My befuddled brain startled awake with the five a.m. musical chime from my cell phone. Though I can’t say why I thought it necessary to rise at such an hour on a Saturday, I nonetheless bolted out of bed. I shrugged and twisted, struggling to engage my tortured synapses. As I engaged whatever grip I have on damaged nerves and helpless muscles, I recalled the significance of the day. Just twenty-four more hours to get ready for our first-ever benefit for three agencies serving First Responders. Whatever possessed me?
Without the support of my secretary Miranda Erichsen, this would not even have been possible. I knew she would work without stopping until every last chore fell into place. I smile just thinking of her energy. Then I pause on the stairs, listening for sounds of the old dog snuffling at my bedroom door, but both she and I have failing ears. I hear only silence.
I thought about my grandfather the other day as I strained to follow a judge’s pronouncement from the bench. He’s been on my mind since I stood behind my brother Mark at the family reunion last week thinking about how much he looks like Grandpa. Now I shake my head, remembering Grandpa’s large hands and the broad, rounded resonance of his warm voice.
Mother sent me to her father one summer to have my hearing tested. He and Nana owned a hearing aid business in Springfield, Illinois on South Sixth Street. To be closer to their business, they had moved into the first house in the new Lake Knolls subdivision, leaving behind my mother’s childhood home in Gillespie.
My mother’s concern stemmed from reports that I had begun missing words in school. A few of the nuns dragged their eyebrows taught and made that little noise of displeasure with their unfriendly mouths. My hair fell over my face, hiding the crimson stain of shame. I didn’t hear what she said, I protested to my mother.
My dad just shook his head. They both dismissed my explanations. But Mom figured it would good to get me out of the chaos of days without somewhere to go to escape the grim mornings when my father’s hangover prompted him to meanness. So off to Springfield I went with instructions that I should mind my manners and help out with the daily chores. My brother Mark went along to see that I did.
I adored my grandfather. His olive skin and wide wrinkled cheeks exuded benevolence. He never screamed, or staggered into the kitchen and smashed dishes. Before they moved, he would take us fishing. In the new place, he let us explore the muddy channels cut by the bulldozers as the men built each new house. Towards fall there would be ripe corn to pick from the field beside the house. My grandfather had an arrangement with the absent owner to keep the children at bay in exchange for an unlimited supply of the sweet summer ears.
One night during our June visit, my grandfather sat me at the kitchen table and settled heavy headphones over my braids. He played with dials on the panel of his equipment. I was to listen for tones and raise one finger, left or right, according to the direction from which the sound came.
I did my best. But my grandfather’s broad face grew troubled. His brown eyes clouded. After the test he patted my hand and sent me out onto the patio to sit with my grandmother while he called St. Louis to give a report to his daughter. As I went through the door, I heard him say, Lucy, it’s Dad. I’ve got a little bad news.
That’s how I found out that I was going deaf. I was twelve.
It hasn’t happened yet. They prescribed hearing aids long ago, but the cost of the particular type which I need sent me reeling. I struggle without them, relying on imperfect lip reading and faulty assumptions. I turn my head to let the better ear take the lead. I know that I should bite the bullet and get the damned things, even though I’ve had cars that cost less. I’m holding out for Medicare. I’ve got three years before those benefits vest, assuming Congress doesn’t move the target. It’s either that or move to Canada.
A year or two after Grandpa diagnosed me, I played Helen Keller in a one-act play contest. I had no trouble looking the part. I took off my glasses, shook out my long curls, and let my natural stumble guide me across the stage.
I had only one line: Waaaa-teeeerrrr, uttered in the last scene, when Miss Annie pulls me out of a tantrum at the dinner table to make me fill the pitcher that I’ve just emptied on her head. To Captain Keller’s earlier statement that “cleanliness is next to Godliness”, Miss Annie had replied with passion:
Cleanliness is next to nothing. She has to learn that everything has its name! That words can be her eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too. What is she without words? With them she can think, have ideas, be reached. There’s not a thought or fact in the world that can’t be hers.
I sit at this keyboard, thinking of my grandfather gently removing the heavy apparatus from my small head. I remember too my father bending over the St. Louis Post-Dispatch holding one of my fingers, coaching me to trace and sound the words. At three, inexplicably unable to walk after toddling around the house for two years, I troubled his heart. He had no idea what had stricken me ill. He only understood, as my mother sensed and my grandfather would later confirm, that something unrelenting controlled my senses. When Mother asked why he felt compelled to teach a child so young to read, my father replied, She might not have anything but words. I owe her that much.
In the end, words have never failed me. When I lie awake, plagued by the shuddering pain that the virus sends rippling through my legs, I write poetry in my mind. Though they be clumsy verses which vanish in the rising light of dawn, they comfort me through the night. Annie Sullivan spoke truth: I am nothing without language. On its wings, I journey far.