| Turning Tides |

Without Words

I could have cried with all my strength but neither my mother nor my father would have been able to hear. They were both deaf and mute

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As told to Leah Gebber

I grew up in a silent house.

When I was born my parents installed an alarm system for when I cried — a light would flash beside my mother’s bed waking her up. I could have cried with all my strength but neither my mother nor my father would have been able to hear. They were both deaf and mute.

My mother would make some noises but she could not sing me lullabies. She could not encourage me to make my first sounds: the only indication she had that I was babbling was that I was moving my mouth.

When I was four I was sent to a special preschool where I learned how to sign. I know this but I don’t remember it. My memories of young childhood are patchy. Everything had another gesture: there was a movement for chocolate and cake for example but there were times I didn’t know the correct movement for that word and then I would spell out the word using sign ABCs. I’d also read my parents’ facial expressions. The meaning of their words was affected by the place and direction of their signing so I had to pay attention to that too.

When my brother was born he joined our little signing community but I finally had a playmate with whom I could share words.

We were the only Jews in our neighborhood; we had applied for housing within the community but it took years until our application was accepted. We were an easy target for the neighborhood children. As we passed through the streets they’d shout at us and goad my mother into losing her temper. When that happened she would yell at them unintelligibly. All they heard was strange sounds and a mixture of fear and fascination and cruelty made them taunt us all the more. I would put my head down and rush into the house.

When it’s your life that you’re living you accept it and carry on you don’t really imagine anything different. But I do remember wishing that my parents could hear and speak. Outside the little world that was our home and extended family interactions were cumbersome at best agonizing at worst.

My mother was 38 when she was introduced to my father. My uncle’s brother-in-law was the rav of a shul where my father davened and he introduced my parents to each other. They were so lucky to have found each other — my mother thought she’d never get married. They came from very different backgrounds and their respective families had very different attitudes to their disabilities. My mother was from a large family. Her mother contracted chicken pox during the pregnancy and my mother was born with no hearing at all. Although her family learned basic sign language she often felt locked into a lonely world. I think that had a profound effect — while my father was mellow and accepting my mother was more high-strung.

Although my father was also born with no hearing he was the only boy in a family of three and his mother showered him with love and affection. He was drawn into conversations and made to feel that his thoughts and feelings were important — however they were expressed. His temperament was also gentler and more easygoing than that of my mother and I always felt closest to him. Daddy’s girl.

Although signing was the normal way of communicating with my parents our conversations were quite limited. There was no chatting about my day no small talk. My parents had been cut off from the world so deeply that they found it hard to connect with us on a normal day-to-day level.

Some situations were quite comical. Every Sunday my father drove us to visit family. He drove extremely slowly — around 20 miles per hour. All around cars would honk and irate drivers yelled. But my father couldn’t hear any of it so he continued the journey oblivious. I never said anything to him just let it go.

When my mother went to the grocery store, she would hand the grocer a list of the items she needed. If there were any adjustments, she would take out a pen and hand it to the grocer. They communicated via the written word. Most errands she ran with my father by her side. She had not a clue about money or banking — my father had to take care of all of that. The world must have been a threatening place for her.

I also helped. I still remember, as a teenager, answering a phone call from the municipality. They were happy to inform me that a house had become available in the area we had requested. It was the most exciting phone call I’d received. Most of the calls were technical: government offices or utilities or even the tax office. I was so young, yet I navigated my way through red tape and bureaucracy.  There was no choice. I may have been young, but I had a voice.

There are times, though, when a child needs her mother. I must have been eight or nine when I was bullied in school. I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to school the next day, and she probed enough that I told her how I had been picked on. The next day, my mother took me to school. She walked up to the teacher — the wrong teacher, not my teacher at all — and started to shout. She made a lot of noise, but there were no words. They had to turn to me: “Why is your mother angry?”

I explained: “I’m being bullied.”

She tried to defend me, but she didn’t have the words.

When I got older, my father suffered from an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It caused his vision to slowly deteriorate, and when we went out, he often held on to my arm, as his vision was so weak. As a teenager, I was terribly embarrassed that my friends would see me that way and I’d try to drop his arm. So sad what we do as teenagers.

There’s no treatment, no cure for retinitis pigmentosa, and I have a vivid memory of one Succos when we had a major storm. Trees fell on the electricity lines and there was a total blackout. My father thought he had become completely blind. He did not tell us of his fears, but afterward we learned that he cried himself to sleep that night. The next morning, when he woke up and saw the pale morning sun, he was overcome with joy. We found him hugging my younger brother.

I got engaged when I was 19; one of my school friend’s parents actually suggested the shidduch. I was filled with trepidation for when my chassan first met my parents. He quickly picked up on some sign language and formed a rapport with my father. He later admitted to me that he was quite afraid of my mother.

If there was one thing I learned from my childhood, it was that I wanted my own home to be filled with noise and news. I wanted my children to come home and tell me about everything — friends and Chumash parties and divrei Torah. More than anything, I wanted a large family; I didn’t want my own children to feel the acute loneliness I’d suffered all my childhood.

Baruch Hashem, my children are all happy and lively. One of my children, actually named after my father, has a hearing impairment. That was terribly hard for me to come to terms with. At first I was in denial: He can’t have a hearing impairment! I know that he can hear me. And then I was filled with regret: Why had we named him after my father? I knew that my reaction wasn’t logical, but the old wounds reopened and I was suddenly aware of how much pain I’d felt as I was growing up.

The doctors reassured me — it’s just a small impairment that will improve as he gets older. He went through a tough time when he started school — he was quite wild and angry. I gave him a lot of extra attention, and we got him help, as well. Baruch Hashem, he’s matured and has calmed down a lot.

Although I’ve been through a lot of heartache, I learned from my parents to “get on with it.” They displayed bravery every single day of their lives; they never felt like victims. So I’ve tried to harness the pain I felt, to be the type of mother I always wanted. I wait for my children at the school gate in the afternoon and give them a warm smile and a greeting. I listen to their chatter about their day, and at night they get bedtime stories.

On rainy days, our home is filled with construction toys and dollies being pushed around in toy carriages. Normal, normal, normal. Blessedly normal. Our Shabbos table is filled not just with good food and divrei Torah, but with zemiros. That gives me so much pleasure. That my home is filled not just with noise, but with song.

My mother is now in an old-age home. The nurses have learned some sign language and she writes down what she needs. I visit her regularly, but I’ve realized that communication is so much more than language. It’s a bond. Without nurturing, that bond remains weak.

I’m a grandmother now, baruch Hashem, and when I look at my family, I know the power of silence. I have no words to express my gratitude.


(Originally Featured in Family First)

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