McALLEN — Jenny Cano never has trouble getting a good night’s sleep.

She’ll tell you that, joking about being unable to hear for almost her entire life — a joke that shows the good humor she’s been able to retain, or recuperate, after 36 years filled with struggle and strife.

In many ways, Cano has spent her life alone because of her deafness, in a bubble, even when she was surrounded by people. She’ll go to family parties and watch someone tell a joke. She’ll see people’s eyes light up and their mouths break into grins and laughs.

“What’s so funny? Why is everyone laughing?” Cano will ask.

“It’s just a joke,” someone tells her. “I’ll tell you later.”

They never tell her later, and Cano’s never in on the joke.

“They’re all laughing, they’re making their own jokes, and I feel left out,” she said via interpreter Wednesday.

Cano’s life is a story of struggles and overcoming struggles; after overcoming one challenge, she’ll find a new one there to face, just as daunting as the last.

When Cano was 8 months old, she lost her hearing due to a measles infection she blames on a lack of vaccination.

She says she was molested by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 12 and was put in a foster home. Later she fled her home state of North Carolina, heading for other family in Texas and bidding her biological mother goodbye.

“She said, ‘OK, go for it.’ She didn’t even think of it twice,” Cano remembers.

Cano had her first child at 15, and began seeing a man who she started doing drugs with. She was addicted to crack through her first pregnancy. Her daughter only weighed 3 pounds.

“It was a miracle,” Cano said. “She was born and she was a healthy baby.”

Child Protective Services took her children — two now — away a couple of years later. Cano would visit them, two hours a week every Tuesday.

Alyssa, her eldest, was just 4. Alyssa had seen Jenny buy drugs. She’d seen her smoke crack. One day, in one of those visits, Alyssa told her mother how that made her feel.

“She told me you throw me away like trash,” Cano remembers. “That’s what really shocked me. At 4 years old, my daughter telling me that, that I left them like trash.”

Cano was still buying drugs, still hopelessly addicted. But that indictment by her own daughter stuck with her.

“I was just thinking of what she had told me, and that stayed in my mind. For the rest of the day I just tried, tried to forget,” she said.

For a while, friends had been telling Cano that she looked different, skinny and sick. She remembers realizing it was true only when she looked at a picture of herself. She felt like she’d spent the last five years blind as well as deaf.

“I looked so sickly looking that I didn’t recognize myself,” she said.

A burned out building stands in a nearby parking lot at Jenny Cano’s home on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Cano straightened up and got off drugs. Pregnant with her third daughter, who would also be born with hearing loss, Cano finally persuaded a judge to award her custody of her other two children after about a year of being separated.

“I don’t want them to go through what I went through, with my experiences and my mistakes,” she said. “I don’t want them to go through what I did.”

Striving to find herself and her daughters some sense of community, Cano became active in a church where she found other members with hearing impairments. People who could sign, who could understand her.

“Later I went to volunteer, and it felt good,” she said. “As my daughters got older, they would tell me, ‘Hey, would you tell me when the church needs volunteers, and if I could volunteer?’ So I was impressed. My daughters wanted to volunteer as well.”

Cano still helps at the church, teaching other members who are deaf about the Bible and helping translate the hearing interpreter.

Despite the challenges Cano has managed to overcome, others remain. She has struggled to pay rent and meet the basic needs of her children for years, often worrying over finding a ride to the store or to doctors’ appointments, and about where money would come from for new pairs of shoes or new clothes.

This year has been particularly tough. Alyssa, Cano’s eldest daughter, is the only member of the family to work, and Cano says money is a pressing concern. Evelyn, her youngest daughter, has been on a waiting list for new hearing aids for five years. All of the girls need braces and Cano is in desperate need of dental care: she says several of her teeth need to be pulled, and it hurts terribly when she chews.

Cano would like to do other things for her daughters as well: she’d like to move them to a better neighborhood and figure out some kind of reliable transportation so it’s easier to get around town. She’d like to buy a new washer and dryer, and some new clothes for the girls to go to school in. She’d like to be able to buy them something for Christmas.

Jenny Cano has a daunting to-do list, but Jenny Cano is used to being daunted. After a life filled with a disproportionate share of hardships and misfortunes, Cano is used to living on faith.

“It is hard, it’s hard for me, it’s not easy, but I try no matter what,” she said. “I still try to have faith.”

To help this family, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign. Due to COVID-19, only monetary donations are being accepted for families in need.