilling cheerfully despite the heavy grey sky.
‘Robin,’ he replied.
She always smiled when she saw her dad, but she never made a sound.
He spent every cent of his pay check on formula and toys and clothes for his daughter. He stayed up entire nights singing her to sleep as he rocked her in his arms, and never joined the boys after work for a drink, just so he could race home to play with her.
Everything faded into the background when he thought of Robin.
She encompassed every corner of his world.
As months crept by, and she reached her first birthday, she still hadn’t spoken.
‘David,’ said his father after she had fallen asleep in her cot. ‘We need to take her to the doctor.’
He looked at his daughter, surrounded by colourful balloons with her chubby arm around her new soft toy monkey. ‘Why? She’s strong and healthy. Anyone can see that.’
‘No, David. You know she should be talking by now. You know that something is very wrong.’ The old man’s eyes softened a little. ‘The sooner we find out what it is, the sooner we can help her.’
‘It takes some children longer,’ he tried again. ‘She’s smart, I know she is. I can see it.’
‘No-one is saying she isn’t. But you need to get yourself together and do what’s best for her.’
The doctor had his elbows set neatly on his desk as he explained to David that the cochlea in both her ears were working, but the problem lay in the nerves that passed the information along to the brain. It was impossible to treat via the usual route. A hearing aid wouldn’t be of any use, and surgery was out of the question.
For as long as Robin lived, she would never hear a sound.
The doctor’s eyes looked sympathetic beneath his glasses as he laid out a chart with a diagram of the inside of an ear. He kept speaking in that low tone of voice, carefully controlled to instil calm in his patients.
David just sat there staring at the chart, his skin grey and his eyes listless.
At some point the doctor had finished.
He got up and left that stifling office with armfuls of pamphlets on sign language, and booklets on how to care for children with special needs.
As Robin grew older, she learned to speak with her hands.
She and her father would sit at the kitchen table every evening learning the different gestures and signs. David believed he could hear her voice in every movement she made. She was funny. She was sarcastic. She loved to laugh, even though nothing came out when she opened her mouth.
But everything showed in her face.
Every cry and every laugh was in those lovely blue eyes.
Even her grandfather learned this new language with his hands, practicing with them as his thick arthritic fingers stumbled along through basic greetings.
When she was sound asleep in her room, David would sit at the table and learn the next day’s lesson so that he could teach her.
All he had to do was stay one lesson ahead.
When David’s father died, she spoke at the funeral.
Not with her voice, but with her hands.
There weren’t many guests who attended the funeral, and those who did couldn’t understand the young lady’s rapid motions with her slender hands.
It would just be the two of them from then on.
She seemed to take things well, but he hadn’t realised just how much she suffered until he found her on her grandfather’s old chair in the middle of the night. She was crying silently, but her back shook with every sob.
He held his silent daughter in his arms as she cried, and spoke words of comfort even though she couldn’t hear them.
Together they created a world where they could understand each other without ever needing to speak.
She’d look at him with her mother’s sweet smile before leaving with her school bag over one shoulder and her hands in the pockets of her coat.
He’d watch her for just a moment longer as she met her friends on the pavement outside. It was a constant worry that she’d cross that busy road in a hurry and wouldn’t hear a car coming.
But then she’d disappear safely into the school bus.
And that same old fear seemed silly again.
When he got home from work, she’d have the table set and scoop out dinner from one of her delicious smelling pots. He’d wash the dishes. She’d pick the movie. They existed happily, as if speaking had never been a necessity to start with.
There was once a day in his life he called both the best and the worst of times.
Now, as he watched his beautiful daughter dance to the music she couldn’t hear with her new husband, he knew that today was a much happier day.
The bride and groom had said their vows with their hands.
Many of their guests understood these silent words, and even chuckled when her nerves got the better of her and the priest signed that: ‘speech is silver, but silence is golden.’
Now they danced before their guests, and everything they had to say shone from their eyes.
David would never admit to the tears that rose in his eyes as she danced across the room. After all, the song that was playing had been the same one he had danced to at his own wedding. But she would never know that.
It didn’t matter anyway.
He knew there would always be music in her life, even if she couldn’t hear it.
He would make sure of it.