The Sign Language Alphabet, in Words
A – Make a fist with your thumb at the side, just like you did on the day you sat inside a soundproof booth, holding a thin black cone in your fist, and waiting to press the red button on it whenever you hear a sound. At age eleven, it is your first hearing test. Your hand is clammy, and little beeping sounds wander into your ears through the heavy leather-covered earphones. It all begins with A.
B – Raise four fingers, the average number of times people call your name before you turn your head. It is this number that made your mother first realize that something wasn’t quite right.
C – Curve your hand into a C, like the ugly hearing aids they propose to hook behind your ears. Should you choose skintone or black? Go with the black; it disappears in your hair.
D – Point your index finger up while all the other fingers form a circle. Look through the hole and consider how much harder it is to see through one eye than to not hear with both ears. Does sound matter as much as being able to see people’s faces? At least this way, you can read people’s lips and pretend that you are hearing, not seeing, their words.
E – Make a claw because you’re angry and you want to scratch anyone within reach, or even just yourself, leaving deep, pulsing gashes through skin. Then draw your fingers back, close them in on themselves because, truth to tell, you’re not really that brave.
F – Like the number three, or like the gesture people make when they say something is great or fabulous or terrific. But do it stiffly, because most of the time, it doesn’t feel true.
G – Point a sideways index finger anywhere, at your mother, at your father, at God, at any random person you can blame.
H – Add the middle finger to the index finger, so that you’re now pointing with two fingers. Because when one is in denial, two people to blame are better than one.
I – Raise your little finger, as if to make a pinky swear with yourself, to never let this thing define you.
J – Slide your pinkie in the air in the path of a curved J, sealing this new covenant with a joyful swoosh in the form and spirit of the Nike logo.
K – Stick your thumb in between your index and middle fingers. You are lodged firmly between two worlds—the hearing one and the silent one, and you feel like you belong to neither. But time has done its work—it has taken you on its steady pendulum, swinging, swaying, swiveling between these two worlds, and it has made you see that all it takes to belong is to simply be.
L – Point an index finger, but with your thumb open this time too, like a big letter L. Whip it out blazing like a gun, and blow off the top, like a gunslinger does as his tough, trash-talking adversary, a perfect mirror of himself, slowly crumples to the ground.
M – Curl your first three fingers over your thumb. For your mother, your sister, your best friend—the three people who have always kept you warm.
N – Curl your first two fingers over your thumb. For your mother, your sister. The third finger? She’s gone. Cancer’s a bitch.
O – Curve your fingers into a circle, the exact way a stranger’s mouth went when you told her you’re profoundly deaf. Then she said, But you look so normal! You agreed and squashed the impulse to say, “But I am!” and you nodded your head instead. But you do applaud her, more than you do the people whose mouths just slam shut in an awkward line and move on to talk to someone else.
P – Two fingers down for your two ears that wouldn’t work. But also two, for your legs that do work and that took you, along with the rest of your body, to your first job, where you taught a boy with autism and tried to teach him to read and write and count, and in a weird twist, he ended up teaching you how to overcome.
Q – Poise your index finger and thumb downwards, pincer-like, as if to pick up the bits and pieces you’ve cut yourself into, and glue them back together with a recipe that the experts swear is perfect for fixing broken people—understanding, acceptance, self-kindness, and positive relationships. And afterwards, it crosses your mind that the things you tell yourself are not things you’d say to other people, and you wonder why you’ve been so unkind to yourself.
R – Cross your fingers like when you’re wishing for luck, which is also pretty much how you go through life, throwing morsels of words in the air like peanuts and hoping they land as a pair of sixes.
S – Make a fist like in A, but with your thumb in front of your fingers this time. Pump it in the air like tennis players do when they win championships. It feels like impostor syndrome most of the time, but there are days when this pretension is necessary.
T – Curve your index finger over the top of your thumb. This is how most people deal with you, talking over your head at the dinner table when they learn you can’t hear well.
U – Raise your index and middle fingers close together. Put a cigarette in between them for the really hard times, for the dark nights where you can’t read people’s lips, for the days when you’ve been called stupid for taking a beat longer to understand a message. Take a long drag and remember, the light always comes back in the morning.
V – The peace sign. At some point, you need to make peace with it all, anyway.
W – Raise three fingers like a Boy Scout, for the last three high-pitched sounds you remember before they started disappearing—birdsong outside your bathroom window while you were showering, three newly-hatched birdlings you found trilling in hunger in a nest in your garden, and the twittering of four sparrows resting on the branches of your papaya tree. Always the birds. W is for wings.
X – Hook your index finger up in the air. Try to latch on, like a hungry, woozy fisherman lost at sea, to some errant particles vibrating in sound waves around you. The soft tones of the piano are all but lost to you, slowly evaporating from your perception, but you go to the orchestra just the same, for the sheer pleasure of catching the deep timbres from the bass section.
Y – Flash the rock ’n’ roll sign minus your index finger, like you know you’re missing something, but hey, you’re all right, rock on.
Z – Slash the air from left to right with your index finger. You’ve shuttled back and forth between your worlds and frames of mind so much that you’ve seen for yourself how much richer a zigzag is than a straight path.
And after all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, it finally dawns on you—you are a thumb. And you know what they say about thumbs—missing a piece, an outlier, a good distance away from the other fingers—but they can do a lot of things. You can pick up a pen and write and say, hey, you’ll be okay, you are okay, good job. Good job.