I was at the front desk, subbing for the receptionist, who had to leave early that day to attend some training.
The only thing that the person subbing before me said about what I had to do, while I waited answering phones for the last 30 minutes of the workday, was that a woman was in the lobby and that she was deaf-blind and that her name was Nancy, like mine. She said she was waiting for an ACCESS van–our local public transit for people with disabilities.
I hoped the van would come in time so that I didn’t have to wait any longer than my prescribed thirty minutes. How selfish.
ACCESS called to inform me that the van would be a little late. The driver, stuck in a traffic jam, would be there before 5:30. I sighed with relief. He would be there before I had to close the front door and I wouldn’t have to explain anything or talk to her.
I’m a fairly gregarious person and, working at an agency for people with disabilities, I’m interested in talking to and working with people from all walks of life doing different things and living differently.
But for whatever reason, I was terrified of finding a way to communicate with a woman named Nancy who was deaf-blind.
What would I do? Talk loudly? Take the palm of her hand and somehow draw out the numbers “5:30?”
I would wait in silence until the ACCESS van came.
I watched her.
She was middle-aged, in her forties with poofy brunette hair. She had blue eyes and an expression of worry on her face–a cringed eyebrow, eyes exasperated, almost rocking herself back and forth while waiting. She proceeded to scrawl something on a notecard with a black marker. She got up and handed it to me. My nightmare had come true.
It said in large crooked letters: MY ACCESS VAN IS LATE. PLEASE CALL THEM FOR ME 555-5555. THANKS.
She looked at me with her exasperated blue eyes and I didn’t know what to do. I said loudly with some embarrassment, “OH, THEY CALLED. THEY WILL COME SOON, BEFORE 5:30.”
But she continued to look at me with the puzzled look on her face, making eye contact but not quite making eye contact at the same time. It’s as if she met my eyes without a signal of recognition although I know that deep inside there is an interiority, a world of feeling and thought, although all I could see is a card scrawled with the crooked letters, the crooked letters that she could not see or judge herself.
I got up and proceeded to find someone that I thought could speak to her in sign language.
I found M in his office at work in front of his computer. M walked gently as if not to disturb the woman, tapped her on her shoulder, took her two hands and proceeded to sign with her two hands on top of his so that she could feel what he was saying.
To feel what someone is saying is absolutely beautiful to me and to see two strangers in an embrace that way, the two hands, one set in motion and the other set cupped over them in reading. My eyes proceeded to fill with tears and I thanked M and he said no problem.
To think that at times I feel so alone and how this woman proceeds through life with so little to communicate, actually with so much to communicate, but with so few people to understand. To think how the heart and the brain go rusty when unheard. How is she heard? How does she speak? And who can listen?
Writing is solitude based on language, so it manages to also be a social form. Sometimes I wonder about my own writing’s worth, whether it means anything to anyone else beside myself, or if I am just caught in some web of self-indulgence, self-speak, self-amelioration.
But does the woman who speaks and listens with her hands indulge herself when she looks for the other pair of hands that may understand?
If there are no hands should she not do everything in her power to be heard, even if it may be messy, even if it may be judged? Should she not just take that shot into the dark?
MY ACCESS VAN IS LATE. PLEASE CALL THEM FOR ME 555-5555. THANKS.