Reflections On Being Deaf, Gray and Italian on the “eve” of my 70th birthday

Do you ever look at someone and try to imagine who they were as a child or as a young adult?

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Each of us has a story, with many chapters.  In a few weeks I will celebrate my 70th birthday.  For many of us, there are many versions of our “self” that include a younger version and the one that will always be in our minds.   But time does pass, and the older I get the more I realize how important time is.  Use it wisely.  It is the ultimate gift each of us is given.

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    New Rochelle High School Yearbook 1965

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    I think I was 18 in this picture.

On being deaf- If someone had told me in my youth that I would someday be totally deaf, I don’t know how well I would have handled it.  Over the years, I have struggled with this slow progression towards silence and the mindsets society has placed upon those of us who have trouble communicating with the mainstream.  Like most people with hearing loss, I have navigated my journey through rude store clerks, discrimination in the workplace and even jerky people who we thought were sensitive and above treating us like secondhand citizens.

But there is an upside to this experience for sure.  Strangely, I have experienced my greatest growth because of this experience.  Losing my hearing has made me more sensitive to the plight of those on the outskirts of society, it has humbled me and made me really think about what someone else’s journey may be like.  It has also made me determined to complete whatever goals I choose despite being deaf.

In the silence, I heard my own voice and I began to write and publish work.  In my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta, I compare going deaf to  smothering and drowning.  That is what it always felt like to me. Going down, no one hearing you and having no voice.  I have said it before, and I will say it again.  If it weren’t for the Hearing Loss Association of America www.hearingloss.org over the last more than 25 years, I don’t know how well I would have fared.  This organization gives people like me a place to go to advocate and share with others in our journey.  Hearing loss is isolating, and like many others I have tremendous respect and gratitude for their work.  This organization and the love of my family gave me courage when I really needed it. We need to always pay it forward.

I am very lucky to be living in an era where there is something called a cochlear implant.  Helen Keller, Thomas Edision, Beethoven and so many others were not.  Almost every week someone approaches me and asks me about this miraculous operation.  I can wake up deaf, and put on my implants and be part of the hearing world.  For this, I will always be grateful.

1012 About gray (grey) hair-I remember finding my first gray hairs when I was 26 years old and pregnant with my first child.  I was mortified.  How could I already have grays?  My hair was very dark brown, and I was still wearing a “Cher” hairdo with bangs and long dark tresses.  The steely grays really stood out.  Over the next 40 years, I went from dark brown to light brown, auburn, blonde and platinum.  One day after being sick and not being able to make it to the colorist, I examined my shimmery grays showing through at the part and I just said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”  I kind of liked that my natural pearly shade matches best with my dark Italian coloring, and it was very liberating to accept my new look and older self.  

To each his own.  I see many women ditching the bottle and feeling confident enough to be  comfortable with their changing looks.  Even my colorist told me in recent years, “You actually look younger with your own natural hair color, even though I lost a customer.”  I appreciated that.

But growing older is about so much more than gray hair.  Time is passing and we are becoming older and more vulnerable.  There’s a greater chance for serious illness or a fall.  That sometimes  scares me.  We lose lots of people we care for and love. These losses are profound.

I have always tried to be there for my children.  I think every parent always feels they want to help their children if there is a crisis for as long as they live.  But somewhere along the way, the tables turn and our kids become our strength.  It’s beautiful to have wonderful children,  but kind of shocking to witness this shift.

On being Italian- I will always be grateful for my strong Italian roots.  Being the daughter of an immigrant parent allowed me to understand the plight of so many generations who have come to the U.S.  My parents gave us a strong Christian faith, my Italian-born father’s love of opera and his garden were inspiring.  My mother’s binding efforts to give us a traditional, strong family life complete with ethnic foods and rituals.  Christmas, Easter Sunday, faith hope and patriotism… all of these were true gifts.

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Mom with all seven of her children
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Mom making her famous lasagne
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With my parents, five of my six sisters and brothers
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Easter Sunday
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With 3 of my 4 sisters a few years ago celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

A few more observations-

Sometimes I can still hear my mother’s voice– At this stage of my life, I look so much like my mother, I almost expect her to answer back when I look in the mirror.  My mother made it through some pretty tough stuff.  As a child, I always felt she was so strong it was almost intimidating.  But somehow, that shy little girl I used to be inherited some of her resilience.  I am grateful for that gift.  I recently was hospitalized after a fall and in serious condition.  As I looked up and saw IV attached to one arm, a nurse taking blood from the other, while one nurse waited to take my temperature and blood pressure, I heard words like sepsis, 104 fever, put her in cardiac care, etc.  Was my life in danger?  How would my mother handle this?  Suddenly, I could hear her firm voice speaking to the grim reaper saying, “I’m not going anywhere!”  So I repeated that phrase in my mind and it gave me courage. I’ve had these moments before, andI suspect I will have them again.

On fathers and daughters- Fathers definitely have a lot to do with how a woman will see herself as worthy and lovable.  I was lucky to have a father that instilled that in me and a good husband who gave that gift to his daughters.

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On being in love- I’m glad that I have loved and been loved.  Even though it hurts like hell when you lose someone, it is an experience to not be missed.  It is one of the greatest gifts in life. No one can ever take that away from you.

Family- It’s all that matters.  Period.  So glad my daughters are not just sisters, but they have always been best friends.

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Birthday parties

 

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Vacationing in Sag Harbor 2015

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On being a grandma- There is nothing like it!  Love this little boy.  I want to watch my grandson grow taller than me, watch him fall in love for the first time, hear his stories and keep that special connection we have forever.

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On dogs- they really are nicer than people 🙂

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Time-  It all comes down to time well spent.  How have you spent your time today?  My kids told me they are holding me to living to 100 years old, and that’s 30 more years of good living for this deaf, gray and Italian lady.  I’m sure there will be many more life lessons.  I’m ready.

 

Happy Birthday to me!   Cheers!

 

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Women With Hearing Loss: Going It Alone

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor “Margo” passed away.  Margo was in her nineties,  had a successful career in the corporate world, independently survived her husband by three decades and was still driving just a few months ago.

“She couldn’t hear, she was losing her vision and she was getting grumpy” was all a neighbor had to say about her when hearing of the news.

Was this Margo’s legacy after living in this complex for over five decades?  I knew her only surviving relative was a nephew who often sent her flowers.  She had outlived all of her relatives in her age group.

I walked past her apartment door and approached the elevator as men filled boxes with knick knacks and other mementos that probably only had value to her.  Atop the boxes of random items was an opened box of cornflakes.  What was her story?  Did the contents of those boxes tell a story about her life?

What I remember most about Margo was that she was friendly.  She remembered random facts about neighbors.  For instance, for five years, my mother was in a nursing home before she passed away.  Margo always remembered to ask me how she was doing.  She even went out and bought her a pretty sweater to wear in the nursing home.  Also, Margo had a relative who had been a professional opera singer, and she knew I like opera, so she would generate a conversation about our mutual love for the topic.  Word got out that sometimes in the afternoon Margo would get on the elevator and ride up and down and just greet neighbors getting their mail or returning from work.  But she was never imposing.  People liked her.  In the winter, neighbors would shovel out her car without her even asking for help.  Randomly, neighbors would ask her if she needed anything from the store or check to see if she was alright. Even the superintendent and porters were aware she may need a little extra help during an emergency.

Why did Margo’s passing make me ask so many questions?  Fifteen years ago this month, I was widowed after a marriage of 32 years.  I did not realize how much I relied on my husband to help me with phone conversations, to hear the doorbell or even to ensure I woke up in the morning.  Suddenly being on my own, I developed a strong admiration for women, all women, but especially women with hearing loss who rely on technology and others to ensure they are safe and tending to business in a timely way.  

Today, more than ever, there are many women on their own of all ages who are single, divorced or widowed.  Often, these women do not live with friends or relatives.  Apartment buildings are filled with women on their own, especially older women who may begin to experience their own decline.  One of the most common disabilities is hearing loss.

What are some of the things women on their own with hearing loss can do to protect themselves?

  1.  Make sure your complex has the name of next of kin or friends who will initiate action if something happens to you.  Make sure they have updated information including your doctor’s name and medicine you may take.
  2. If there is an emergency in your complex such as a fire, management may need to take extra measures to inform you and be sure you are safe.  Make sure they are informed ahead of time of your special needs.
  3. If you are taken to a hospital, make sure you have an advocate who will ensure you are hearing and understanding questions and directives.  Also, every hospital has a patient advocate if you need someone to help you. All too often, people with hearing loss bluff and are too embarrassed to say they missed instructions.
  4. Make sure you have smoke detectors, fire alarms and carbon monoxide monitors.  Many people with hearing loss do not hear at night when their hearing devices are off.  There are flashing devices and devices that vibrate to alert the person.  Many people do not know this, but many fire departments around the country supply these devices free of charge to persons with hearing loss. 
  5. Make sure at night, all hallways are well lit, throw rugs are securely in place, wires are not in a place that will make you trip.  You will rely on your eyes to compensate for what your ears don’t hear.
  6. Consider getting a service dog.  This is a big responsibility, but it may supply you with security and companionship.
  7. This one is just one of my own.  At night after turning off the lights, I keep the blinds slightly open.  Although I am on an upper floor, if an ambulance or a fire truck pull up in front of the complex, I will see the strobe light reflect on my ceiling. You may have your own little pointers such as where to position mirrors.

What have I learned from Margo?

  1.  When I moved to this complex seven years ago, I was experiencing one of the largest declines in my hearing.  I met so many neighbors at the pool, the gym or in the elevator who introduced themselves.  I was too embarrassed to admit I did not get their names.  Margo talked to everyone.  Although she missed chunks of conversation, she was never afraid to ask questions.
  2. Margo did not let her hearing loss isolate her.  She did her best to keep knowing everyone. Keeping connected is so important, especially as we get older.
  3. Margo stayed active for as long as she could in her church, clubs and social settings. She got her hair done once a week until the very end.
  4. Margo did not let anyone define her.

So when someone tried to define Margo by her failing hearing and eyesight or a bad day, I have to say he just didn’t know Margo.  If there is one thing those of us with disabilities learn as time goes on, it’s that if we don’t let these things destroy us or define us, we will come out ahead more resilient.  And Margo was one tough chick.   

 

 

 

 

 

Invisible Woman: A page in the diary of a late-deafened woman

Many years ago, when I was a student at The College of New Rochelle’s School of New Resources, I had the opportunity to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The book deals with issues such as race, society and identity.  I was deeply moved while reading the book, and it made me think about how issues described in the book could be applied to persons with disabilities or any other group struggling for their right to dignity.  That, along with an experience described in the next paragraph inspired me to write the poem Invisible Woman.

One day while paying for groceries, I witnessed a woman ahead of me in line with her husband.  She appeared to be afflicted by some type of palsy, and after checking out, she had a seizure.  Her husband did his best to comfort her and escort her out of the store, but the clerk snapped, “People like that should be kept at home.”  I was mortified to think anyone has the right to determine if another individual is a valid member of society, and if their presence should be allowed.

That sparked me to write this poem based on my own observations as a late-deafened woman and the sometimes insensitive treatment of persons with disabilities:

Invisible Woman

Your eyes shift downward, or you look away,

I understand your predicament, you don’t know what to say.

You say it’s scary,…to think it could happen to you.

And if it did, you wouldn’t know what to do.

It’s okay, –glance at my deficiency, when I look away.

It’s part of the experience, a natural part of my day.

On no! It’s not catchy! You can shake my hand.

I’m just like anyone you’ve met, across our great land.

We’re really more alike,than you can perceive.

We pray there’s a God.  I for one still believe.

If I ask you a question, you reply to my spouse,

What’s someone like me,doing out of the house?

I don’t mean to frighten, but yes, it could happen to you.

And if it did,do you know what you would do?

You would still marvel at sunsets,and bathe in dewy rain.

You would develop compassion,and learn to sustain

the unexpected changes that would come your way,

–to appreciate life, day after day.

And you know what else might be of interest to all?

We laugh and we love. We learn to stand tall.

And we realize life is full, even after the fall.

Because you don’t see me,doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

The more that you think this, the more that I will persist,

to marvel at sunsets, and bathe in dewy rain,

and develop compassion and learn to sustain

To visit the orcas at Stellwagon Bay,

to blow out birthday candles, –what a thrill, I’m just that way.

To visit covered bridges and lighthouses too,

and yes, I still love the zoo!

But one more thing, before you walk away.

Did you know Milton was blinded with pen in hand?

His work was pure genius, beyond what many can understand.

And Beethoven’s world was silent when he wrote his best songs.

FDR led the country in a wheelchair for three terms, no one’s ever been president that long.

And Edison deaf, yes you heard right.

Over 1,000 inventions! God that man was bright.

The irony of this verse is simple as can be.

The next time you see me, please, please just see ME.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 1999.  All Rights Reserved.