Sentenced to Write
Silence absolute. Everything. Anything. Screaming.
In a matter of weeks, I’ve become as deaf as a corpse, impervious to every sound thing. They’ve cut off my noise machine; no more music forever. Hearing aids may as well be earplugs.
I can’t go to court deaf. Possessing no other marketable skills, unable to communicate with those around me—staff, clients, clerks, judges, witnesses, juries—I’m hopeless, useless.
Doctors don’t know why I’ve gone deaf so fast or why my hearing has deteriorated to zero. Every health care professional diagnoses my affliction within their individual expertise. The ENT thinks it’s the ear, nose, throat—calls it permanent, incurable, and gives it a French name. He writes these things on a notepad. Holds them up for me to read. Meniere’s Syndorme, beyond hearing aids, he notes, total deafness. You’ll need cochlear implants; you’ll have vertigo, he adds.
Seeking alternatives, I go to the dentist. He says it’s TMJ dysfunction. He pulls some teeth. At the chiropractor the problem’s in the neck, range of motion. At the allergist, its allergies, at the neurologist, neurology. I decline visits to oncologists or proctologists.
As I travel the country in search of causes and cures, submitting to various diagnostics, each sunrise ushers a more silent world. My concern isn’t just the deafness, but what could go next.
I need solutions. Instead, I get dizzy, lose a few teeth and spend a fortune on gasoline.
I still have my marriage. One luck left.
According to my wife, I’ve gone deaf because I never listened, anyway. I suppose she means it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ kind of thing. Here’s someone who cares enough to tell the truth, loving me even more than before, never turning her back, who’d forfeit her own sense of hearing, give it to me. She’s someone who deals in otherness rather than self-ness. Whose entire life is resolve, the strength of toughness rather than excuse—that kind of woman.
In disappointment, she shakes her head; frustration reddens her face; angry words die behind her teeth; and her steadfastness, her loyalty, never strays, not once.
As hope for remission fades, I begin to consider silence in new ways, the unbounded absoluteness of no more noise, inuring myself to the big hush. It’s as if I want to “hear” the hollowness, the ringing in my head as proxy for every sound I’ve ever heard, or ever will.
Every morning, I lie in bed and watch the alarm wink time like some inside joke. I stare at it, imagining the blaring noise while my wife cups her ears and buries her head in pillows.
I sit on the edge of the bed considering a world without songbirds, the whistle of wind, footfalls, laughter, voices, the splatter of rain. But this entire odyssey seems so absurd, I still think, hope, it’ll end like it started, and that some sudden noise will signal all’s well.
I stand and clap my hands, banging them together again and again in the dark, as if applauding the cleverness of this fuckover. My wife gets up with her hands back over her ears. I look toward her, pounding my palms together for so long, they swell, each strike stinging, silently stinging.
The red numbers keep winking and winking. Okay, I get it.
Buoyed by the uncompromising spirit of my wife, I choose to get over it. Excuses, she tells me, are just stories we tell ourselves, twice told tales of woe.
The thing is, though: I can’t get over it. For sixty years, my waking moments, like yours, have resounded, reverberated, resonated. Oddly, it’s the muted tones I miss first: the creak of a floorboard, a newly kindled fire, the tick of a cooling engine, wind in treetops, whispers, the rustle of breath.
Now, silence inhabits every commotion, each hubbub, and all conversation—holidays, grandchildren, parties, restaurants, rush hour traffic, bars.
Easy sleeping in a crowded house.
I give up on television. On people. Who reads movies? My cell phone goes dead. No ding-dong doorbell.
Breaking glass shatters in slow motion. Garbage trucks creep soft streets. Every movement submerged. The silence in a city of a million cars.
Over time, my wife becomes adept at hand signals. A shrug of her shoulders with palms up means, she has no clue. She uses finger signals, too: thumbs up; thumbs down; fuck you.
Old friends and acquaintances exhibit mannerisms I’d never noticed. The language of bodies—facial expressions and gestures. For those who hear, the distraction of sound, of words, of what to say next, masks what lies beneath, those hidden agendas of unspoken minds. The secret looks people exchange at the periphery of conversations when they think no one’s watching—the innuendo, the roll of the eyes, the flick of the hair, the movement of eyebrows, lips, hands—insults and conceits we miss because we’re so focused on ourselves, distracted by noise. Voyeurism for the deaf; what gossip looks like—envy, pain, sorrow, deceit.
There’s a lot to be said for what’s left unsaid; insinuations from particular women when you’re no longer a light, but a lamppost.
Then the neighbors stop popping over. I look the same with or without, so maybe they don’t get it--or maybe they do. What remains of friends and relatives is visual, their expressions and motions, their warmth. I yearn for contact. Just touch me. To be polite, I chuckle at soundless jokes and nod in smiling agreement to whatever is asked. I say, ‘yes’, ‘sure do’. But, those un-hearable questions, like: “Do I look fat in this dress?”—cause problems.
When alone, it’s easy to forget deafness. Think about that. Every gathering, party, public place, or attempt at conversation shrieks my disability. Who wants to be alone? I end up at the bar, a nightclub.
What song is this? Sing the fucking thing so I can read your lips. Dancing to the rhythm of other people dancing, getting in the form of their groove because I’ve lost mine.
I resign myself. Alone in my den with a locked door, a novel or computer, I’m normal again. Deafness dies in solitary space, in imagining, in thinking, exploring the Internet, reading. I email, text, surf. There’s no deafness when there’s nothing to hear. I spend inordinate blocks of time alone, to feel like the old me. Isolation becomes my preference and, too soon, my way of life. Alone, you can lose yourself. That’s not a benefit; it’s a risk.
Within the perpetual drone between my ears, the entire universe flatlines. But words and noises are everywhere, from everyplace, from everyone—sound all around, all together chatting, tongues wagging, terms, statements, exclamations, utterances, pronouncements, threats, banalities, naughty tail-feather gossip—lipped-up, reverberating, spewing from gullet to ear. I’m like some forlorn radioman in the midst of a million sound waives without a receiver. A Rolling Stone without electricity; a butterfly catcher with no net; Liberace’s piano packed in cotton.
I can’t hear myself, just words buzzing and thrumming at the back of my throat, like the reverberations of some garbage disposal. Sound as memory—the sizzle of frying bacon recalled by nostril, thunder remembered in cloud-flash.
In noiselessness, the world softens, expands, parameters formerly delineated by sound, become boundless perspectives, as if I can see silence.
I hope not to exaggerate, to overstate things. I know I’ve been going on about this. Deafness is not the loss of a child, is not blindness, cancer, not Alzheimer’s—or poverty. Despite the attendant vertigo, deafness is not crippling. Innumerable afflictions are more disabling, more burdensome and devastating than deafness.
Before, I’d have discounted deafness as a serious disability. Perception changes when it happens to you.
And so, after thirty-five years, I retire, and leave my law firm forever.
High-profile criminals facing long prison sentences don’t hire deaf lawyers. Nobody does.
I miss courtrooms. An anxious place, a courtroom, but not for me. The years of familiarity, I suppose. When I contemplate never again presenting a case in a courtroom, defending the accused, a career I’ve given my life to, it doesn’t make me sad; it makes me lonely.
What I miss now, all day, every day, by myself with nothing to listen to but the silence in seashells, is the camaraderie of other lawyers. Don’t laugh. It’s a known fact: no one likes lawyers--except other lawyers.
For years I strutted before juries thrilled with the sound of my own voice. You know, that opinionated fellow who forgets you aren’t a witness, who interrupts conversations and insists on being right. The asshole who never listens. That guy.
I surrender my law license and begin a sentence in solitary.
So how shall I fashion these lonely days?
One Monday morning it rains. My wife grabs my old umbrella and leaves for work. Across the street, our neighbor ducks into her car. I sit on the patio with my first cup of coffee, feeling horrible about losing my profession, my clients, my name. I think about getting in my car. Should I even be driving like this?
Within a ridiculous funk of self pity, torrents of rain pelt the earth. Downpour like snowfall. A jolt of understanding hits me like a vision, an aura over the silence of the rain. The lyrics of that Don McClean refrain resonate in my head.
There is something I can do, with a voice even I can hear. An idea for bringing the music to life again.
I put down my coffee and charge up the stairs to my den.
I open my laptop to a blank document. The cursor throbs like a signal, a semaphore—a pulse. Staring back at me is a virtual sheet of white emptiness that emits potential, like a being in-utero, embryonic, on the threshold of becoming.
And in the beginning was the word…
I stretch my fingers, feeling the heat from the computer on my lap.
On that empty page before me, all limitations vanish. As my fingertips hover over the keyboard, I sense options, and that ineffable quality of the open mind that persists and endures in possibility.
That cursor has a heartbeat. Don’t make a wish; make a choice—take action—start typing.
Writing. A writer.
From somewhere, like a haunting dream, come ideas, images, scenes—-and sound. Seems the minds eye has an ear. “I’m right here,” it tells me. “Nothing’s changed, old buddy. It’s all good.”
Tears of self-pity have changed to joy.
My fingers fly over the keyboard, words become sentences, paragraphs, stories. I can hear everything, anything.
This is the endgame.
I’ve been sentenced to write.