When I was born, they didn’t have a name for my condition.
“He’s normal,” the doctor said.
Back then no one was upset by his choice of words, even though it implied that quite a few people — including my parents — were not normal. The hospital interpreter looked at my parents and translated “normal” into sign language. Her right hand drew two small circles in front of the heart, clockwise, with two extended fingers, then moved down toward the stomach and touched her left fist. My father smiled. Normal was good.
There was nothing normal about my childhood. Unlike the other kids, who had been mumbling words to their parents since their first year of life, I only discovered spoken language at school. I heard it before, of course, on the street and on TV, but never truly needed to use it. My parents were my life, and life was quiet. Even when friends visited our house, nearly all of them were deaf, just like mum and dad. Before I was old enough to go to school, I could spend days without hearing the sound of a human voice.
My parents had warned me that school would be different, but nothing could have prepared me for their voices.
“Are you deaf? Huh? Deaf? Can you hear what I’m saying?”
They took turns shouting at my face, one louder than the other, trying to test the limits of my silence. All I ever did in response was shake my head. A universal sign for no. The only sign they could understand.
When I mentioned my struggles to dad, he told me I should speak up. I was normal, just like them. Why didn’t I shout back?
I shrugged and signed back to him: "I prefer silence."
I was eleven years old when I found out they had finally come up with a term to describe people like me. I was a Coda: an acronym for child of deaf adults. I learned it first from a school psychiatrist, who insisted on seeing me after a teacher voiced her concerns. The psychiatrist tried to keep her notes out of my sight, but I noticed the words "social anxiety".
"Why don't you speak to your classmates, Tom?"
Looking down, I mumbled an answer I had rehearsed the night before. I had grown up use to silence. My native language was sign language, not English. Speech was foreign to me. I even disliked the sound of my voice, just like a native English speaker might hate his own accent when speaking French.
The psychiatrist stared at me as I answered, her pen suspended a few inches over her notebook. At the time, the first thing they used to do after a teacher complaint was diagnose you for something. A lot of my classmates were on Zoloft, Klonopin, Ritalin. They would show the tablets to anyone—even to me. It had become some sort of club.
My case was trickier. There was no pill to make my parents normal, and even if there was one I wouldn’t get anywhere near it. I hated normal. It was noisy, aggressive, uncomfortable. The best part of my day was hopping off the school bus, walking back into my house and quietly talk to my parents about anything else. Sometimes their deaf friends and their kids would come over, too. They knew better than to ask me about school. There was no place for it in my temple of loving silence.
“You need to find your voice,” said the psychiatrist. I mumbled something about sign language being my true voice, but she was having none of it.
“A speaking voice. Your parents are not the only people in the world. How are you going to speak to everyone else?”
I said nothing in reply, but a sentence in sign language crossed my mind. I had to clench my fists to stop myself from signing it.
“Why would I want to do that?”
The silent question echoed in my mind until my father’s funeral. His death was sudden for us, but his illness had been growing silently for a long time before it was discovered. Middle-aged men are usually not big fans of going to the doctor. Combine that with the difficulties in communication, the need to find an interpreter, and it's not a surprise that he took years to get his cough checked and tell someone about his throat pain.
I was 14 when he died. I remember many moments from his funeral, but what struck me the most was how noisy it all was. The church was crowded. We used to go there every Sunday, but entered and left quietly. The language barrier stopped us from making contact. Very few of those people had ever said a word to us. Save for a couple of other deaf families, none of them were our friends. Yet everyone had come to my father’s funeral, along with the very few friends we had.
I saw pity in their eyes. Not the usual pity one has for a child who has just lost a father. No, there was something else. They pitied us — my father, my mother, even me. They probably thought I was deaf, too, and spoke carelessly in front of me. I could hear their comments from the front seats.
“Poor man. Such a difficult life.”
“It must be hard for the kid. First you have a deaf father, and now not even that.”
Their words made me wish I was deaf.
In sign language, it’s hard to be offended by a stranger. Whenever someone starts saying something hurtful, you can just close your eyes or look away. Communication requires full attention and consent on both sides. A hearing person had no such luck. I tried to explain it to my mother several times, back when the mean comments at school were just starting, but the concept was foreign for her. How could I feel offended by something I didn’t want to hear? Why did I choose to hear it?
Even though she couldn’t understand it, she knew me well enough to notice when it was happening. Right there, as we stood in front of our father’s coffin waiting for the minister to give him a final blessing, she let go of my hand for a second and made a sign to me. “Ignore it.”
In any other day, I would have followed her advice. I wouldn’t have walked to the pulpit. I wouldn’t have grabbed the microphone. I might have looked at the audience, but I would never have said the words I said to them. I would have thought them, yes, but never said them.
“My father was a greater man than anyone sitting here today. We were lucky to have him in our lives. If you feel any pity for us, I pity you.”
At last, they were all quiet. I looked at their faces as many of them stared me in disgust, shrugged and walked back to my mother's side. If I had to hear them, they had to hear me.