For some unexplained reason, it was considered shameful to become deaf through illness, as if it were somehow the fault of the patient. If one became deaf through an accident, that is to say suddenly and because of an external shock, it was not quite as much of a stigma. I never knew if this was a prejudice of our family alone or if other deaf families shared the same belief.
My father's speech was difficult for hearing people to comprehend because he had never heard the sounds that words made. His manner of speaking was coarse and guttural, but he had a keen intelligence which he was not bashful about displaying. If I made a mistake in sign language, he was sure to correct me vehemently. This was his territory and he was the guide, expert tracker and wagon master. As soon as I could talk, I became the emissary through whom my parents were able to communicate with the hearing world. And so a child assumed adult responsibilities.
It was a mixed blessing. I felt important because of the power that language gave me as the key to enter the grown-up world. But I also felt embarrassed because of my parents' disability. This embarrassment was a continual and unwelcome companion on my travels around New York City with my mother and father. I wasn't ashamed of them in the safety of our home, but I dreaded those trips .on the subway and pretended that I wasn't traveling with that deaf couple seated next to me who were conversing in sign language, an event that engendered great curiosity among the other passengers.
When I was four years old, I locked my mother in a closet. I don't remember why I did it. We were alone in our three-room apartment in the Bronx, and my mother was cleaning out a clothes closet. I slammed the door shut and stood there listening to her frantic repeated cries of "Gerald. Please open the door. Turn the door knob." There was no knob to open the door from the inside of the closet. Picture this helpless woman, deaf to her surroundings, now deprived of her most important sense, silent in the darkness. As the story was recounted to me later, I finally opened the door after about ten or fifteen minutes, after which I was greeted with a hug, not a spanking. Such was the loving nature of this woman.