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The Art of
Being Deaf: A Memoir|
I accepted that my life was different in some ways because of my deafness, but the differences did not seem to be particularly plentiful or exceptional. When I was three years old, I went to a school for deaf children, which I attended until I was eight years old; I was then transferred to a “normal” school. As I grew up, I had to make adjustments from time to time. I sat toward the front of classrooms at school and, later, at work conferences to make sure I could see to hear; and I disliked dimmed lighting, whether it was at a fireside campsite, in a restaurant, or on a friend’s back deck because it put my companions’ faces in shadow. I thought that was about it really. I was tongue-tied and reluctant to share any of this with the psychologist.
I decided to agree with him. “Oh yes, a big impact.” I could not think of anything else to say that he might like to hear and that I was prepared to reveal, but it was the right tack to take, because he dropped the subject. We spent the last ten minutes of the appointment tossing around ideas for managing my work stress. He told me that I needed to meditate every now and then throughout the day, and that it would be good if I could go for a walk each morning to clear my head. I smiled at him.
I walked down the hill from Wickham Terrace, through the city, back to my office on Mary Street, shaken by the certainty in the psychologist’s voice. I was not obtuse. Of course I understood that I was different from others simply by dint of being deaf, but it was not something that I gave much thought to. I had other things on my mind. The psychologist had asked me an earlier question. “Have you had any trauma in your life?”
“Yes,” his voice filled with insinuation. “Any significant harm?”
I did not tell him about my son, Jack. I did not have a track along which to lay down my words safely. Instead, I bent my head and saw that the flesh across my knuckles had started to loosen with age. I thought of the creamy touch of Jack’s baby hands.
I could have recited the facts. Jack was twenty-two and a half weeks old when he died suddenly thirteen years earlier. He had been my solemn-faced baby boy; my chest ached each rare time he smiled at me. At the back of his head, a tuft of hair stuck up which I slicked with a lick to make it stick up even more. He liked to lean forward so that he could see his world open up before him; he would never sit back. I was thirty-two years old at the time, but still unprepared for the flurry and spin of my days and nights as my life expanded with the fullness of this baby of mine. And then grief came through my door, became my twin; my son hummed his last breath into the cold sky above his cot, and ghosted into my shadow child. I was unprepared, then, for the stillness, the silence without echoes, and the airlessness that seeped into my bones, into my heart.
But these facts would not have told the whole story. I could not have explained to the psychologist how my sorrow felt like a heavy weight, but that I was reluctant to relieve myself of this pain. To do so seemed like an act of disloyalty to my son, and I preferred, instead, to adjust to its bulk somehow. I lived my life cautiously, as if that might make a difference. I worked hard, kept up my friendships, and was moderate in my diet, drink, and fitness schedules. Jack’s father was long gone. After we buried our son at the Pinaroo Lawn Cemetery, we were unable to console each other. Instead, I fought him, not in blame but in an unceasing and desperate urge to kick my pain away, to give it another reason. Our struggle was terrible. He left me, unwilling to bear the gap in my arms, the tearing away of the flesh and blood that formed our son. I loved him and hoped his flight was temporary, but his absence stretched into years. He made a new life for himself, remarried, and had a new child. A daughter this time. My love for him drained away until there was nothing left at all.
I was afraid this made me a shallow woman, and I fretted about my apparent inability to keep love alive. Other men passed in and out of my life, but I could not muster the wherewithal to keep them close to me. I didn’t like this. Despite my desire to be in a lifelong relationship, fear was my steady companion. This was no great surprise. Once bitten, twice shy; and I’d already been bitten more than once, having also survived the collapse of a brief marriage to a man of considerable charm but equivocal love long ago. My friends chivvied me along and tried to encourage me to enjoy all that was good in my life. When I revealed to one of them that I believed being in a relationship would provide me with a sense of history, an enduring constancy, he chided me, saying, “That has to come from within you. No one else can give you that.”
I didn’t go back to that psychologist. Instead, I dealt with my stress by getting involved in a new work project while knowing that I wanted to do something more dramatic. Something fresh. Perhaps freeing. Fabulous, even. I was single, lonely, and tired from the joyless diligence of my days. My torpor was crushing me, and so when someone I knew in England suggested that I apply for a job over there, I sent off my application as if it was a telegram of hope.