Even When We Want to Most, We Cannot Hear the Falling Snow

Susan Fedynak

A doctor’s office in Massachusetts. A waiting room. Newsweek spread out across your lap. Speckled Berber carpet beneath your suede shoes. A deep twisting down in your bowels. Only momentary. Only nerves. You’re here for a flu shot before work and the long, congested morning drive downtown.

The couple across from you, side by side in those horrible boxy armchairs, sit with their coats still on. They’ve unzipped them only to the waist, so they ride up and around their shoulders and ears. Are they coming or going? They look as if their cocoons have split and they’ve failed to fly away.

From some brightly lit hallway a nurse calls your name, and you’re already rolling up your sleeve. What you don’t see is the envelope laid across the woman’s knees, how delicately she balances it. What fear and what reverence, bubbling up from the slides inside. Photos of her husband’s lungs are wrapped in that fresh, fawny manila. What you don’t see is the woman’s husband. You don’t really see him. How still he is. How deliberately his hands are folded. When you are deaf, stillness is a different kind of quiet.

You are long down the hallway when the nurse calls his name. The only way he knows is by the way his wife lays her hand on his wrist.

On the traffic sodden drive downtown your bicep will begin to ache. The already gummed up glue of the Band-Aid will pinch. You will think about the couple that morning, grey-faced and wrapped in their cocoon coats, and wonder how it turned out. Were they coming or going?

But, how could you know?  How could anyone know all this: That these people can’t sleep anymore.  That they have only just started wearing their minor patches of white hair as a badge. That they met when they were young and had little money. That they have only a little more money now. That they’ve never once tried to convince the other that they were made of better stuff than a second night of fried rice and beans.  That there are rotting planks running the length of their back porch, but they are still happy out there with a lemonade. They are happy out there. Entirely happy not apologizing to guests for their circumstances. That they love their house for one reason, because it is their house.

How could you know they are friends? Friends who married each other. That they are the same people who wait each year for the lilacs and wild garlic to reach up green each spring in the narrow planting bed at the edge of their fence. That they have regrets, but haven’t advertised them the way some people do. That these people are the same people who compliment each other even in their clothes with tired stitching, who remember to compliment each other after a long day, and just out of the shower. Nice, she will say, and graze his chest, his cheek, his thigh. Nice. How could you know that these people have danced together, a lifetime together, and only one has heard the music?

How could you know about the wild garlic, the rotten porch? That he is deaf, and she is not, and it hasn’t made much of a difference over the last thirty-two years.

#

It’s not safe, all the stuff we build our walls with. She meant the stuff he was responsible for at work. He knew what she meant. She brought it up all the time. All he could do was listen, watch her sign furiously as she repeated the same worries. He listened because she made him. Made him watch as she waved her hands in front of her, used her pointer fingers to square off two walls around her face, and a steeple roof above the part in her hair. Her own scrappy vernacular.

When these moments struck her, when he came home covered in dust and she watched him wash his face and wipe out the black dirt that ringed his nostrils, when she was in that mood, he learned it was better to oblige and watch her go on and on in the bathroom mirror. Watching her that way, everything was backwards, but he knew the point she was making. He would tap her reflection, right on the mouth, which flapped along with her fast moving hands. I get it, he’d sign, tapping his head with the butt of his palm. I get it, you love me.

He could find something else to do for money, but he wouldn’t. Working construction as a deaf man was a minor triumph. She wasn’t going to step on that, either.  I’m not unhappy, so drop it already. He was tired of pulling his lips down in that faux fish-face grimace. Here it was, all in the context, which made it tricky. No, the job didn’t elate him, but he was not unhappy. Working with his hands was good. It meant not too much “talking.” Sometimes he felt blessed, not to have the time to jot things down on the legal pad he kept nearby. To not have a stake when the other guys fought over which station to play on their busted portable radio, or when they’d all start yelling for the youngest one to shut up already about the latest girl to leave him. He could pick up bits here and there, if he stopped rolling out his section of insulation and focused on lips, but it was hardly worth it.

#

Her favorite words to sign:

When he kisses her: More. Create an “o” with each hand. Flatten. Bring hands together.

Watching him dry off after a shower: Nice. Place your left hand in front of you, palm up. Swipe your right palm across your left. Add a puckish grin to this one.

Finally: Don’t be like that. A complicated phrase she’s accustomed to. When he hasn’t had time to paint, when he’s hungry, frustrated, scared. It’s part of her. The movements flow through and past her without a thought.

#

They met at the library. It’s as simple as that.

#

In the hospital she takes notes as if she’s paid to, as if all the coats carrying charts and clipboards don’t matter. In a little notebook she carries everywhere, she collects dosages and procedure dates. She collects the names of specialists, nurses, even candy stripers. She collects so many phone numbers. Puts an asterisk next to direct lines; holy grails. She keeps a list of medical terms she dares herself not to look up as soon she gets home. She jots reminders for thank you notes. The flowers. The cards. The casserole of lasagna left at the back door. Taped inside the notebook are business cards for car services and the Chinese delivery that will bring food as far as the big revolving doors at the entrance near the ambulance bay. Strange, she thinks, and too formal, how all the hospital clergy have business cards too.

It gets to be that when the doctors or nurses come in he closes his eyes. If he can’t read their lips, he won’t have to know. He closes his eyes when the bedside conversation turns to hospice, a discussion about whether it is time to move. His wife hurts with jealousy, now more than ever. Why can’t she shut her eyes and end the conversation? Why isn’t that allowed? Why is it only he who can go into a blackness full of no sound, a tactless respite. Why was she the one who would have to relay the information later?

After the doctors go, she waits a while to rub his elbow and wake him. With these drugs he so often falls asleep, even when his eyes have been shut only out of denial and defiance.

We’re changing rooms.

A free upgrade? He motions. A pause. He smiles. Like when we went to Sanibel.

This becomes a running joke. She loves him for it, and she could cry every time. It was everything and nothing like the hotel room they had the year their vacation got caught up in a tropical storm and management thought it good manners to give them an upgrade. The beautiful grand balcony they couldn’t use because it was boarded up against the wet gale force outside. It was just like Sanibel, could have been filled up with soggy disappointments just the same if it wasn’t for his sense of humor.

The new room was big and bright and all their own. Sanibel, he mouthed for her sake, as his bed was wheeled in. The nurse, who was big and bright too, gave the room a grand tour treatment with all the trappings of a flight attendant. Sanibel, my dear, Sanibel, and this time he let his wife roll her eyes. The nurse pulled back curtains to reveal an alcove window overlooking the cafeteria loading dock, and beyond that, early morning sun bouncing off the Charles River.

The next day he’d request binoculars, a pair that once belonged to his father. I still know where they are, I swear, and would you go and find them? And she swore to the nurses, He did know, he really did know, they were there in the studio cupboard all this time. All that week she lied. I really can see the purple gingerbread of our house just off Kendall Square.

#

She always told him to leave his filthy clothes at the door. After a while she screwed a hook into the door frame for his shirt and pants, put a tray in the hall for his boots. Sometimes, on hot days, he would pull off his dusty work shirt before he made it to the top of the front steps. Anyone but him and she would have been embarrassed. After scrubbing in the shower he could go to his easels, always two or three lined up at a time in the back sunroom. Wrapped at the waist in a towel, or standing only in boxers, the hair on his arms and legs still patted down with dampness, he would stay back there with his real work until dinner. This is the way it was for years.

#

Right away, the nurses offer an interpreter so she can get some rest at home, but he insisted she stay. She has stayed all this time. She is the best, he signs, she knows exactly what I mean. She shrugs at the nurses and relays the message again and again until it’s whittled down to, He says I’m a professional.

She tried to condition herself in the days after they sat in that clinical room, dark enough to view x-rays, and watched as the doctor swept over the ghost prints of his lungs, marking each black spot that seemed to appear only as the nub of grease pencil circled it completely. She tries again on these nights filled with machines moving his lungs more reliably than he ever could. Before that, he wore a mask that forced oxygen in through his nose and mouth, and when he could, he joked he was ready to fly this fighter jet, if they’d just clear off the damn tarmac. When he could, he made the nurses laugh. He still knew how to be charming. In fat marker he’d write funny, dirty things in the note pad on the night stand, knowing the nurses would find it. His wife tried to laugh too, but at any hour, with eyes closed, she found the insect noise of hospital machinery and the self-conscious-making squeak of an orderly wheeling past with his cart of soiled linens.

#

At last, how could you know this:

#

She finds herself holding two fingers up to her temple, wagging them like an ear. HorseIf you could only get downstairs, you could see the wild horses.  She doesn’t know why she says it. She pictures tan ponies walking in muddy loops outside the lobby doors, and grass creeping up to repave with green the half moon of asphalt where the taxis pull in and idle. Horses and wild ponies. A young white one with a dramatic patch of grey between his eyes. And the overpass is gone. Imagine all the light that lets in now. And they’ve started growing wheat where it used to be. It’s already so tall.

How, she wonders, is this happening? All their life together she’s signed with him, but still thought in words, the sound of them all strung along and stuck together. Now though, sitting on the edge of the hospital bed—her lap tangled with lines for oxygen and the IV, and the bedsheets he twists as he sleeps—sitting there now, looking at him, through wet eyelashes, she is thinking in pictures and colors. Her hands move along, pulling it all out and dropping the mess wherever it finds a place to lay. The feeling of painting the walls with it all, of wanting to cover every corner of the room with her fingertips.

But the wheat isn’t golden. You’ll love this… it’s chartreuse, kelly green, electric pink, and almost as tall as the snowy mountains springing up behind it.

 #

Laughter.

She moves her hands.

#

Outside, the horses are laughing. Pancake-toothed laughs. They learned to stomp a rhythm that shakes the crab apples right off the trees where the parking lot used to be. Now it’s a black dirt orchard.

#

Watching, not even trying to interrupt, he wrestles himself up onto the slope of pillows piled high behind him. Then, he closes his eyes. Not so he won’t hear, but so he can see. The laughing horses. The sour yellow skin of the crab apples. How they bounce down the branches of the young knotty trees. He closes his eyes to look down on the scene, as if he were nestled right there in the room’s window seat. He closes his eyes to watch the automatic doors of the lobby spin open to the mountain-tall wheat fields. To see the lobby doors frame the painting he finished for their first anniversary. The one he gave her. The only one he didn’t sell, even when there were offers. Even when they could have used the money.

He taps his fingertips as he opens his eyes, taps them in the shape of two bird beaks. Two kissing apple seeds. Taps them twice. More. More.

I’ve been out catching crickets and fireflies while you sleep, listening for their hum in the thick black night.

He brings his hands together. The light touch of two pointed petals. The brief press of fingertips, the joined loops of infinity coming together and apart. Together and apart. More, more, how could there not be more?

This story originally appeared in issue 14. See more here.

Susan Fedynak

A doctor’s office in Massachusetts. A waiting room. Newsweek spread out across your lap. Speckled Berber carpet beneath your suede shoes. A deep twisting down in your bowels. Only momentary. Only nerves. You’re here for a flu shot before work and the long, congested morning drive downtown.

The couple across from you, side by side in those horrible boxy armchairs, sit with their coats still on. They’ve unzipped them only to the waist, so they ride up and around their shoulders and ears. Are they coming or going? They look as if their cocoons have split and they’ve failed to fly away.

From some brightly lit hallway a nurse calls your name, and you’re already rolling up your sleeve. What you don’t see is the envelope laid across the woman’s knees, how delicately she balances it. What fear and what reverence, bubbling up from the slides inside. Photos of her husband’s lungs are wrapped in that fresh, fawny manila. What you don’t see is the woman’s husband. You don’t really see him. How still he is. How deliberately his hands are folded. When you are deaf, stillness is a different kind of quiet.

You are long down the hallway when the nurse calls his name. The only way he knows is by the way his wife lays her hand on his wrist.

On the traffic sodden drive downtown your bicep will begin to ache. The already gummed up glue of the Band-Aid will pinch. You will think about the couple that morning, grey-faced and wrapped in their cocoon coats, and wonder how it turned out. Were they coming or going?

But, how could you know?  How could anyone know all this: That these people can’t sleep anymore.  That they have only just started wearing their minor patches of white hair as a badge. That they met when they were young and had little money. That they have only a little more money now. That they’ve never once tried to convince the other that they were made of better stuff than a second night of fried rice and beans.  That there are rotting planks running the length of their back porch, but they are still happy out there with a lemonade. They are happy out there. Entirely happy not apologizing to guests for their circumstances. That they love their house for one reason, because it is their house.

How could you know they are friends? Friends who married each other. That they are the same people who wait each year for the lilacs and wild garlic to reach up green each spring in the narrow planting bed at the edge of their fence. That they have regrets, but haven’t advertised them the way some people do. That these people are the same people who compliment each other even in their clothes with tired stitching, who remember to compliment each other after a long day, and just out of the shower. Nice, she will say, and graze his chest, his cheek, his thigh. Nice. How could you know that these people have danced together, a lifetime together, and only one has heard the music?

How could you know about the wild garlic, the rotten porch? That he is deaf, and she is not, and it hasn’t made much of a difference over the last thirty-two years.

#

It’s not safe, all the stuff we build our walls with. She meant the stuff he was responsible for at work. He knew what she meant. She brought it up all the time. All he could do was listen, watch her sign furiously as she repeated the same worries. He listened because she made him. Made him watch as she waved her hands in front of her, used her pointer fingers to square off two walls around her face, and a steeple roof above the part in her hair. Her own scrappy vernacular.

When these moments struck her, when he came home covered in dust and she watched him wash his face and wipe out the black dirt that ringed his nostrils, when she was in that mood, he learned it was better to oblige and watch her go on and on in the bathroom mirror. Watching her that way, everything was backwards, but he knew the point she was making. He would tap her reflection, right on the mouth, which flapped along with her fast moving hands. I get it, he’d sign, tapping his head with the butt of his palm. I get it, you love me.

He could find something else to do for money, but he wouldn’t. Working construction as a deaf man was a minor triumph. She wasn’t going to step on that, either.  I’m not unhappy, so drop it already. He was tired of pulling his lips down in that faux fish-face grimace. Here it was, all in the context, which made it tricky. No, the job didn’t elate him, but he was not unhappy. Working with his hands was good. It meant not too much “talking.” Sometimes he felt blessed, not to have the time to jot things down on the legal pad he kept nearby. To not have a stake when the other guys fought over which station to play on their busted portable radio, or when they’d all start yelling for the youngest one to shut up already about the latest girl to leave him. He could pick up bits here and there, if he stopped rolling out his section of insulation and focused on lips, but it was hardly worth it.

#

Her favorite words to sign:

When he kisses her: More. Create an “o” with each hand. Flatten. Bring hands together.

Watching him dry off after a shower: Nice. Place your left hand in front of you, palm up. Swipe your right palm across your left. Add a puckish grin to this one.

Finally: Don’t be like that. A complicated phrase she’s accustomed to. When he hasn’t had time to paint, when he’s hungry, frustrated, scared. It’s part of her. The movements flow through and past her without a thought.

#

They met at the library. It’s as simple as that.

#

In the hospital she takes notes as if she’s paid to, as if all the coats carrying charts and clipboards don’t matter. In a little notebook she carries everywhere, she collects dosages and procedure dates. She collects the names of specialists, nurses, even candy stripers. She collects so many phone numbers. Puts an asterisk next to direct lines; holy grails. She keeps a list of medical terms she dares herself not to look up as soon she gets home. She jots reminders for thank you notes. The flowers. The cards. The casserole of lasagna left at the back door. Taped inside the notebook are business cards for car services and the Chinese delivery that will bring food as far as the big revolving doors at the entrance near the ambulance bay. Strange, she thinks, and too formal, how all the hospital clergy have business cards too.

It gets to be that when the doctors or nurses come in he closes his eyes. If he can’t read their lips, he won’t have to know. He closes his eyes when the bedside conversation turns to hospice, a discussion about whether it is time to move. His wife hurts with jealousy, now more than ever. Why can’t she shut her eyes and end the conversation? Why isn’t that allowed? Why is it only he who can go into a blackness full of no sound, a tactless respite. Why was she the one who would have to relay the information later?

After the doctors go, she waits a while to rub his elbow and wake him. With these drugs he so often falls asleep, even when his eyes have been shut only out of denial and defiance.

We’re changing rooms.

A free upgrade? He motions. A pause. He smiles. Like when we went to Sanibel.

This becomes a running joke. She loves him for it, and she could cry every time. It was everything and nothing like the hotel room they had the year their vacation got caught up in a tropical storm and management thought it good manners to give them an upgrade. The beautiful grand balcony they couldn’t use because it was boarded up against the wet gale force outside. It was just like Sanibel, could have been filled up with soggy disappointments just the same if it wasn’t for his sense of humor.

The new room was big and bright and all their own. Sanibel, he mouthed for her sake, as his bed was wheeled in. The nurse, who was big and bright too, gave the room a grand tour treatment with all the trappings of a flight attendant. Sanibel, my dear, Sanibel, and this time he let his wife roll her eyes. The nurse pulled back curtains to reveal an alcove window overlooking the cafeteria loading dock, and beyond that, early morning sun bouncing off the Charles River.

The next day he’d request binoculars, a pair that once belonged to his father. I still know where they are, I swear, and would you go and find them? And she swore to the nurses, He did know, he really did know, they were there in the studio cupboard all this time. All that week she lied. I really can see the purple gingerbread of our house just off Kendall Square.

#

She always told him to leave his filthy clothes at the door. After a while she screwed a hook into the door frame for his shirt and pants, put a tray in the hall for his boots. Sometimes, on hot days, he would pull off his dusty work shirt before he made it to the top of the front steps. Anyone but him and she would have been embarrassed. After scrubbing in the shower he could go to his easels, always two or three lined up at a time in the back sunroom. Wrapped at the waist in a towel, or standing only in boxers, the hair on his arms and legs still patted down with dampness, he would stay back there with his real work until dinner. This is the way it was for years.

#

Right away, the nurses offer an interpreter so she can get some rest at home, but he insisted she stay. She has stayed all this time. She is the best, he signs, she knows exactly what I mean. She shrugs at the nurses and relays the message again and again until it’s whittled down to, He says I’m a professional.

She tried to condition herself in the days after they sat in that clinical room, dark enough to view x-rays, and watched as the doctor swept over the ghost prints of his lungs, marking each black spot that seemed to appear only as the nub of grease pencil circled it completely. She tries again on these nights filled with machines moving his lungs more reliably than he ever could. Before that, he wore a mask that forced oxygen in through his nose and mouth, and when he could, he joked he was ready to fly this fighter jet, if they’d just clear off the damn tarmac. When he could, he made the nurses laugh. He still knew how to be charming. In fat marker he’d write funny, dirty things in the note pad on the night stand, knowing the nurses would find it. His wife tried to laugh too, but at any hour, with eyes closed, she found the insect noise of hospital machinery and the self-conscious-making squeak of an orderly wheeling past with his cart of soiled linens.

#

At last, how could you know this:

#

She finds herself holding two fingers up to her temple, wagging them like an ear. HorseIf you could only get downstairs, you could see the wild horses.  She doesn’t know why she says it. She pictures tan ponies walking in muddy loops outside the lobby doors, and grass creeping up to repave with green the half moon of asphalt where the taxis pull in and idle. Horses and wild ponies. A young white one with a dramatic patch of grey between his eyes. And the overpass is gone. Imagine all the light that lets in now. And they’ve started growing wheat where it used to be. It’s already so tall.

How, she wonders, is this happening? All their life together she’s signed with him, but still thought in words, the sound of them all strung along and stuck together. Now though, sitting on the edge of the hospital bed—her lap tangled with lines for oxygen and the IV, and the bedsheets he twists as he sleeps—sitting there now, looking at him, through wet eyelashes, she is thinking in pictures and colors. Her hands move along, pulling it all out and dropping the mess wherever it finds a place to lay. The feeling of painting the walls with it all, of wanting to cover every corner of the room with her fingertips.

But the wheat isn’t golden. You’ll love this… it’s chartreuse, kelly green, electric pink, and almost as tall as the snowy mountains springing up behind it.

 #

Laughter.

She moves her hands.

#

Outside, the horses are laughing. Pancake-toothed laughs. They learned to stomp a rhythm that shakes the crab apples right off the trees where the parking lot used to be. Now it’s a black dirt orchard.

#

Watching, not even trying to interrupt, he wrestles himself up onto the slope of pillows piled high behind him. Then, he closes his eyes. Not so he won’t hear, but so he can see. The laughing horses. The sour yellow skin of the crab apples. How they bounce down the branches of the young knotty trees. He closes his eyes to look down on the scene, as if he were nestled right there in the room’s window seat. He closes his eyes to watch the automatic doors of the lobby spin open to the mountain-tall wheat fields. To see the lobby doors frame the painting he finished for their first anniversary. The one he gave her. The only one he didn’t sell, even when there were offers. Even when they could have used the money.

He taps his fingertips as he opens his eyes, taps them in the shape of two bird beaks. Two kissing apple seeds. Taps them twice. More. More.

I’ve been out catching crickets and fireflies while you sleep, listening for their hum in the thick black night.

He brings his hands together. The light touch of two pointed petals. The brief press of fingertips, the joined loops of infinity coming together and apart. Together and apart. More, more, how could there not be more?

This story originally appeared in issue 14. See more here.

Susan Fedynak is a writer who works across and between genres and mediums. As a member of the NY Writers Coalition she leads community outreach writing workshops throughout New York City. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at Pratt Institute and lives in, and makes art in, her hometown of Queens, NY. ​