My mother is a small woman, five two. She is strong but her bones are tiny and sometimes when I hug her I can feel her heart beat through her chest like the battering of an insect trapped in a lamp.
This town goes to bed very early but my mother does not. She doesn’t sleep well without my father and so she avoids sleep or she fakes it. She likes the town better at night. She likes things to be quiet. It is what she is used to.
There is a school on an island just off the coast a few hours south of here. It is a school for deaf children and, outside of the school’s building, there is nothing on the island but the founder’s pet cemetery. Horses, dogs, birds, and cats mostly. My mother grew up on this island. Both of her parents were deaf. Her father was the Plant and Property Man responsible for haying a small meadow, shoveling snow, mulching trees, repairing busted desks, washing the chalkboards at night, replacing rotten stairs and broken windows. My mother’s mother worked in administration typing health records, report cards, annual budgets in triplicate, and, twice, certified depositions on the accidental deaths of two children enrolled in the school, one drowned, one jumped.
Of the fifty to sixty people who lived on the island there were very few people who could hear things. My mother was one of them. She loved living on the island. She liked not talking and was annoyed that her parents sent her on a ferry every morning to a school for hearing people.
One surprising thing she told me about life on the island was that deaf people are actually very loud, especially deaf children. The reason is because they cannot hear to gauge the volume of their guttural emissions or excited shrieks. In fact my mother says she grew up accustomed to hearing her parents have sex because neither of them could hear the mighty creak their bed made and she was too embarrassed to tell them. So my mother was one of the few people on the island who could hear foghorns at night and seagulls in the morning, and being responsible for so much listening made her a very quiet person.
On the island my mother had a best friend named Marie. Marie was a very good lip reader because Marie had not been born deaf but lost her hearing swimming in a quarry that, after years, had filled with rain. Something was living in the water, Marie had told my mom and whatever it was, filled her ears and ruined her hearing with an infection. So Marie could talk a little bit, though my mother said Marie sounded like a donkey when she spoke. They’d run to the pet cemetery, and my mother couldn’t help but think that the animals were probably pricking up their ears down in their graves thinking that Marie was talking to them. She told Marie her theory. Marie brayed even louder. She wasn’t one to get offended because she sounded like a donkey. After that, the two of them always had it in their heads that they could talk to animals, even dead ones, and that was how they enjoyed themselves on the island.
More from Marie than from her parents, my mother tried to get to the heart of what it was like not to hear anything. She was trying to decide whether or not she wanted to be deaf herself. Marie signed to my mother that it wasn’t like what she might think. It wasn’t like a blank sheet of white paper because actually she heard things all the time. The sounds just came from inside rather than outside, like reading. But then that’s not really hearing, my mother answered, and Marie signed that what she meant was that deafness does not equal silence, which my mother understood. She liked to read a lot. Almost constantly. Then Marie said, braying in her way, “Also, it is wonderful.”