in memory of José Saramago
I don’t remember when I stopped being able to hear. That makes it worse. There’s no moment I can hold up and point to and say Look. It happened to me also.
I know the day that it happened, I do. When the whole audible world is replaced by a dull shush, that’s a milestone. You mark the date. For me: workweek, Tuesday, at the bank. Sometime after lunch I went deaf at my desk. As had so many already, as would everyone I know.
There is a consensus that it’s not quite silence: it has a sound. Everyone has their own pet term for it. Some people say it’s like an avalanche a mile away. Some say jet plane, pressurized cabin, thirty thousand feet. Some say it’s the sound of the ocean inside a seashell, which is in fact the sound of your own blood. Some say it’s a long, soft rain. I know what they mean. But I hear silk. Heavy red silk, dragging past the lobes of my ears forever. I’d say that’s nice, I’d say that’s pretty regal.
The problem is I don’t know when it started. I was at my computer, moving things around, highlighting sentences and un-highlighting them. The nothing that you do for the last hour or two of work. And at some moment, beneath the hum of lights and the benign sough of air vents, I stop hearing any of it. It blended into deafness.
I wish I’d stood up from my chair. I wish I’d shouted across the office, ‘I can’t hear.’ Gone up and grabbed someone by the shoulders and said into their face ‘I’m deaf. I can’t hear you.’
But that moment didn’t come. I got up, slid my laptop into my bag, eased my chair under the desk, and walked out through the automatic door—which opened, by the way, with a sound like deafness, deafness is an eternally-opening automatic door.
That’s all I’ve got. You might think a little less of me, for coming through this big terrible moment in history with such a small story. I know a man who was in an airport and saw planes colliding on the runway, deaf air-traffic control men screaming in their headsets. Another lost her hearing at her father’s deathbed, so that the old man’s last words were the last thing she ever heard. Another went deaf being barked at by a dog, and watched the animal’s bellows suddenly transformed into silent mouthings, like gulps for air. These stories are coinage. They are treasured commodities, passed around. Me, I’d take anything at all—anything other than a slow realization on a long drive home. Then the drive to the doctor’s for him to tell me what I already knew, first in mime, then in text.
Your grandmother has a better story. I’ll let her tell it in her own letter. I’m not sure when she’ll get around to writing it, though. She’s been having trouble with her hands.
I was back at the office by the end of the week. There were no other symptoms, after all. I was otherwise unchanged. This decision to return was framed for me as a heroic act, as it was for thousands of others. Persistence in the face of disaster, bravery before the void. Blitztime Londoners. Manhattanites on September thirteenth. That feeling did not outlast the first hour back at my desk. It was replaced by the sad realization that I was not much impacted in my job performance. The work I’d done had never really required me to hear anyone. Conversation had mostly been yappy and unnecessary. Anything more meaningful had been reserved for email, or was unsanctioned talk unrelated to work. Wives, families, dreams, hatreds, baseball.
In a strange way I preferred what replaced it, at first. We did a lot of grasping and embracing in those early days. Rather than a how de do in the hallway we’d move toward one another, clasp each others’ arms for a brief moment face to face, and then swim past one another through our respective deafnesses, your jetplane cabin, my heavy silk.
But that kind of tactile intimacy went away over time. Because it became a company challenge to make the post-hearing workplace resemble the old workplace in every way possible. It wasn’t hard. We just had fewer meetings, and sent more emails. Sometimes I sat at my desk and touched things. I crumpled paper inaudibly. Watched my hands open a bag of Sun Chips without a sound. Tapped on my desk with a pencil. Nothing. Harder. Nothing.
In the early evenings I’d walk around the center of the city. I’d never done much of that before. Never been a rover. Michelle changed that for good, of course; she taught me how to walk. But I had my first cautious attempts when I became deaf. I moved around the city, seeing what it looked like when you couldn’t hear it. It looked different. Brighter lights. Taller towers. The sky they stood in was bluer and drooped lower. And the people in the streets moved very slowly, or did not move at all. You saw people poised on steps. Not all jobs had survived the shift to pure text. I remember one old man, I’ll never forget him. He was wearing a beautiful three piece suit and sitting with his chin in his hand. He stared straight ahead at the building across from him. I walked past him and his eyes did not touch me. Maybe he’d been a musician. I wanted to say something to move him, to reach him, but what? How? Type something on my phone? I walked on in my silence, he sat there in his. Michelle would have talked to him.
We met after the fact. You can put it together then: I’ve only known her deaf, I have never heard her voice, I have never heard her laugh. Though I have seen her laughter and have been seeing it for three decades, it is lovely laughter to behold.
By that time fear of contagion had passed. It’d been a year maybe. We’d finally got it through our heads that it wasn’t disease that had caused this, it was damage, and the damage was done. We didn’t need to be afraid of one other. So I went to a concert.
When I walked up to the venue there were fifty people waiting outside in the snow. All walks of life, every color and class. Concerts were a focal point for us, in early deafness. We all knew the plight of the musicians. Suicide was endemic. A whole philharmonic orchestra had linked arms and jumped into the Ohio River. This act was replicated elsewhere, violinists jumping with their violins, harpists binding themselves to the strings for the fall. But after that first wave, the funniest thing: concerts resumed. People gathered together to to recreate the feeling of music, to look at music. Punk outfits thrashed and their audiences moiled and slammed. Black metal covens roamed the country. Drummers were beating their drums harder than ever, and went through skins and sticks at a fast clip. So there I was on a December night for a hardcore show. The band’s name was Pockmarx. I remember that they were very good—abandoned in their movements, frenetic in their pursuit of the inaudible music. Then I got elbowed in the throat.
My trachea shuddered and I bent double. When I recovered I looked over and there she was. The mother of your mother, the heart in my chest. She was wearing a miniskirt and a jacket that looked like a duffel bag. She had ice-green eyes, glacial, Arctic Sea, mile-deep, more below than above. She was—I could tell by the way she embraced me and put her hands on my face— very sorry about my windpipe. I gestured that I was okay, though I continued to wince. Now I am playing it up a little. She continues the laying-upon of hands. I indicated a need to step outside for fresh air; she accompanied me, still so sorry. But I recovered quickly out in the cool evening. And grandchild, I’d be lying if I told you any different, we were kissing within ten minutes.
If you met her you’d understand. I wish that you could meet her. Wouldn’t you like to meet her? I can almost see the two of you. Your mother said something about green eyes. We asked and asked her to tell us what you look like, so I do know that. Otherwise—very little. Would it hurt so much to meet us? Maybe if you ask her.—No. I told myself I wouldn’t ask. Not now. Right now I only want to speak, and for you to hear me. And then if you choose to speak I promise I will be listening.
From that first night we met we hardly left each other’s side. She taught me to walk, I taught her to sign. I’d taken a class at my office in the immediate aftermath. She wanted to learn and so we spent long hours across the table, Michelle and me. We worked on the slangy, broken ASL that people had adopted, though she often resorted to lip-talk. I spent a lot of time watching her laugh. Usually we’d just end up holding hands.
Holding hands, rarely parted. Like we were afraid. Like if we let go we might get lost to some current and slip below the waves of that great big hushed sea. She rented a work space across the street from my office and we’d meet out on the sidewalk at 5:02 and walk home, hand-in-hand, white-knuckle.
There was a bit of a shipwreck feel to things back then, yes. We all felt like survivors, though not many people had died. Perhaps you find that strange. The sinking feeling has gone away: that’s good. But I also know what we had in that shipwreck. We were damaged and diminished, and aware of our skins. Fearful and reckless. I would never have met your grandmother without that moment. That iron-tipped certainty that life was happening—maybe ending, but happening. It’s no longer poised on edge. Now it lays flat on one side.
And besides, I’ve seen how things go these days. You match profiles, you message, you message some more, you meet and wordlessly mate, a month later you get another ping maybe. And on and on ad aeternum. Jesus. Promise me you won’t let the world treat you that way. Kiss a stranger on the train platform.
You’re wondering why I don’t say all this to you in person. I wish I could. But your mother.
She can tell you all she wants and I won’t argue a word of it. In fact, I’ll help her along. I’ll tell you that we let her become deaf. We let her be born and raised in the same airspace that’d affected us. And why? There were stories of people living up in the mountains or out in the swamps whose children were not damaged. So why didn’t we take her up, out, away, away from this city, with its quiet catastrophic noise?
But I don’t know what I could’ve done or where I could’ve gone. What did I know about mountains? I was an administrator at a bank. I lived and I worked in the city center and so did everyone I knew and so did their families and so did the doctors who said there’d be a cure soon, soon, very soon now, and so did the government men who said they didn’t know what had caused it. We were wrong, they were wrong, everyone was very wrong, wrong or lying. Both. And now we get to spend our lives acting as if nothing is missing, forever. I know you’ve never seen a cellular phone, but they are useful devices. We send each other messages and no one can tell that you’re lying. And if you are very careful with the messages you can arrange never to see other people at all, never see the lie in their faces.
I am glad your mother went away to have you, and stayed away, if it means you grow up with birdsong. Even if it means I’ll never meet or touch you or see you laugh. Your grandmother feels a little differently—but I’ll let her tell you that herself. I know she’ll write you soon. It’s her hands, like I said. They’re giving her trouble.
I’m told that more and more children are being born hearing. That’s good. In your mother’s last letter she said that you were chatting up a storm with your classmates and then turning around to sign to her to quit eavesdropping. I couldn’t tell if she thought it was funny. I did. Be good to her, please.
You’ll probably read this when you’re a little bigger. A letter from an old man you’ve never met. I hope that you listen. Listen when I beg you to listen. Do it all of the time. And then, speak. Do you see these words? Dark marks on white? For some of us, this is all we have. Scratches, hatchings. These mute glyphs.
You do not know what you have. I’m asking you, I’m begging you: say this out loud. Find someone and read these words to them, speak them off of the page and into the air. It’ll be the first time anyone’s heard me in a long time. I will be shouting.
James Chapin is writing to you from Tampa, Florida. He is originally from Daytona Beach. His essays and journalism have appeared in local and national outlets, but this is his first published piece of fiction.