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Sentenced to Write---short story


Silence absolute. Everything. Anything. My own screaming.

In a matter of weeks, I’ve become 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 hear or 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, and why my hearing has deteriorated to dead zero. With stunning coincidence, health care professionals diagnose my affliction within their individual expertise. The ENT Doc thinks it all has to do with the ear, the nose and the 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. “It’s Meniere’s Syndorme.” Beyond hearing aids, he notes, total deafness. “You’ll need cochlear implants. You’ll have vertigo.” 

Not accepting that, 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—MRIs, EKG’s and such—each day ushers a 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. 

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 give me her own ears if she could, who deals in strength and resolve rather than pity and excuse—that kind of woman. 

It’s an exasperating thing to live with someone like me, who then goes deaf. 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.

And so, after thirty-five years, I retire, and leave my law firm forever.

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 clock wink at me like some inside joke. Imaging the sound of my blaring alarm, while my wife cups her ears and buries her head in pillows, I consider a world without songbirds, the whistle of wind, footfalls, laughter, voices, the splatter of rain. But this entire odyssey seems so absurd, I still imagine it’ll end like it started and that I’ll soon be able to hear again. 

I toss off the blanket and sit up in bed and clap my hands, banging them together again and again in the dark, as if applauding the cleverness of this fucking silent alarm. I pound my palms together for so long, they swell, each strike stinging, sounding like cotton. And 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 breathing. Silence inhabits every commotion, each hubbub, and all conversation—holidays, grandchildren, parties, restaurants, rush hour traffic.

Easy sleeping in a crowded house. 

I give up on television. On people. Who reads movies? My cell phone goes dead, the ding-dong doorbell. Every movement seems submerged. Breaking glass shatters in slow motion. Garbage trucks creep by on soft streets. 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 would have 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, the hidden agendas of unspoken minds. Those 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. 

Then the neighbors stop popping over. Invisible deafness. 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? No longer a light, but a lamppost. I end up at the bar, a nightclub. 

What song is this? 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. You can lose yourself, alone. 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; words buzz and thrum at the back of the 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. So how shall I fashion these lonely days?

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. 

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.

Within a ridiculous funk of self pity, torrents of rain pelt the earth. Downpour like snowfall. 
Then, a jolt of understanding comes to me. It’s like a vision, an idea, an aura that hangs within the silence of the rain. 

There’s something I can do, with a voice even I can hear.

I put down my coffee and charge up the stairs to my den. I open my laptop to a blank document. 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, feel the heat from the computer on my lap. The cursor throbs like a signal, a semaphore—a pulse.

On the empty page, all limitations vanish. As my fingertips hover over the keyboard, I sense options and possibility, and the ineffable quality of the open mind that persists and endures. 

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.

Words become sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and all sense unfolds. And I can hear everything, anything, forever. 

I’ve been sentenced to write.


  1. Reading just this made me want to read everything you write. Brilliant use of words, bringing me new insight into deafness, the craft of writing, some chuckles, admiration for your spouse, and anticipation to see what else your obviously scholarly mind will come up with.

  2. I agree with happyreader. Yes, what a great storyteller you are! I just have one thing to ask, Where can I get what you got? :-P Just kidding. Though I would love to have silence most of the time, I, too, would miss the camaraderie of others who are too normal to feel comfortable around those who are not so normal. (I've been told that normal is nothing more than a setting on a washer!)
    Welcome, Jan, to the writers life! It's a life others both envy and fear! No one knows the true heartache of a writer, not even other writers!
    No. No, I don't know where this stuff comes from.
    Yes. Yes, sometimes I wish it would just go back without escaping my mouth, or fingers as it were.

  3. Your story, "Sentenced to Write" is amazing. It is funny and sad and so honest. PLEASE expand on this story and make it a novel. It is original and interesting. Hemingway says, "Use the last line of your first draft as the first line of your novel." "I began to write." Are you learning sign language?

  4. You have a unique tone/style. Sentenced to Write has it all. It's funny, sad, heart warming, self-deprecating. Great story telling, draws the reader in from the beginning. Wow!

  5. Reading your work makes me smile. Something I don't do often enough. I admire those who seek and find the opportunity that lies in difficulty (one of my favorite Einstein quotes). Blessings!

  6. Hi Jan,

    I found your web site by checking your profile on Linkedin. I am a new member of The Writer's Hangout. For someone who doesn't think he can write, you write extremely well. This essay could turn into a book length memoir, You have a clear voice, courage and a sense of humor, all of which come through in the piece. I shall be following your blog and shall include it in my list of blogs I follow.

    I would be happy if you would visit my blogs some time.

    www.adelaidewritewritewrite.blogspot.com (my blog on writing)

    www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com ( my blog of published haiku and other short form Japanese style poetry)

    Adelaide B.. Shaw