Sunday, January 9, 2011

Bravery, and Humor, in the Face of "Disability"

When my mother was a child, on the tail end of the Great Depression, she came down with a bout of Scarlet Fever. It's called Scarlet Fever because it presents as a bright red rash; it's a form of Strep, a viral infection that, today, is easily treated with antibiotics. I had it as a boy and can barely remember the experience. Back in the day, however, it could cause all kinds of problems, including pneumonia and death. Anyone familiar with "Little House on the Prairie" remembers that Laura's older sister, Mary, had her eyesight knocked out by Scarlet Fever.

In my mother's case, Scarlet Fever took away a great deal of her ability to hear. She had numerous ear operations throughout her life, just to keep from losing her remaining hearing. Her hearing aid was a clunky contraption; I can recall turning it over in my hands before she woke up one morning, puzzling over it -- a metal box containing batteries that she hooked to her brassiere, with a long wire that led to a headset she did her best to hide under her hair. A large, bulbous amplifier rested above her left ear.

All this aside, it's funny; when I think of her, I never think of her as someone with a "disability," per se. In retrospect, I can appreciate that she excelled in a number of areas in her life, (first in her family to graduate college, had a successful career as an commercial artist and art director, maintained a marriage and household and brought up two children) all the while having to compensate for an ability most people take for granted. When pressed, I do remember the way her lips would move along with my teacher's on parent-teacher night; I now realize that she was, of course, reading lips. No one taught her the skill. This was something she learned out of necessity.

At times my mother used her deafness to her advantage. If she was trying to read a book, and my brother and I were chasing each other around the house, determined to kill one another, and screaming our vows to do so, all she needed to do was unclip her battery pack from her bra, flip a switch, and she would sit, smiling, in blissful peace, as my father was left to sort things out with us.

There were other times, too, where my mother's hearing loss provided us with an incredible source of humor. One day, when I was about twelve and my younger brother Mike was about ten, we were shopping in our local department store, Masters in Elmsford, New York. My brother and I stopped and considered a sign that was prominently posted on the sales floor. "Danny, what does that word mean?" Mike asked. "I don't know," I answered.

The sign read "Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted," and we knew all the words but this last one. Being as she was smarter than most, and read lots and lots of books, we decided to ask our mother. "Mom," Mike asked, "what does 'prosecute' mean?"

Suddenly my mother became flustered. Her face turned red and she pulled us both aside, as if trying to hide us from the other shoppers. "Oh, Michael," she whispered, "a prostitute is someone who sells their body for money."

Mike and I looked at each other for a moment. Then Mike said, "I know what a prostitute is! I want to know what prosecute means!"

Then she began to laugh. And laugh. She laughed so much that people looked at her. At us, because the two of us started to laugh. And the story became family lore, a story we told at countless Thanksgiving tables for years to come.

A few years later, Mike borrowed a water pipe from a friend. For some reason, he thought that a good place to hide it would be on the floor, behind the toilet bowl in the bathroom off of the bedroom he and I shared in our house in Purchase. I don't know who he thought kept the bathroom clean, but she inevitably found the thing and confronted my brother with it. "Do you mind telling me what this is?" she asked, holding it out to him. Completely busted, my brother decided to come clean. "I'm sorry, Mom. It's a bong." "A BOMB?" she said, putting it down where she'd found it. "Are you crazy? What are you thinking bringing a bomb into this house!"

Without missing a beat, Mike explained that it wasn't a very powerful bomb at all and that he would remove it from the house immediately.

Years later Mike and I told her that story, and we had a good laugh. Sadly, my mother passed away way too young, at age 57, when Mike and I were in our twenties. It's only now that I can appreciate her bravery in the face of her deafness, and realize how much I miss her bravery. And, God knows, I miss her laughter, too.