I spent hours and hours staring at this deaf guy in my history class a couple semesters ago. I sat in the very back row and he sat in the front across from a man and a woman who took turns translating the lecture into sign language. Time that should have been spent learning about British imperialism was instead used looking at this student and wondering what it’s like to not hear at all.
Three months after I saw him for the last time, the hearing in my left ear began to fade (I’d already lost the hearing in my right ear in 10th grade). I kept an eye out for the deaf student around the building I had class with him in, as if I couldn’t imagine him existing anywhere else. I don’t know what I would have done if I saw him. Approach him with notepad and paper and write, “Man, nobody told me how hard being deaf is. How do you do it?” I’m not that bold. But I felt like I needed to let him know he wasn’t alone. It felt wrong that I had never reached out to him before when I know how important social support is to someone with disabilities.
Despite all my staring, I don’t remember much about him. I don’t remember the clothes he wore, what he looked like when he signed, if he took notes, if he looked happy or sad. I never paid attention to anything beyond his deafness. I attached every thread of curious thought to his deafness as if it defined him. I assumed he was tired of being a social outsider due to deafness. If he didn’t show up to class, I assumed he couldn’t get out of bed because he was so distraught over being deaf. I assumed he felt frustrated that the only two people in the room he could effectively communicate with were restricted in their relationship with him by professional boundaries. Just sad thoughts not based on any evidence. Maybe he was actually a really happy guy. But I always thought, how could you lose a sense and not be consumed in mourning it?
Shocking truth (to me, anyway) is, now that I’m completely deaf, I’ve found every second isn’t absorbed by thoughts on deafness. I don’t sit in cafes drinking coffee thinking, “Oh no, I’m deaf, I’m deaf, I’m deaf, I can’t believe this, I’m deaf, I’m de–” and so on. I often strike a conversation with my parents and get a bit confused when they start mouthing silent words at me. When watching Netflix with captions on, I hear every word spoken by the popular Hollywood actors/actresses — I’ve memorized their voices — and for a couple hours I can forget it’s not all in my head. I can even get lost in thinking about the sound of music I used to love, able to vividly remember every thrum of the bass or crash of the cymbals. I actually need reminders that I’m deaf a lot of the time.
But there are times that bring my disability into searing focus. The panic I feel as a stranger makes a beeline towards me at church to chat. When an ambulance speeds by with sirens on or a Blue Angels jet swooshes overhead and I only know because my ears are suddenly painfully throbbing from the intense sound waves. The confusion and alarm when someone yanks me away from the road to save me from a speeding car I hadn’t heard coming. The terror when I felt like my heart was exploding during a cardiac procedure and I couldn’t hear the surgeons when I asked them if everything was going fine. The sorrow of waking up from dreams where I was able to hear again.
However, it’s not bad all over. I never expected to find beauty in deafness. Yet it’s there. Being deaf has made me more appreciative of things I once thought to be unremarkable. Silence in itself is liberating in a sort of way, allowing me to actually hear my own thoughts — close my eyes and it’s just me and my conscience. Sometimes I’ll actually hear a random sound if it’s at the perfect frequency, such as a car that backfired last night — to me, it was like a symphonic masterpiece compressed into a single microsecond, simply because it was the only sound I’d heard in weeks. To others, it was just the loud source of a headache. I’m still mulling over that microsecond. Tonight, I saw a Swedish film (A Man Called Ove, amazing) with subtitles on the screen and I happily cried just knowing I was nearly experiencing the same film as the rest of the audience. Silly, I know. But things like this are more meaningful now, and I think finding meaning in anything is beautiful.
The best part of being deaf? People are more fascinating than ever before. Unable to hear people, I’ve begun to rely on visual hints to get an idea of who they are, things I normally wouldn’t pay much attention to. I notice their friendship bracelets, their engagement rings, the falsity or honesty of their smiles, the laughter crinkles hugging their eyes, the titles of books they carry, the relaxation or tensing of muscles when they listen to music, the way they gaze at their babies, the way their toddlers imitate them in admiration, their balled up fists — things that indicate a lot about people. While lack of spoken communication is a wide barrier between us, I still feel I’m experiencing people’s stories, if not just a taste. This level of observation was something missing when I watched my deaf classmate. I only ever saw his deafness when he is so much more than that. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to meet him and learn who he is beyond his disability. I think he deserves that.
“I like to prowl ordinary places
and taste the people-
from a distance.” – Charles Bukowski