Even the deaf use words.
John signs as he uses his voice to speak to me because he really does talk with his hands. While I need the spoken word to understand, his comfort is forming the words with his fingers.
I thought John had been using sign language most of his life. At 18 months old he was sick with a fever that spiked so high it made him deaf. The only life he remembers is one of not being like the rest of his family. Not hearing when everyone around him did. His mother wouldn’t allow him to learn sign language until he could speak with his voice. He learned to form the words with his mouth by watching the lips of others.
John attended hearing schools. Somehow he kept up with his classmates but he never felt like he fit. It wasn’t until college that he found himself in his world, a world that would be silent to us but came to life for him. For the first time, he found his tribe, his place. He belonged.
Already his story is one of triumph and victory, overcoming limitations and finding new talents but it takes another turn. The college keg parties turned into alcoholism for John. Friends, family, the normies who can stop drinking at will don’t understand why he can’t. John doesn’t understand why he can’t. A marriage becomes a divorce as his family backs away. He is walking the streets of Fort Lauderdale with an art portfolio in his hand. His drawings are his only possessions now. The evidence that there is some good in him.
In a moment of clarity, he realizes he needs help but he finds place after place telling him they can’t help him because he’s deaf, until he comes to our door. We don’t have anyone who knows sign language. We have no interpreters. We only have space for him. It won’t be easy. But John has been in hard places before. Maybe it was his schooling in a hearing world that gave him the determination or maybe he was just sick and tired of being sick and tired but he made it. He made it through the group meetings where he strained to read the lips of the counselor, sometimes getting it, sometimes not. He sat on the second row in the chapel to get the best view of the speaker’s mouth shaping the words but too many words got lost.
I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for John but I can’t come close to knowing the silence that surrounded him. Even now I hear the whirring of an air conditioner in the office and faint voices in the outer room. I have the luxury of turning down or up the volume.
John was recognized as Man of the Year for 2013, an honor that took him by complete surprise. He stays active in the recovery community and comes back for our Alumni events.
He happened to be in front of me in line at a convenience store one day. He turned around and said, “You saved my life.” I knew what he meant. It wasn’t me. It was God’s redeeming power working through all of us that gave him renewed purpose. What a mighty God we serve.