~ Helen Keller
~ Helen Keller
My brother is deaf. I think his life has been a daring adventure although I imagine it hasn't been an easy journey growing up Maori and deaf amongst 6 other rowdy siblings who are all hearing. I thought he had been deaf since birth but, many years ago, he told us he could remember a time when he was able to hear noises and people. Others would perhaps not believe him. That's never been an issue for us - his memory is phenomenal and his ability to remember the strangest, smallest details from our childhood has added a richness to our own separate memories of certain events (both big and small).
I have always likened our family to an opera (or a three ring circus act). Everything is done with great passion and drama and at full volume. We choose toilet paper with as much intesity as we love and fight. Making it hard for outsiders to know the difference between an insult and a full-scale war. Life is never boring. Although I do wonder if it was harder for John and goshness knows it was challenging enough in the first place.
When we were kids John would see a speech therapist and it was thanks to them that he learnt to do any number of activities I took for granted. He would bring home big flash cards that had the steps for how to make a cup of tea (from getting a cup to putting the milk back), how to make his bed etc. I can see him now, in my head, carrying those cards around. He would recite them in the most matter of fact tone. Sometimes the cards were prompts for what could and could not be discussed in polite company. One of those activities was cursing. My brother went through a phase where he would use the term 'expletive deleted' in place of swear words (yes, as a child). There was also the unusual habit of using words/terms and then defining them, out loud, in that same tone. Sometimes in front of the people concerned. My mother often recounts a particular event where John walked past some Mongrel Mob or Black Power members when he stopped, looked at them and said, 'Gang - a group of friends,' then nodded and moved on. I think it was his way of reconciling what had been, up to that point, mere theory with the reality.
Any kid who is different at school is an automatic target for bullies. John was always that target. Kids would take one look at the hearing aids and torment him. He got quite quick with the comebacks and, when they resorted to the physical, he was an awesome sprinter. In fact, he used to take out track & field events every year. If the bullies would catch him, our sister Jax (her nickname was Utu for a very good reason) would deal to them. Physically. As a child he was one of the most friendly and engaging people I'd ever met - he would say hello to anybody and anyone and strike up conversations everywhere. Adults always found him charming. He was constantly into everything, convinced that the world was his playground. He feared nothing and nobody. Somewhere, while growing up though, that changed. A large part of it was his feeling that he didn't fit in anywhere - his seesawing contempt for hearing and deaf people made for interesting times. To say the least. We never learnt to sign past the basics - John's diction was spot on and his lipreading was phenomenal. So much so that people meeting him for the first time never realised he was deaf until he told them. I can't speak for everyone else in the family but I'm almost certain that was one reason I never bothered to learn properly. Do I regret it? Most certainly. Did I change it? Yes, but I didn't keep it up. As an adult I took sign classes but, like my reo, what I learned is exceedingly rusty. John found his feet and went on to become fluent in NZ sign, American sign, American fingerspelling (which I can do faster than he can and we'd use to communicate sometimes), NZ fingerspelling, Maori sign and Maori (as in verbal, not sign). All of us play an instrument or sing (some of us do both). That's about the limit of our collective artistic ability. He seems to have been blessed thrice over for he sketches, carves and writes the most incredible lyrics. Something the rest of us cannot do.
Why a long post about my brother? As a teen my brother loved to watch Marlee Matlin when she was on tv. When I asked him why, he said she was the one person on tv he identified with. Since then we've (including my mother) watched everything of hers that's screened here in NZ. Then I saw Marlee on twitter and, like all good cyberstalkers do, followed her :-) A few days back she posted a link to a clip for the pilot show of My Deaf Family (see the clip above) and watching it made me remember my brother as a child and wondering just how much of a disservice we did him. These days we don't talk much. We stopped getting along somewhere along the line and, eventually, didn't have anything to talk about at all. Maybe, I'll change that. Starting tonight. I'll email him the link as a starting point for a conversation and see where it goes from there...