* Featured Image: “In de maneschijn” by Martine Mooijenkind
Jesus put his fingers into the [deaf] man’s ear. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.
He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him,
“Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”).
Date: March 18, 1998
Location: Amarillo, Texas
School: San Jacinto Christian Academy
Dialogue: None. All dialogue is pieced together from fragments of reading and lip reading.My deaf alarm clock vibrates between the mattress and the box springs. On and off. On and off. The alarm oscillates between presence and absence, vibration and no vibration, a low-pitched buzz followed by silence. The vibrations disrupt the cycle of sleep with a cycle of tactile annoyance. When a stimulus is always present, we acclimate to it; when the stimulus is always absent, we forget about it; when it oscillates, it’s like a tickle: the anticipation is worse than the reality.
School begins at 8:00. I’ve set my alarm to wake me at 6:45 so that I can read scriptures. My Rainbow Study Bible contains a 365-day plan to read through the Bible in a year. This is the third time I’ve read through the Bible in four years. Of all the worn pages in my Bible, a single page at the front of the Bible is the most well-worn and well-read: the 365-day reading plan. The page has a tear that I’ve babied for several months to prevent from spreading. I should tape it, but I treat my Bible with a holy reverence: I’ve never written in it, never taped it, never bent the pages. The Bible, itself, is wrapped in a faux-leather cover that zips it shut from the dangers of the world.
Inside the cover, I have inserted a sheet of notebook paper that contains my “prayer list” of ten items. The first five proclaim a desire for the salvation of family and friends; the last five proclaim solutions to living in the world as a deaf Christian. Most prevalent is a poorly scrawled two words, “ears healed,” that appears as number 7 on the list. My family and I are firmly convinced that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 2,000 years ago, he healed deaf people; he can heal deaf people today. In fact, Jesus healed anyone who asked for it. I know this because my family spent several days last summer checking each healing scripture to confirm that Jesus never turned down a request for healing.
I read the Bible each morning partly because I want to know the scriptures; I read partly because I want my ears to be healed; I read partly because I want to be a better Christian than everyone else; I read partly because I am worried that I am not a Christian at all. This last thought, in particular, has acted as a latent virus for the last few months: present enough to keep the immune system on alert, but not enough to turn into a full-blown infection. My constant return to this question, though, has elevated it to an active infection. Each resolution of “yes” is presented with a corresponding question: are you certain? Everywhere, every day someone poses the question to me: “have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? If not, pray this prayer with me.” I hear the salvation prayer at the end of each chapel service on Wednesday at school. I hear the salvation prayer on our television each Wednesday night on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. I hear it at each church service on Sunday morning. I hear it at each Bible class at school each day. I hear it at each Bible study and at each “What Would Jesus Do?” club meeting. I hear it during my studies in English, geometry, and Spanish; once a month, the teachers get frustrated by cheating students, by the discovery of a pornographic magazine in the boy’s locker room, or by the report that someone was smoking off campus, and the teacher leads us through another salvation prayer. I’ve prayed “the prayer” daily for years, hundreds of times. I always leave feeling uncertain—another itch. But I know another opportunity to pray for salvation will happen tomorrow. The tickle never ceases.
This morning, I am directed to read several of the Psalms. I prefer the days when the readings are short—I feel guilty about this, of course. I remember being pleasantly surprised one morning in 1996 when I had no reading to do on February 29th. The 365-day plan doesn’t account for 366-day leap years. Luckily, this morning, the Psalms that I will read is #139— passages that my family and I have memorized in the past, and I’m able to read it by recalling the words as I scan them. My family is determined to memorize a significant number of scriptures because we have assimilated the verse from Psalms 119, verse 11 that tells us “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” My family is mesmerized by other peoples’ abilities at memorization and recitation, a skillset that doesn’t come naturally. We weekly watch the television show Jack Van Impe Presents where tele-evangelist Jack Van Impe recites, flawlessly, scripture after scripture in support of his eschatological claims that Jesus’ second coming is near. Just last week on this show, I learned of the acronym of Y2K—the year 2000 bug that will shut down all computer systems and herald the return of Christ.
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Verse 5 speaks to me this morning. His hand is upon me. A tactile verse for a deaf body. God’s presence is physical, comforting, maternal. As I crawl out of bed, I feel my old foe return—my stomach floods my body with the dreaded signal to evacuate. I’ll need to use the bathroom, soon. My mom calls it “nervous stomach.” Anxiety. Fear. Scared. Panic. Worry. The “runs” run in the family. My grandmother was a “worrywart.” My grandfather called off his wedding in 1951 after he had a “nervous breakdown.” My other grandmother has “weak nerves,” something passed on to the next generations. One of my uncles has stopped showing up to family gatherings, presumably because of panic attacks. I asked my mom once when my “nervous stomach” would go away, and she told me, “Probably never.” Those words, oddly enough, comforted me. I no longer fight my own anxious feelings with more anxious feelings. I realize that this is who I am: my identity is one of anxiety. I recall the verse to not “be anxious about anything,” though the very thought of being anxious makes me anxious, a metaphysical tickle.
I place my two hearing aids on both ears, both worth multiple hundreds of dollars. I worry, as always, that I might lose them today and my middle-class parents will need to pay for replacement aids that they cannot afford. I’ve never lost them, despite the aids’ attempts at invisibility. Their tan color blends into my skin slightly, but I have short, blonde hair and they are clearly visible. Their size is small, but they make my “ears stick out.” I turn them on, and the world is amplified. Noises that I already hear “normally” are too loud. Noises that I cannot hear, I still cannot hear. I have been contemplating not wearing my hearing aids for several months. I know I look different than my peers. I look at my acne, the blotches highlighting my otherwise plain face and deviated septum. I look at my skinny frame—130 pounds over a 6’2” frame, and I dress in my baggy clothes, XL collared shirts and dress pants held up with a belt. My body is a mismatch of wanting to hide, but not being able to. Hearing aids that only partly blend in. Pimples that draw attention to a face that never smiles. Clothes that hide my skinniness but extend my body further into the world. I slouch, too, a disappearing act that my grandmother has spent years chastising me for; daily, I curl my body into a fetal position at each resting moment.
At breakfast, mom tells us that “someone is squealing.” This is a shortcut for saying a hearing aid has entered a feedback loop. My hearing aids, like all amplification systems, are prone toward self-referential feedback loops. Sound enters a microphone; sound exits amplified by speakers. If the sound that comes out of the speakers re-enters the microphone in a self-referential way, the result is the high-pitched “squeal” of exponentially growing feedback, the output looping back to become the new input. My teachers and peers have different names for this feedback: chirps, beeps, buzzes, feedback. But my family uses the word “squeal,” and my deaf and hard-of-hearing sisters and I are always squealing. Any object that comes close to the hearing aids turns them into a closed system of recurring feedback loops. If I placed my head into a pillow, they squeal. If I scratch my head, they squeal. If the humidity is too high and condensation built up in the electrical components, they squeal. The randomness is a constant. I cannot hear the squeals, and I sometimes unknowingly squeal my way through the day, drawing attention to myself at random moments, someone turning toward me to attend to an unrecognized attention-seeking behavior. At times, the feedback loops of the hearing aids turn into an inward loop in my head: am I squealing? I don’t know. Am I squealing? I don’t know. It is difficult to close a loop without new input.
Breakfast this morning is cereal and milk. The milk upsets my already upset stomach and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fat-rich food necessitates an evacuation; each evacuation necessitates more food. I am not ready for meat; I cannot even handle milk. I have grown so many inches over the last few years that my body is super skinny. Always. My family calls me “the lean man” as a joke, and I worry that no girl will ever want to date a man without muscles. I lift weights, but I see no new muscle. I am always hungry.
In class, I sit up front. I have to in order to “hear.” My teacher hasn’t arrived yet, and I turn around to “listen,” hoping to learn some social tidbit about my peers. One of the guys in the class has mono and a girlfriend; presumably they are linked. He is being teased this morning with a sung rendition of “You’ve lost that loving feeling” from the movie Top Gun. This is a long-standing joke, and I smile a bit. Not much. My default facial position is to wipe all wrinkles from my face—relax the jaw, don’t move the lips upward or downward, don’t squint the eyes. I let them assume that my blank face is hiding a brilliant, yet aloof, mind. My sister is the one who smiles. Always. At everything. Her deaf face is one of continual happiness, and she wins congeniality awards. My deaf face is to not let anyone read it. I don’t participate in the singing—I don’t know the lyrics, and even if I did, I am not confident I can identify the key of the song. I’m not even sure I understand the joke: Top Gun is rated PG-13, and my family rarely watches anything above PG because of the potential for language that takes the name of the Lord in vain.
The geography teacher arrives and speaks, and I turn to read his lips. He is a quiet man, introverted and insecure. Once he begins speaking, he has my rapt attention as I try to latch onto and amplify the quiet signals. His lips serve as horse blinders, blocking my eyes from seeing anything else in the room. He mistakes my attention for understanding, and he relishes having a student who is listening, one who pays attention, one who is not doodling, sleeping, note-writing, drooping, distracting, frowning, and half-eye-rolling their way through the morning. He has no idea that a few minutes of lip reading is tiring; hours of it is exhausting. In these early morning hours, though, he takes advantage of my higher energy levels. I enter into a self-perpetuating agreement: you will speak; I will pretend to hear; the more I pretend to hear, the more you speak to me; the more you speak to me, the more exhausted I become; the more exhausted I become, the more you notice that I am not paying attention; the more you notice my inattention, the more anxious I become that you will call me out on it publicly; the more anxious I become, the more I need teachers to root me in safety.
In between my first two classes, I rush to my locker. A girl from the grade below me says something to me, a short sentence. As always when a girl approaches me, I find it hard to breathe. My body tenses. My lungs fight for oxygen, but I don’t want to open my mouth and look as if I am an anxious fish gasping for breath. I am, but I care more about my appearance than what she has said. I reply with the universal deaf response of “what?” because I didn’t hear. I can’t hear her. Her voice is higher pitched. Her voice is quiet; the hall is loud. I could ask “what?” ten more times and I still wouldn’t hear her. I nod but don’t smile, nod but don’t smile. She walks away, and I have no idea what she said.
In the next class, my Bible teacher asks for prayer requests. Half of our white board is covered with these requests—for sick people, for upcoming athletic events, for unsaved souls, for missionaries and their trips overseas to help sick people and more unsaved souls. The United States is a Christian nation whereas the rest of the world is heathen. Our mascot is the “Patriots,” carrying a musket and a visually competitive call for the “Gods, Guns, and Country” mandate from students.
Some of the requests are “unspoken prayer requests,” shortened to “unspokens.” The teacher asks if there are any “unspokens,” and hands jump into the air. Isaac has 23 unspokens today. A new record. John quickly follows with 26 unspokens. The teacher, for the first time all year, reveals skepticism in her face when she writes these myriads of muted requests on the board. By this point in high school, my peers have learned something that I’ve felt for years: silence can be subversive. Prayer requests are probes into our lives, making public our most private and personal struggles. The teacher asks, “do you have a prayer request?” and the reply is “yes, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.” The teacher asks, “do you have a prayer request?” and the reply is “yes, I was bullied during recess yesterday.” The teacher asks, “do you have a prayer request?” and the reply is “yes, I am struggling with pornography.” Turning the requests into an “unspoken” is akin to wrapping up the struggle in silence, telling the teacher that it is none of your business what I’m going through in life, while still getting attention. It is spoken, but not. Present, but absent.
I have an unspoken today, but I don’t raise my hand. I want attention, but I don’t want it enough to break the performance that I’ve enacted: I’m not deaf; I’m just shy. I’m not unhappy; I’m just pensive. I’m not dependent on people; I’m just dependent upon God. I want to speak; I just prefer silence. I want attention; I just don’t want to draw it. My unspoken this morning is that this weekend, I will be attending a healing ceremony at a new church. After dozens of failed attempts at faith healing in local churches, I still have ample faith that I will hear, fully, for the first time on Saturday.