James Chapin ~ Deafness

        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.