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Back in Arkansas, tn the middle of the woods, behind my childhood home and a little to the south, was a school for special ed kids. Of course back then we didn’t call them special ed. I don’t remember ever using the term ‘retarded’ in a negative way. At least that wasn’t allowed in our house.  It was a description of the kid who, for whatever reason, couldn’t keep up in regular school. I was told we were lucky that there was somewhere close that they could go for an education designed just for them.

On the other side of town, across the Arkansas River and on a bluff that overlooked a valley, was my grandmother’s house. Her name was Ovea, she was my dad’s mother and mostly we all called her Huddle because she worked for the railroad. (Just like in the army, railroad workers were frequently called by their last name.) Every time we visited Ovea, our route took us past the Blind Children’s School, a rather large, dark, imposing brick structure, that looked like it would be a scary place to live to me. I don’t know if the negative aesthetics were something a blind child could feel. I find myself hoping not.

It had to be during my rights of passage for children who had disabilities that I heard the term, ‘deaf and dumb’. I remember what my mother told me about it when I quoted it to her.

“I don’ t think that deaf people are always dumb. I think they know now that sometimes it just seems that way because they can’t hear.”

This level of enlightenment in the 60s, even in Arkansas, probably came at least in part from the movie about Helen Keller. There was a spate of movies that seemed to hone in on our developing understanding for how much we were underestimating the human spirit when the metric was a very simple estimate of sensory or mental capacity.  Take for instance, the Three Faces of Eve, which put a sympathetic face to mental illness. Well okay, Hitchcock took advantage and went for the entertainment of it all with Birds and Psycho. And What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was just plain scary and weird. However, it did make us recollect whether or not our crazy Aunt had an accountability for anything similar. (Because everyone has one a crazy aunt albeit sometimes they can operate in disguise and can be an uncle. Or some other crazy relative.)

The bottom line is that we certainly seemed to be gaining a broader mindset as to the disabilities that some of the population have that cause social interaction issues. Let me caveat this: It’s my contention that every single one of us carry around some kind of psychological  or mental or physical or social disability that either consciously or subconsciously, we’ve had to find work arounds to fit into the’ norm’. But there are those disabilities that require outside intervention.

It’s that group that I am thinking about this fine, winter, cloudy day because my mother now falls into that deaf category and for at least deafness, it can be very isolating. In other words, although I am not deaf, I have some idea from being her best friend, what it means to her to be deaf.

My reflection this morning is that three weeks after her brain surgery, Mother seems to be increasingly concerned about her inability to remember a lot of those two weeks in her life. She seems to fret about it. It’s like that word you can’t remember that’s on the tip of your tongue and no matter how much you try to pull it out of your mouth and into the air, it remains a nagging, almost-there word that never materializes.

I am going to write it all down for her. She’s asked me to do that. And I am happy to but the thing I keep remembering as I gather my thoughts, is what it meant to be deaf from the day I took her to the first emergency room until she left the hospital six days later.

The phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ carries a much greater sentence than I had realized .

Because you see when you are deaf and your brain is being squeezed down and over because  a little pool of blood is sitting in a place it never should, your ability to communicate is almost at zero. And the people, who don’t know you, who really don’t have any experience with you or with deaf people, are now charged to access your mental acuity. The decisions they make literally impact your life and its’ quality.

I knew on the ride to the emergency room that her ability to reason was still intact. I live with Mother, I know her that well. She couldn’t move her leg and I watched as she tried to reason why what her mind was telling her leg to do, wasn’t successful. On the gurney, she stared hard into each face that spoke to her, the emergency room a cacophony of sounds, her brain slowly swelling. She was trying her best to read their lips. She looked hard at their mouths as they moved, hoping that would give her some clue.

To the doctors and nurses, she looked like an tiny 82 year old woman who could do nothing more than stare into faces as they came into view.

Remember when you are deaf, you don’t hear people coming towards you. You don’t hear people who are talking to you while they put a pillow under your head or have their head bent over your tiny wrist as they insert an IV needle.

The anesthesiologist would tell me later that her remarkable recovery surprised him because when he was getting ready to put her under, she was completely unresponsive. He remarked, “she could do nothing but stare blankly”.

I suppose that as a doctor in an emergency room or a neurosurgeon given a report of an attending’s findings, my mother would not have been a surgery candidate with a great prognosis. What they could never have calculated was that she looked dumb because she was deaf rather than brain damaged. Even enlightened and as sensitive as we might think we are, its’ difficult for those of us who hear to understand just how narrow your sensory input is when you cannot hear the world around you.

I’m going to write all of the experience down for Mother. I hope when I do, the words soothe her worry that she cannot remember most of what happened. What I hope I get across to her, is that I think she is a miracle, one that God gave us this Christmas and that I could not be prouder of her and find her endlessly remarkable. That being deaf, with all the hardship that creates, she makes each day count, to the best of her abilities. She’s quite a woman, deaf and all.

DorisNeil1_2015