I Think I Hear What I’m Seeing?
by: Steven Keiths © August 1995
“For God’s sake, slow down Eddie,” I frustratedly tried to say. Well okay, all I really got out was “Slow down.” I didn’t know how to say ‘For God’s sake’ yet. You see, Eddie spoke a language I hadn’t quite mastered. One that on occasion, when I tried to communicate, I was to find would get me into hot water with him. At this time, Eddie was angry. And, when Eddie was angry or excited he signed so fast I couldn’t keep up, let alone sign back rapidly enough. I had no idea why he was so pissed at me. No idea whatsoever, but obviously to Eddie, he thought I knew his reason. When he was done chewing me out, he closed his eyes as I, in desperation, tried to communicate to him that I did not understand the reason for his intense anger or, for that matter, all that he was saying. When you’re deaf, and close your eyes, the other party, me in this instance, is at a great disadvantage. He turned his head, refusing to look at me, stomped to his bedroom and slammed the door. He slammed it so loud the whole apartment shuddered from the impact of the door meeting the jamb. A sound, of course, that didn’t affect the inhabitant of said bedroom, because Eddie was totally deaf.
I met Eddie after I received a call from a hotline for which I volunteered. I was informed they had a gay deaf man on the line and he was very depressed and intoxicated. He TTY’ed he didn’t feel life was worth living any more. Oh, yeah, give me the easy ones I thought. I know that doesn’t sound too compassionate, but I couldn’t figure out why they would call me. So I asked. “Why did you call me?” It seems on my volunteer form I had put that I was studying ASL and I was gay. To the hotline volunteer, I repeated the operative word “studying” to which I added, “and for less than a year.” It was 3:00 a.m. and they had had no luck in contacting someone at the local deaf association in hopes of sending someone to talk with him. So I was contacted. I found it sad that there was no service available to him because of a lack of funding. Not unusual, but sad.
Now, I really am a compassionate person, lest you all get the wrong idea. I was more frightened and feeling inadequate as to my ability to communicate and, thus, having this poor fellow jump from a rooftop in front of my eyes as I signed to him in my very rudimentary sign language. A repertoire that mainly consisted of: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine.” “What’s your name?” “My name is S-t-e-v-e-n.” “Do you go..?” and hopefully I would know a sign for a place you might go. The hotline volunteer was asking me to talk with a very depressed and inebriated deaf person and stop him from making the ultimate solution to a temporary problem—suicide. I felt sorry for this guy as he was stuck with me to rescue him from his abyss of depression. Well, at least, I could sign, “How are you?” and he could manually vent. I probably would not understand a word, but I could act as though I heard what I was seeing.
I threw on a pair of Levi’s and a sweat shirt, hopped into my extremely battered and dented and chrome-less 1967 Pontiac LeMans overhead cam 6—a relic which was evidence of my drinking days—and made my way to Eddie’s apartment in a section of town locally known as Lavender Heights. Standing outside on the landing of his upstairs apartment, I was faced with another conundrum. Do I bang on the door or ring the doorbell, which struck me as absurd as he couldn’t hear. No, I didn’t know it was hooked up to a flashing light. I did know, however, that the deaf were sensitive to vibration, so I vigorously pounded on the door, with the result of awakening some very pissed off tenants in the building. That’s when someone yelled, “Hey you idiot, ring the damn bell, it’s connected to a flashing light.” Quietly, thanking the irate tenant, I rang the doorbell.
Eddie was a short hirsute Italian kid, well not exactly a kid, but he looked like one. He was actually twenty-five. He was short and on the chunky side, not fat, built more like a fireplug. He had a cute little pug-nose and the most expressive bright eyes, though on this meeting they weren’t exactly glittering. He motioned for me to enter and had me sit in a chair opposite him. He offered me a drink, but having been sober a few years; Jack Daniels wasn’t on my beverage list. I did get to do almost my entire repertoire of signs. “How are you?” I asked. He signed something, but it wasn’t something I knew. I only knew “Fine or Good.” So, I just assumed he wasn’t “fine or good.” Though I already knew it, hell I might as well impress him with my signing skills, “What’s your name?” I signed. Doing good so far, but I was about at the end of my repertoire, and I didn’t think he was going anywhere, so…Unless I wanted to finger spell my way through the night. Egad, I hated finger spelling, only because I’m a klutz with my hands. Thank God we could write, because between his and my signing we weren’t getting very far in communicating. I swear we went through twelve of those itty-bitty little 3x5 tablets. I’m a writer, give me a 8x14 legal pad for crying out loud. Anyway, I ascertained his boyfriend dumped him. Moreover, he didn’t understand why. I, of course, I had no idea either, and he wondered what he could do to get him back. I didn’t have answer for that either, so far I’m a great help. Furthermore, I was there because he was depressed and he also had a drinking problem, of those I knew something about—a marriage counselor I’m not. Of course, I couldn’t say this as he was seriously upset and depressed. So, using the universal sign for ‘I don’t know’, I shrugged my shoulders and looked skyward.
I had managed to get him to dump the remainder of the Jack Daniels down the drain and drink some coffee, resulting in having a wide-awake drunk on my hands and by this time it’s about five in the morning. I tried explaining to him that perhaps his boyfriend didn’t like the fact that he drank so much. As with most people with an addiction, the denial factor is strong. For him the booze wasn’t the problem, not having a boyfriend was. I was tired, my hand cramped from writing and he’s still asking the same question, “Why?” I’m still shrugging my shoulders and looking at the ceiling.
Eventually, Eddie started to wear down and became sleepy. His eyes drooping, he affirmed that he would do nothing drastic nor drink anymore that night—correction, that morning. I gave him my phone number and told him to call me if he needed to talk or if he felt the need to take a drink. I still marvel at the universal language of caring concern and love. Eddie knew I really cared and though I knew little of his language those, thank God, came across loud and clear. That was the beginning of our eventual friendship.
Eddie did call me later, via a relay operator, that evening and I convinced him to go to a 12-Step meeting with me. I tried to get someone to come from the deaf association to interpret for Eddie as there was no way I could adequately relate to him what was to be said. Unfortunately, once again, they had no available interpreters that evening. Was this God’s way of playing a joke, I questioned. Earlier, at home, I had raced through my copy of Joy of Signing. I crammed and practiced until my hands and fingers were ready to fall off. Eddie sat at the meeting and most of the time I’m sure he didn’t understand a thing I was signing. I am not a very dexterous person and my finger spelling is way too slow to keep up with someone; someone even speaking at normal speed. By the time I got the speaker’s first sentence translated, they were ten minutes along into their spiel. Eddie was polite enough not to say anything, not to mention extremely patient. He at one point laughed, which caused all to look in our direction. He didn’t realize how loudly he laughed and turned very red from embarrassment and said he was sorry. Afterwards, I asked him what I signed that was so funny—as I was trying my best to interpret what was being said. He said he laughed because I had related to him something being painful—a sign done by twisting your two index fingers toward one another—he said while doing so, I had a smile on my face. He found that funny. I learned that facial expressions, body movements and spatial proximity are tools for better understanding of what is being signed. Despite my efforts, to interpret, which were bad at best, Eddie started accumulating a few twenty-four hours of sobriety.
To add to Eddie’s woes, losing his boyfriend put him in a precarious financial situation and he was about to be evicted from his apartment. We, by this time, had known each other for about two months. I had a two-bedroom apartment and no roommates, so I offered him my extra bedroom, as long as he continued to stay sober. He would need to pay a small portion of the rent and utilities, be tidy, and I would be appreciative if he helped me with my sign language. He accepted. We hooked up a flashing light to the doorbell and made other minor adjustments to the apartment to make it user friendly.
With his tutelage for the eight months he stayed with me, I became fairly proficient at signing. He was a real taskmaster. I wasn’t ready to get up and give a speech at the local chapter for the hearing impaired, but I at least could follow along fairly well—if one signed at a moderate pace—and I could reply and be understood.
Eddie was one of the most engaging and funny people I had ever met. He had me laughing for most of the time we shared my little apartment. I swore he could have been the next Marcel Marceau. I told him he should seriously think about joining a theatrical group. There were times he had me in stitches and literally rolling around on the floor with uncontrollable laughter, as he acted out some comical incident. He was a genuine ham. He loved my response to his hilarious antics and carried on until I had to beg him to stop, as I would be in pain from all the laughter.
Eddie was born deaf and his parents for the longest time would not allow him to learn sign language. They wanted him to learn to speak and write correctly. This baffled me. How else did they expect their child to communicate when he didn’t have the ability to speak? He was discouraged from using his hands to communicate. This to me was cruel. Hell, hearing kids don’t learn to talk until they’re three. They sent him to a school that taught vocalization and written communication. He did learn to write fairly well. As to speaking, that wasn’t as successful a venture. Not being able to hear his words, they came out very high-pitched and very difficult to understand. I did get a kick out of him calling out my name. It sounded cute as he yelled squeakily, “Teebe, Teebe.” He read lips, but this has its limitations as the lips can only form so many shapes. His parents finally did relent and allowed him to learn sign language when they sent him to Gallaudet School for the Deaf.
Eddie had a very good job working for a government agency. He had a nice car and loved to drive. Let me tell you, there is something a little unnerving about driving around at speeds of 55 mph and above, while someone is signing to you and you, of course, are signing back. I want someone’s attention fully on the task of watching the road at those speeds; not looking at me while I awkwardly tried to sign about my day or answer other questions. When I would admonish him to keep his eyes on the road, Eddie would remind me that my car looked as though it had been in a demolition derby. He, on the other hand, had never ever been in an accident. Okay, score one for the deaf guy. Hey, I was drinking then; I’d remind him as a defense for my chariot’s wreck-yard appearance.
For the most part, Eddie and I got along pretty well. Emotionally, for his age, he wasn’t very mature and tended to see things in pretty black and white terms. This was cause for a few heated arguments. Trying to explain intangible concepts was difficult. And stubborn, God was he stubborn. Sometimes I expected his ears and a tail to start growing and for him to begin braying and kicking. He definitely was mule-headed.
Returning to my standing confused, inches from a door being slammed in my face.
I stood there looking at the faux oak laminated door trying to determine what I possibly could have done to bring about this spate of angry hand gesticulations and a slammed door that almost squashed my already petite nose. I started going over that night’s events. We had gone to a party and he seemed to be having a good time. Eddie came to me after about a half an hour and said his ears were ringing and it was bothering him. Tinnitus, I learned is a common malady to the deaf. I also knew the irritation I felt when my ears rang. So I signed to him I understood—placing my balled hand beside my forehead and flicking my index finger. He then insisted I take him home. I, not being a social butterfly, or big on parties, was not terribly upset with leaving so happily agreed; we left. Once home he stormed into the apartment and started in on me, hands flying furiously. This led to the aforementioned door slamming.
After banging on his door for quite some time, he finally opened it. I can’t stand for people to be mad at me, especially not knowing why. He gave me this, ‘what do you want’ cold stare. He finally let me say something. Okay, tears were streaming down my face because I’m sensitive, aka, a touchy bastard, and I really was hurt because I truly did not know what I had done. He explained, slowly this time, that he was angry at me because I let him walk around at the party while his ears were ringing and I didn’t tell him. He was very embarrassed as everyone—he thought—could hear the ringing in his ears. His mule headedness kicked in when I—well first I laughed—then I tried to explain to him I couldn’t hear his ears ringing. My signing to him at the party that I ‘understood’ he took to mean I could hear the ringing. It took some convincing on my part as he figured if he could hear the ringing, I damned well could too. I all but called the people at the party to have them tell Eddie neither they nor I could hear his ears ringing. To this day, I do not know if he totally understood me. I do know it was a difficult concept for him to grasp. I’m sure he realized I would never purposely do anything to embarrass him or make him feel uncomfortable. In addition, I had never lied to him.
Eddie eventually moved back east to be closer to his family. We stayed in contact for quite a while, but he became romantically involved with some guy, whose name I cannot recall, and as his attention shifted, I started hearing less and less from him as time elapsed.
Today, I recall the ringing ear incident with some fondness. Its remembrance still causes me to chuckle. I also remember the playful antics and fun spirit that Eddie brought into my life—the laughter. He was a welcome relief at that time. Or perhaps, Eddie was a gift. You see, I was suffering from the pain of losing my little brother who while drunk, had taken his life the day before I got the call from the hotline asking me to go see Eddie.
If putting Eddie in my life was God’s way of joking, well—I did laugh a lot while Eddie was around.