I met a deaf person today, although I only saw that they were unable to speak, so they may have been just mute. It was in the hospital, a starkly ugly woman in the bed next to mine, just overlapping with my visit by twenty minutes or so. I had seen her before, but never been close to her, and I still had never spoken to or interacted with her. I am unsqeamish, and I frequently say yes to all things and I am not uncomfortable to be around the other older people in the ward. But my heart sunk when I had to lie next to this woman. She was androgenous in her old age, with a grey hair almost spiked, and a slow and cautious body. It was her face that was difficult to look at, and this does not happen frequently to me, but it has sometimes happened to me in the hospital.
Her face had a poor, blotched skin which was red in parts but also dry, and it was very bloated. She had a swollen nose, spread out and up and dominating her look. It was blown up and the eyes that were resting above the nose were squinted and pale. I felt sorry for her, and I did not like to look at her. She was alone, and left alone when her treatment was done.
But I watched her interact with the nurses and then realized she could not speak. She pressed the button for the alarm for the nurse to come and see her, but it hadn’t worked, the alarm didn’t sound. She didn’t notice, so I thought she might be deaf. I continued watching her and immediately began liking her more. I understood that I had some sort of automatic appreciation for a deaf person, but I did not know why. She was quiet and her hands were animated and when she spoke you paid close attention to those squinting eyes for their tiny, visual language. And her eyes were squinted and unexciting, but when looking closely they seemed to be full of a space left open by her empty voice and ears. She gave me a warm smile when she left, objectively an ugly one that showed no teeth and, because of her frozen nose, her face changed little with the curve of her lips. But I liked her smile, it was warm and unassuming, and there was something wonderful about the way her smile was so relaxed and comfortable in spite of her inability to speak. She left the room and left me thinking that I would not mind seeing her again.
I then began thinking of the deafness I had come across before, and realized there was very little. I remember a lovely older woman I had met once at a bus stop coming out of school, when I was very young, at the sweet age that interactions with strangers and bus rides are nearly still exciting. I began to talk to her, and found that she had a strange voice. I realized afterward that she had been reading my lips, and I was left incredulous. What a beautiful ability, watching the subtle movements of thousands of different pairs of lips and extracting the words and sounds from them. Inside her head, the woman must have forged my lip-dance into words and meaning, and what I perceived as hearing in my normal conversations she must automatically translate through reading. So much so that her entire language becomes movement, movement of her mouth and of the mouth of the other, and in her mind the words are transcribed on the same page that I draw the waves of my own and others’ timbre upon. She was perfectly understandable and charming, and I felt a little guilty that she must have worked very hard just to ask about the bus time.
I really love to hear, and, when I have something to say, I like to speak. One thinks of music first, the xylophonic possibility of sound, the pleasure and the skin-tickling ecstasy of the song, a beauty and then also a sadness. Then there are all those sounds of life, footsteps on wood or stone and the wind cut with birds. A pretty neglected background soundscape that I would miss so much if I was unable to hear it. And then the voices of the people you love and the laughter of those you like. The voices that make your life full and the world so exciting. It now reminds of me of that hum that comes from a large room of people all having their separate conversation, the great loud noise that these small voices produce all together. The social disco of public place, usually combined with background music and an occasional loud talker. It is wonderful, but entirely silent to the deaf.
The deaf person is missing out. But then, as they say, the body is a machine very deft at compensation. Four senses will heighten in the failure of the fifth. I remember a young blind man on the Dutch news once who was able to cycle around town just by clicking his tongue and listening to its resonance around him. The voices I love, the sweet voice and the versatile laughter of K, for example, are transformed in the mind of that deaf person into subtle nuances of movement, and touch, and different forms of implicit or explicit inaudible language. Sign language is of course an incredible phenomenon, apart from being quite beautiful to look at. And, culturally speaking, it must be fascinating; the way it is formulated and perceived by its users. But, even beyond sign language, the body language that we mostly shadow with our chitchat, the deaf person must carefully observe and shelve in their mind library. When a look, a trick of the tongue, a bodily gesticulation brings home the message in an instant, it is a beautiful thing for a person who can hear, and must be doubly so for one who cannot.
The incredible thing is of course how quickly people adapt. In films I have seen many times a character who has lost their ability to speak or hear, and revert to the written word, carrying a little notebook in their back pocket. Just having read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he writes of being shot in the neck and losing his voice for a period. According to his doctors he was to permanently lose his voice, but he regains it in a month or so. Orwell, as always, has a typical and fantastic matter-of-fact way of putting things, and he does not even slightly complain about his incapacitation. But I imagined him roaming about the violent Barcelona after the May Days and going about his things, perhaps relying on writing but in any case immediately adapting to his new condition, and making himself understand and observing the panic and fury around him with keen eyes. He would have watched with intelligence and attention, independent of the senses. If our senses were an old, grand structure, with five pillars holding up the stone roof, it would be very difficult to knock down. All pillars are strong and even alone are capable of holding the stone together, and we weave in and around the pillars and even find something useful in the open space between them. Even Helen Keller retained her structure, although she was very exceptional I suppose.
So I like the deaf and dumb. Not that I dislike any other individuals that are sensorially impaired in other ways. I just think there is a sweetness and a deep talent within the difficulties of the deaf. I say that now as I write and listen to music: it is of course a brutal sense to be deprived of. But I think there is a special significance to those that watch things closely, and speak rarely. The absence of inclination to fill the space with empty speech, a conversational space that for them does not exist. A mastery of the hands and lifelong dedication to the mantra – one my father adored – of peace & quiet. Ultimately, I felt guilty of my repulsion for the woman in the hospital, but maybe if I had looked slightly closer, like she does, I would have found something not so disturbing at all.