The memory is of the threat of its absence.  I’m not alone, but I’m scared I could be.  Disconnected.  In a void, a space with no footing.  No way to be an agent; to matter.  Therefore no raison d’etre—literally, no reason for being. The only real hell I’ve ever dreaded.

            Our 1930’s cream-colored, porcelain Wedgewood gas stove with attached oven dominated the main space where “family” and “home” were first realities for me. A drop leaf pine kitchen table with turned legs and faded rosemaling border sat against the wall between the stove and our 1940’s refrigerator.  A chipped porcelain sink with separate hot and cold taps dominated the window wall that looked out on the worn siding of Ms. Robinson’s house 10 feet away.  Entry to the kitchen was from the hall, between stove and table, or the dining room, between fridge and sink.  Both openings were tight when the leaves were up and the table was set for dinner.

Dad’s place was on the stove room wall near the hall entry, and my older sister, Barbara, sat on his left.  I was next, with my back to the sink, and Mom occupied the spot that gave her access to stove, pantry, and faucets.  I recall us sharing this space every single six P.M. of my young life, though I realize this is emotional memory, not fact.  Dad sometimes had a Kiwanis or Masonic function; Mom might be due at a church meeting; or Barb could be somewhere with friends   But, as a family, Mom made sure we took dinnertime seriously.

The fare was pretty much meat and potatoes.  Until I was in high school, Dad and Mom ran a small grocery, which never got us much over the poverty level for a family of four, but also never left us hungry.  I didn’t realize at the time that some of what we ate came home rather than being discarded in the dented cans behind the store. I was in high school, for example, when I learned that lemons weren’t normally hard-skinned and shriveled, and avocados didn’t always have to be consumed the day you got them.

Mom’s work schedule led her to adopt the modern convenience of a pressure-cooker, which enabled her to serve swiss steak, ham hock and white bean soup, beef stew, and very well-done pot roast—I called it “string beef,” a label she never appreciated.   In addition to pressure-cooked standards, we got liver and onions, chicken and dumplings, pork chops in barbecue sauce, spaghetti and meat balls, tuna-noodle casserole, and such like.  No pizza, tacos, kung pao chicken, spanakopita, or Asian stir-fry showed up on our table those years.

I’d experienced confirming contact before I could walk or talk.  But I first remember consciously noticing this life-giving connection while gathered around this table, feeling the warmth of this stove and of family.  As with all important insights, this learning was simple:  If I told Mom something while she was pulling a pan out of the oven or saving bacon grease in its stovetop container, she was oblivious. If I asked her a question while she was focused on Dad, it disappeared into the air.  Like I didn’t exist.

I mean literally.  Like I wasn’t there.

Snake and lizard moms abandon their eggs soon after laying them, never to return.  Female harp seals stick around for only twelve days, and rabbit mothers immediately leave the burrow after giving birth and only stop by for a few minutes each day afterwards in order to feed the litter.

It’s very different with us.  The human fetus can hear after only twenty weeks in utero.  Over the remaining four months before birth, many parents offer their unborn offspring recorded music, singing, spoken verses, or conversation.  At birth, newborn apes focus on the hands and arms of apes nearby to see what’s being done. Newborn humans attend to eyes, to see who is looking back, connecting.

Unlike many other animals, human newborns cannot care for ourselves.  So, when our crying makes a difference in our world, when we get held, fed, changed, and interacted with, not only do we survive but we also experience confirmation,the sense that we exist, count, matter.

No other animals develop our connecting skills.  Human language may be possible before birth, but it observably begins with three-part sequences:  After cutting the cord, Dad offers a finger which baby grasps and dad smiles.  Mom holds baby high on her chest, baby nuzzles into her neck, and mom responds with loving sounds and touch.  Sister squeals, “You’re so cuuute!” baby smiles, and sister repeats.  Baby begins to recognize the sound of its name, and its responses trigger a string of responses and repeat responses.  Three-turn, intentional connection patterns, where the third turn confirms the collaboration.  To and fro and to again.  Rhythmic sequences, sound and movement patterns, echoed by both partners and enjoyed by both for the connections they provide.

If you were inhumane and unethical enough to test the importance of this experience by raising a human infant in an environment totally without human contact, the being that would develop would not be human.  The closest events like this that we know of are cases of infants being raised by wolves or other wild animals, and the observational evidence supports what I’ve described.  Human development requires human relationships. [See Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment:  The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. New York: Kodansha, 1994.

Classic studies of orphans in institutions also show that, when this touching, eye contact, and verbalizing doesn’t happen, infants don’t thrive. They don’t gain the weight they should, stay healthy, make steady progress, or flourish.  Without this required contact, human infants eat less, become weaker, and slow or stop interacting with the things and people around them.

This was the threat that shadowed my existence before I learned in my body to cope with having a deaf mom.  I’m positive that as an infant, both my parents held, swaddled, nuzzled, cooed at, admired, bragged about, and displayed me proudly.  Old photos show snippets of all this.  These natural actions carried me over the first identity hurdle that every infant encounters without knowing it, which is about existence itself.

            As I grew beyond infancy, I had to learn that Mom could only hear me when she was looking at me.  Despite her adoption of some of the first, expensive battery-powered instruments clipped to her underwear or built into her eye glasses, her hearing was very poor.

Mom’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Hoffman, were similarly “hard of hearing,” as was her brother Uncle Robert and most of the next-generation-back relatives on her side.  In later years, Barbara’s elementary teaching career was shortened by the same disability, and several cousins cope with it still.  I was fitted with my first pair of hearing aids relatively late in life, so I don’t lip-read nearly as well as Mom did.

She was good enough that, at about seven or eight I was able to boast to my friends that Mom and I could communicate silently across a noisy, crowded room.  That was fun. One of the ways I tested my limits as an adolescent was to say something to a friend that I didn’t want Mom to hear by turning my back to her while I said it.  That was empowering too, at the time.

I had to learn that there were limits to what her lip reading could do.  If I wanted her to understand me, I had to keep my hands away from my face while talking. It was important to slow down my speech a beat or two, to let her process each utterance.  Eye contact was an absolute necessity.  As I said, if she wasn’t looking at me, she wouldn’t hear a thing I said.

This is how Mom’s disability nudged me toward being a student of human communicating.  I discovered that eyebrows, head movement, and shoulder posture helped provide her some context for my speaking (was I excited, worried, frustrated, etc.), and demonstrative arms, hands, and fingers offered emphasis and helped make distinctions among the parts of what I was saying.   It also helped when I could complete the circle between her and me, to finish with something like “OK?” “Make sense?” or “Are you with me?”

The better I got at all this, the more effective our contact efforts became. In a crowded room, for example, we could connect to decide “Is it time to go?”  “Where’s the dog?”  Or, “Is there a dessert table?”  In the noisy grade school gym during a basketball game, she could understand and respond to, “I’m going to the bathroom,” “Ron never showed up,” or “The popcorn is lousy.”

All these convenient instrumental goals or helpful accomplishments were made possible by, and were nested in the primary learning of my communicating life with my mom:  I exist.  I count. I matter.  I’m seen.

Articulate Contact

After this basic contact was present in my newborn life, I naturally expected and needed more.  Without being able to name the need, I was looking for not just contact but articulate contact.

It’s the difference between a hug and a conversation. Between a handshake or punch and a strategy or problem-solving session.  Between what can happen with you and your pet dog, cat, ferret, or pig, and what can only happen between you and another human.

Nonverbal-and-verbal contact is articulate in two senses.  One is like the label for an insect’s body or an articulated bus—made up of parts that are connected into a functioning whole.  Words are especially important here.  “I’m kinda okay with what you just said.” and “I’m okay with what you just said.” differ significantly because of one relatively small part of the whole—the word “kinda.”

        How the parts are connected is also important. “Don’t stop now!” and “Don’t! Stop Now!” use the same words and yet say the opposite of each other, because of the way the parts are connected. The pause makes all the difference.

The power of this sense of articulating comes from our natural, uniquely human ability to make literally millions of distinctions among verbal (spoken and written words) and nonverbal cues (everything else we communicate with our voice tone and volume, eyes, faces, posture, touch, timing, arms, hands, fingers, dress, grooming, fragrance or odor, proximity, etc.). From the culture around us, we quickly learn that an insincere handshake is only slightly less firm than a sincere one, and a too-intimate greeting is only a few inches closer and a second or two longer than an appropriate one.  A touch above the elbow means something different from a touch in the middle of your back.  Eye behavior or gaze can speak volumes.  Being late or early for an appointment says something about power.

The second meaning of articulateis spoken-and-heard.  Hearing-and-speaking is the primary form of human communicating—when “primary” means both that it develops first and that it’s the most significant.  Human communicating happens between beings who are fundamentally and naturally hearing-speaking connectors.

All those of us who are born with hearing experience articulate contact first this way.   From when we first emerge into the birthing space, touch connects us with caregivers in important ways, but hearing-speaking contact is more significant. We quickly learn that touch is a blunt instrument, compared to what can happen when we cry this way, rather than that, and when we respond to sound with sound.  This is why you can take any two humans over two years old, put them together anywhere in the world, and one of the first things they’ll do is begin trying to have a conversation.  To talk and listen with each other.

This development pattern includes humans born deaf or who become as disabled as Mom was.  Like spoken language, Sign, the nonverbal language of the profoundly deaf, is also designed to accomplish articulate contact.   Although it uses mainly sight (gestures) rather than sound, it employs time in ways that are parallel to spoken-heard speech communicating. [For a review of this research, see Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf(Berkeley: USC Press, 1989)

Lip reading is another way to hold onto this part of the hearing-and-speaking world if you gradually become deaf.

Most of us have understood the importance of articulate contact in a general way for many years.  “No [hu]man is an island,” we read at school.  “Humans are social animals.”  “Both natureand nurture help define us, and ‘nurture’ means connecting-with, listening and talking to, engaging, interacting.”

            Infants, children, and young people hunger for connection experiences just because they’re human, and the news is filled with sad and scary stories about what happens when they don’t get them.  In the projects of Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Baltimore, elementary-age kids gravitate toward gangs because gang members provide the articulate contact that’s missing at home.  Children with special needs crawl into holes or lash out violently when connections are missing.  Young African American males mature into angry black men as they are forced to interact with systems that dehumanize them more effectively than Mom did when she didn’t hear me.

Moments that Matter

As a privileged child in a two-parent, white family, I learned the basics of all this in that warm kitchen, around that worn table.  My learnings were reinforced by the articulate contacts I experienced slouched with Barbara over the 45 rpm stereo, wheezing to mom during one of my then-frequent asthma attacks, and on those special Memorial Day mornings in the 1950s when I got to join Dad and the the team of men who placed wooden Masonic emblems on the graves of deceased lodge members in our small town’s oldest cemetery.   None of us said much about Memorial Day, death, or any other heavy topic. We just talked and listened, listened and talked.  And I knew that I was accepted as a junior member of a team of males doing something that mattered.

As a teen, I experienced a different version of the same kind of confirmation in the hours-long conversations that were large parts of my awkward attempts at spending time with girls who were attractive to me.

        With Susan, for example.  We’d been dating for a couple of months when her family invited me to accompany them to Seattle for the Seafair unlimited hydroplane races. I was more than pleased when my parents said okay.  Once the six of us had walked to Lake Washington and used our cooler and blankets to claim our space on the shore, Susan and I spent most of the afternoon lying in the shade, on our sides facing each other, a few inches apart, listening and talking.  I’d have to research whether “Miss Thriftway,” “Slo-Mo-Shun,” or another boat won that year.  But I still recall the sweet intimacy of the afternoon.  It was the feeling of being felt that I experienced.  Caring about Susan and being cared about by her.

Or with Judy, one of my other high school sweethearts.  Her folks made me part of their camping trip to Twanoh State park on Hood Canal, where I learned from her dad the incredible benefit of putting ketchup on French fries.  What a revelation!  Connected by these and other experiences, Judy and I spent hours back at her home sitting on the concrete steps, talking.  Touching, too—though I don’t recall any feverish petting, which apparently her dad worried about.  He noticed the frequency and duration of our conversations enough that he insisted she break up with me.  I learned many years later that he figured we were moving too rapidly toward having sex—which in those days before the pill and ready access to condoms, was almost always unprotected.  He may have been right.  The possibility did cross my mind—and my body—while I was dating Judy.  Andthese back-step talks themselves were life-enhancing even without sex, mainly because I knew for sure, in the midst of the normal onslaught of adolescent angst, that I mattered to someone else, and she knew she mattered to me.

I wouldn’t want to say that everyone with a disability sees it as both a curse and a blessing.  I know from both observation and experience that deafness flattens many everyday experiences; leads others to question the deaf person’s intelligence, focus, and caring; generates frustration; and produces pain.

In my case, though, deafness forced me to pay close attention to whether and how I ‘m connecting with the most important people in my life, starting with my mom, and continuing throughout my times as a student, dating partner, spouse, parent, friend, and communication researcher, teacher, and trainer.  One of my proudest moments as a teacher happened when a group of college students who’d taken several classes with me roasted me in part by displaying grandly what they saw as my favorite, thoroughly over-used gesture—waving in front of me my right thumb and first two fingers touching to suggest direct, human contact.