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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Why Marlee Matlin Matters

It’s been barely a week since Super Bowl 50.  The Deaf/deaf community eagerly anticipated the event with Lady Gaga clutching her heart and singing beautifully  while Marlee Matlin performed the American Sign Language (ASL) version of the U.S. National Anthem expressively.  The only problem was that although those in the stadium could see Marlee Matlin signing on the monitor, she was not viewable for those watching the game at home except for a momentary flash.

Many in the Deaf community interpreted this as a sign of disrespect.  Even though Marlee Matlin wasn’t visible to home viewers, the program was captioned.  But social media is filled with comments from people who felt showing  her on the monitor to home viewers was about so much more than accessibility.

Marlee Matlin was the first person from the Deaf community to ever win an Academy Award.  I don’t think it is unfair to say many people in the mainstreamed hearing community have little relatable experience with persons who rely on ASL to communicate.  The first thing people will tell you is they remember her amazing performance in “Children Of A Lesser God.”  So she often symbolizes what others perceive as a relatable example of a Deaf person.

If you look at every minority in the United States, persons with disabilities is the last frontier to be acknowledged.  In this presidential election year, candidates are vying for the support of women, people of color, gays and the Latino population, but who is even talking about being the candidate for persons with disabilities?  The Deaf are often invisible along with others with what we know as persons with disabilities.

Marlee Matlin’s presence at Super Bowl 50 is a reminder that people in the Deaf community exist.  They watch football.  They care if they are acknowledged as a valid member of our society with a right to a life of dignity.  So showing her face signing to people across the country and around the world says yes, we do exist!  We are here watching the game with you!

Aside from being an actor, Marlee Matlin has shown the world she is very human.  She has acknowledged her need to check into the Betty Ford clinic for substance abuse.  She has implied she was abused physically in a relationship and she implied she was sexually abused as a child.

If you look at the clips from her acceptance speech for her Academy Award, she was at 21 years old the youngest to ever receive the award.  To me, over the years she has developed into a more confident woman who appears very comfortable in her own skin, and part of her beauty is her expressiveness in signing.

On her website, http://www.marleematlin.com, here is what she says about ASL:

“The opportunity to communicate in sign language, one of the most beautiful languages in the world, is an advantage that deaf people enjoy. It’s a language that combines several elements at once with a simple hand movement and facial expression: meaning, affect, time and duration. It’s just so beautiful that printed or spoken words can’t begin to describe it.”
– Marlee

She is the author of several books including her 2009 memoir entitled “I’ll Scream Later” which is named after her response to learning she received an Academy Award while recuperating in the Betty Ford Center.

Marlee Matlin is married to a police officer and has four children.  Her down-to-earth approach, and her story is one of the struggles as a human being who knows the plight of the Deaf community and turned it into empowerment.  Her face on the monitor reminds viewers the Deaf community exists rather than invisible.  And a presence and voice in our society is what many Deaf individuals feel is needed.  

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