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The Swoon of a Lonesome Train Whistle

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For the sighted blindness must seem easily imagined. You close your eyes and grope around in the darkness for a while stumbling into things. You recognize the physical inconvenience of the disability. You understand the annoyance. But the problems you encounter surely must seem only technical in nature: “How do I find the refrigerator?” Where did I leave my slippers?” How will I know the sun has risen?” 

The sighted presume that for each difficulty, there will be some easy remedy. The refrigerator is seven steps left of the doorway to the kitchen. Your slippers are where you have learned to always leave them, beside the right corner of your nightstand. The rising sun will strike your face and you will feel the prickle of its warmth on your cheek.

The sighted assume this is all there is to be understood about blindness. Difficulties are encountered. Techniques for overcoming the difficulties can be learned. Except for the sheer misfortune of it, the sighted imagine blindness in only physical terms, as though its loss can be compensated for by some other equally enabling behavior. The sighted will then open their eyes, look out onto the magnificent world their God has created and continue on with the rest of their fortunate lives.

For those who hear, deafness can also be imagined, at least in approximate terms. You jam your fingers into your ears and wander about in near silence, believing this simulation somehow offers meaningful detail regarding the loss. You do recognize the inconvenience of the disability. You do sense something of its limitations. But you will also imagine each difficulty in only practical terms. “How will I know someone has rung the door bell?” “How will I sense whether the car is running properly?” “How will I recognize my child’s soft whimpering when she wakens from a nightmare?”

The hearing presume that for these and all other problems, accommodations can be made. The door bell will be equipped with a flashing light to announce the presence of a visitor. You will feel the steady purr of the car’s motor through the floorboard beneath your feet. Your daughter will learn to come to your bedside and crawl under the covers beside you whenever she needs the comfort of your embrace. 

The hearing assume this is all there is to be known about deafness. Difficulties are encountered. Techniques for overcoming the difficulties can be learned. Except for the sheer misfortune of it all, the hearing imagine deafness in only physical terms, as though its loss can be compensated for by some other equally enabling behavior. The hearing will then remove their fingers from their ears and listen without awe to the cackle of a bluejay or the laughter of a baby or the swoon of a lonesome train whistle, echoing up from the valley below.

Seeing, hearing, and the other senses. When we possess each, it is all too easy to not think of our senses as being integral to our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the world. We forget that our thoughts are constructed of sensation and the memories of sensation. We cannot understand that without the richness of perception, consciousness is but an empty vessel, a marvelously intricate neural lattice, devoid of content, bereft of meaning, a beautiful but utterly senseless organic mechanism.

This then is the real problem of a sensory disability, one that cannot in any way be appreciated by covering the eyes or plugging the ears. The loss of one or more senses alters the construction of consciousness. This is why we, the sighted and the hearing, may only imagine we understand blindness or deafness. We do not. We will just never be able to think in that way no, matter how hard we try.

Sarah is just beginning to recognize this, doubly so because her accident has left her both deaf and blind. As she lies alone in her hospital bed, she mentally recounts how it all had happened and how it all felt. She catalogs the memories of her every sensation of the event. It will be the only way she can begin to make any sense of it whatsoever.

The first minutes after the accident are filled with only confusion and pain and most disturbingly, disbelief. Sarah understands something has happened to her, something that is grave and life threatening. She can determine no more than this. She knows she is in the care of others. She can feel their hands lifting her from the pavement, examining her injuries, stroking her forehead. She feels the dizzy motion of a vehicle-an ambulance she imagines-carrying her somewhere-to the hospital she guesses. 

She is immobilized by pain, in her head and shoulder and ribs. She is constrained by the gurney’s bindings and an isolation brace wrapped tightly about her neck. She is paralyzed by a terrifying ignorance of her condition. Is she all right? Will she live? Will her next breath be her last? She has no way of knowing. She cannot hear the paramedic’s words of comfort. She cannot see the look of reassurance on his face. She can feel only the stroke of a coarse hand upon her forehead; a gesture of tenderness, but one too primal to communicate anything of the true nature of her condition.

After what she believes to be hours-after what was only twenty-five minutes- the ambulance slumps to a stop and its motion supplanted by another motion, the gurney being manhandled out the back door of the ambulance and rolled into the admitting area of the trauma ward. It is a slower but more jarring and bewildering a series of movements. After a time, the gurney is halted and the hands of her caregivers touch her again, doctors and nurses she thinks. They touch her in ways she cannot fully understand. Someone must be removing her clothing. She feels the cold tingle of a stainless steel shear, cutting away the fabric of her dress. Another pair of hands grasp her right arm coarsely, tightening the cinch of a blood pressure wrap around her upper bicep. Another pair of gentler hands grip her left forearm, extending it to receive the sharp pinch of an IV needle, followed by the unnerving chill of saline solution streaming into her veins. One set of hands places the cup of a respirator over her mouth and nose. Another pair of hands poke at her, plucking open her eyelids and pressing too firmly into her tender abdomen. She gasps suddenly at the brutal sharpness of pain beneath her ribcage. Another set of hands-loving hands-continue to stroke her forehead. She thinks the sensation of all these hands strange. They are unlike any she remembers feeling before. She does not recognize the sterile touch of latex gloves.

Sarah will not lose consciousness, but neither is she entirely clearheaded about all that is happening around her. She can concentrate only a moment or two on the strangeness of these feelings before becoming lost again in bewilderment. She wonders what must have happened, wonders where she is and wonders more than anything else, what possible explanation there could be for not seeing, for not hearing any of this. She wonders if she might be dying.

In a moment of trauma, it's natural to stand apart from the situation and take stock. At some point in her ordeal, once the gnawing pain of her injuries has subsided but before the narcotic drip of an intravenous analgesic completely dulls her senses, Sarah does just this. She closes herself off to the feeling of the hands and instruments touching her. She shuts out the chill of the emergency room’s air conditioning system. She pushes the odd odor of antiseptic out of her consciousness and focuses only on herself.

In this limiting isolation, Sarah takes stock of her condition. She can feel her heart beating in her chest, a sensation that had completely escaped her notice in the first few minutes of treatment. She recognizes too the steady pulse of blood surging through her veins. She senses the strength of both. There is great relief in this knowledge.

She can feel her chest rise and fall, filling her lungs with air, filling her throat with the metallic taste of compressed oxygen. She knows that at the summit of each breath, she is struck by an unbearably sharp pain, but also realizes that her breathing is strong, uncongested and, if she maintains a steady and shallow pattern of inhalation, the pain in her chest is lessened. There is relief in this knowledge too.

She wiggles each of her fingers and toes. All respond in the familiar way. She shifts her position slightly, twisting her body from the hips through the torso. There is another cutting pain just beside her left shoulder. It is not as severe as the pain in her ribcage and though unnerving, it seems in no way a serious injury. This too is reassuring.

Sarah flexes muscles her intuition tells her should open her eyelids. She rotates her eyes in a way she expects would show her the room in which she lies and the faces of the people surrounding her. She realizes that even as she performs these instinctive motions, she is still unable to see. She cannot fathom why.

Sarah then listens. She listens with every shred of attention she can muster. She hears nothing but the sound of her own troubled thoughts. Neither can she understand why this should be so.

She feels uncoupled from herself, as though all these things are happening to her somewhere else, as though her body is in another room and everything she is feeling is being communicated through a thick, unyielding wall of senselessness, separating her consciousness from her body and her mind from her own true self. Sarah cannot understand one bit of it.

After a time, the many pairs of hands touching Sarah become fewer. She feels the warmth of a cotton blanket pulled up over her skin. The isolation brace is unwrapped from her neck. The oxygen mask is removed from her face. After a longer time, only a single pair of hands remain. She senses they are tending to things left undone. They are gone for a time and then return again. At last, they seem to rest. One hand lies atop Sarah’s forehead, stroking it once more. The other hand grasps Sarah’s. It grips hers firmly, with both tenderness and an unmistakable expression of conviction. This unknown hand shakes Sarah’s hand in a way that she cannot help but comprehend. It is a gesture of touch universal in its meaning. It says: “You will be all right. Everything is going to be all right.”

This is the beginning of Sarah’s understanding of who she now is. This is the beginning of her struggle to think of her place in the world anew, as a person without sight, a person without hearing.

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