Thank You Henry Rollins for Your Offensive Comments About Depression and Suicide

Unknown(Reprinted from the Huffington Post)

This summer, Punk Rock icon, actor and writer Henry Rollins wrote a controversial opinion piece entitled ‘Fuck Suicide’ for the L.A.Weekly in which he viciously criticized those who commit suicide, including Robin Williams, who killed himself after a long battle with depression. “How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children?” Rollins wrote. “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain.”

The article was shared 32,000 times on Facebook, and enraged thousands of readers who believed Rollin’s words showed a complete lack of respect for Williams and his grieving family. News outlets including the NY Daily News, Rolling Stone Magazine, Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald also reported on the backlash. But he wasn’t the only public figure to comment negatively about suicide and those suffering from mental illnesses. The KISS bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons sparked outrage after saying he is “the guy who says ‘Jump’ to those who are suicidal.

Simmons then went on to imply that people with suicidal tendencies were attention seekers. He remarked “Shut the f**k up, have some dignity and jump.”  In response, several radio stations, including Power97 and BobFM in Canada declared that they will no longer play KISS music, as did leading Australian station Triple M – which owns five metropolitan stations across the country. After the fallout, Simmons also deleted his Twitter account to which he previously posted daily. Finally, last week So You Think You Can Dance judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe announced on the show that “committing suicide is both stupid and selfish.”

As much as I loathe all of these insensitive and offensive comments I am grateful that they have opened up an international dialog that is rarely that covered in our media and news outlets. However, amid the clamor, I believe that these public figures articulated some very real and strongly held beliefs that those who commit suicide and struggle with mental illness are weak, selfish and lack courage. That they should “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “just snap out of it.” And that they don’t deserve our sympathy because “they did it to themselves.” I know that these horribly misguided comments are made over dinner tables, during happy hour and into cell phones because I have heard them. Most mental health professionals would agree that suicide is too often a result of mental illness.

There’s no “stupidity” involved when a disabling illness drives a person to take his or her own life.  The shame and stigma stat stem from these commonly held messages can cause a great deal of damage. Bruce Levin, psychologist and author of several books including  Surviving America’s Depression  wrote that people with mental illnesses “do not need positive-thinking or condescending advice, which assumes inaction stems from ignorance, creates only more pain. Instead, people need compassion, love, and various kinds of support.” In todays culture we hold our celebrities as up as role models, emulating their taste in clothes, music, homes, political causes, art, cars, food, reading material, and lifestyles. Their opinions are regarded by many to be the gold standard regardless of how ridiculous, misinformed or irresponsible they may be. These celebrities do not only echo public sentiment, they create it. Just consider Kim Kardashian and her empire.

However, most telling was how these three celebrities chose to respond to the public outcry against their insensitive remarks. Nigel Lithgoe took to Twitter and in three posts refused to apologize. He continued to blame the victims by saying, “I will not even begin to defend my feelings toward suicide. The belief that life is not worth living is wrong. Because a mentally ill person is incapable of judgement does not make the act of suicide any less stupid or selfish.” He also admitted that he has lost two people to suicide and perhaps his experience has impacted his misguided beliefs. It’s not for me to make this assumption. Rock star Gene Simmons has expressed regret in a Facebook message

“I was wrong and in the spur of the moment made remarks that in hindsight were made without regard for those who truly suffer the struggles of depression.” However, it was Henry Rollins’ reaction which surprised me the most. In addition to apologizing he also pledged to educate himself on the topic. After his original article, Rollin’s penned a follow-up titled, “More thoughts on suicide,” in which he took responsibility and thanked the people who sent responses.

“I appreciate them all because they were written with complete sincerity, even if some had only two words, the second being “you.” . . . I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me.” But then Rollins shared his own struggles with depression. “There have been some truly awful stretches, as I am sure there have been for anyone who deals with depression, that have at times rendered me almost paralytic.” Rollins wrote. It may seem appalling that he would make these derogatory remarks after suffering from depression himself. However, a research paper in the US National Library of Medicine entitled “Stigma as a Barrier to Recovery” noted the stigma may be so pervasive that “persons with mental illness may begin to accept these notions and internalize these stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs that are widely endorsed within society”.

Perhaps this was the case with Rollins but it wouldn’t be fair for me to make that conjecture. Rollins concluded with a message of regret and a commitment to learn from this experience: “I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you.” To be sure, there are many who believe that these all are just insincere apologies by celebrities who are interested only in protecting their image and endorsements. I do not know if Simmons or Rollins are being genuine. I hope so because people can change. I know it, in fact because I have.

It shames me now to admit that I once held similar misguided opinions about mental illness but this was before I got a Masters degree in counseling, before I worked with students in crisis at Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University and UCLA and before I lived with a decade-long diagnosis of major chronic depression. In other words I got educated, I learned and I changed. The concept that mental illness is a disease which twists reality and affects the way one thinks, perceives and remembers is one that is not often discussed. Blame towards the victim and a lack of understanding is what keeps so many alone with their secrets.

The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. That is too many people who must bear the stigma and the judgement of the ill-informed. I am proud of the mental health community and media outlets who stood to be counted by taking these public figures to task. As a result damaging misconceptions were exposed and more importantly relevant information about mental illness and suicide was shared with the public at large. The  good news is that a more open conversation about suicide and depression may be on the horizon in this country, as the indie film, “Skeleton Twins,” a movie with suicide and suicide attempts at the core of the story, won big audiences in its debut weekend in movie theaters across the country. It is my hope that more people will get educated, learn and change.

No Winter Blues

1sun(Reprinted from Huffington Post)

I am a lucky person: My life is big and good. I am a playwright, actor and activist. I am also well-medicated and my brain has had a good winter.

A decade ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. The shorter days of less sunlight in the winter months terrify me because of the reality that is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It may exacerbate my depression and plunge me into the dark. I am braced myself and worked on a plan to avoid the hole.

I knew it is necessary because as most people were making New Year’s resolutions, taking inventory of their winter sweater wardrobe and gearing up for skiing or snowboarding last year, I stumbled into the hole after having a good spring, followed by a happy summer.

The invisible hand of depression pushed me down for almost four months. It felt like an eternity. I not only missed the sun and the deep blue sky, but I missed my old self. I slept 11 hours a day and woke up exhausted and ready for a nap. Sadness and despair gnawed at my brain, and because my depression manifests itself physically, I felt like a low-grade flu followed me around like a nagging child.

Prepping for the writing classes that I teach took twice as long and drained me, although I could always rally in the classroom. My classes were always full of talented, generous writers and for a few hours it would take me out of myself.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, SAD is characterized by recurrent and cyclical episodes of depression, usually in late fall and winter. It is estimated that 18.8 million people or 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD along with another 14 percent who suffer from a milder version we often call the “winter blues.”

By January, predictable symptoms may have existed for two months, as the sun’s rays are weaker and the darkness is longer. Symptoms including extreme fatigue, sadness, emptiness, anxiety, decreased energy, a lack of focus, productivity and pleasure in activities often subside in March or April. Many of us don’t feel fully “back to normal” until early May.

Another symptom that’s common with people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder is an increase in carb cravings. Me? I could not get enough cookie dough, linguine, warm French bread, mashed potatoes, corn chips, chocolate cupcakes, and finally, most embarrassingly, Cheese Whiz. On a cracker or straight from the can.

We don’t know exactly why Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs. The research says there are probably several causes. Scientists have discovered that a neurotransmitter called serotonin may not be functioning well in people with SAD. Also hormones like melatonin play a role. There is the eye’s sensitivity to light and the circadian rhythms, which involve sleep-wake cycles during the changing seasons.

Where you live may also play a factor. Experts contend SAD is influenced not by the cold, but by diminished light and latitude is part of that equation. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that 1 percent of Florida residents, 4 percent of Washington, D.C. residents, and nearly 10 percent of Alaska residents suffer from SAD.

In an attempt to combat this weather phenomena, Rjukan, a small town in Norway recently completed installing three 300 square foot heliosatic mirrors that will redirect the sunlight into the town. Not bad for a community of 3,000 people.

I live in Chicago, where my husband and I have an extended family and our work. I love it here. Chicago has a spectacular skyline, terrific theater and world class restaurants. But unfortunately 79 percent of its winter days are cloudy to partially cloudy. And this winter has been long and mean and relentless.

One gloomy afternoon in early winter as I tried to psych myself getting outside to shovel the sidewalk, I happened to flip onto an article on the website of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on the benefits of prophylactic treatment for SAD. In other words, it suggested being proactive before the SAD symptoms sink in.

I am trying. This year I refuse to be bullied by SAD. I did some research, talked about it with my psychiatrist and got an OK.

So every day for 30 minutes I am doing phototherapy by sitting in front of a 12″ by 24″ metal box that contains two long tube lights behind a metal grating that delivers full spectrum 10,000 lux of light. My cat likes to sit in front of it too, so I let her, because who wants a depressed cat? The light board cost $139 and is designed to mimic outdoor light that researchers believe may lift mood and ease other symptoms of SAD.

I am not alone in my efforts.

The Memorial Hospital in South Bend has installed a Light Therapy Feel Better Center and offers complimentary 30-minute sessions.The counseling centers at University of Washington, University of New Hampshire and Macalaster College in St Paul, Minnesota provides light therapy to its students through their counseling centers. And the Lightbar in Portland, Ore. is a bistro that combines food, trendy cocktails and music with light therapy. Genius.

My psychiatrist suggested upping my supplements of Vitamin D and fish oils. We developed a modification plan for my antidepressant regime if I find myself going into the hole. I know from experience that altering your meds may be a complicated hit or miss, but I like knowing that I have a fall back.

He also told me to, “get somewhere sunny if you can. Some people say that they feel better after just a couple of days.”

So instead of going on our traditional summer vacation this year, I split up the time up into two short winter jaunts to visit warm weather friends in January and February. I know that Van Nuys, California and Houston, Texas are not glamorous, but they are hot and full of sunshine.

I am also more vigilant this winter about exercise and yoga and as difficult as it is, I am trying to regulate my sleep patterns.

Finally, most importantly for me, I am booking my calendar weeks and months in advance to get me up and out into the world when all I want to do is stay under the covers and mew. I am planning dinners out, movie night in with fun friends, actually showing up for holiday parties, entertaining weekend visitors, getting theater tickets and faithfully going to writing group, book club and visits with my parents and in-laws. I’ve even decided to throw myself a 1/2-year birthday party.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is real and dark for millions of people, and these measures aren’t for everybody, but for me it is worth a try.

I’ve never been a “just in case” kind of woman. I don’t carry antacids when I go to my favorite Mexican restaurant. I don’t bring an umbrella if it just “looks” like rain and I don’t stash an extra $20 bill into a secret fold of my wallet.

I don’t live in Florida or Rjuka, and I have not the time or inclination to erect giant mirrors on Willis Tower.  But I am going continue to be proactive. I have made do right here staring into the light and it has worked.

NOTE:  I start touring the solo show-“A Little Bit Not Normal”  A serious comedy about depression-  Fall 2014.  This Blog, the show, talk back sessions, community writing workshops, articles in publications & the book- is part of my iniative to become part of the national conversation around mental  Illness.  Kickstarter will be launched later this year.  I hope you’ll join me- because its 1 in 4 of us suffer sometime in our lives- and much of that time it is in silence.

Into The Blue


Into The Blue
I flip the car visor to apply a slicker of raspberry. I’m so exhausted that I look like phlegm. But phlegm who’s wearing lipstick because everybody knows that lipstick can disguise anything. You never see any of those actors who play sick characters wearing it, not even if they are Angelina Jolie. It’s early and slippery outside, one of those days in Chicago when the fog feels like a permanent guest on the road. I move at a glacial pace. Sometimes one depression hour feels like a dog year.

Me, in another psychiatrists’s office. I keep my eyes to the floor like the guilty one on Law and Order. I am shamed. This is my Roswell 54. I’ve always prided myself on being a “happy, optimistic and motivated person.” I’ve even bragged about it but out of nowhere Depression just crept in through a basement window and I found him sitting there with his feet up on my nice, new mushroom colored couch and he decided to stay.

I took my first 2 pills. They were melon colored and shaped like kites and I felt like a teenaged girl waiting for her boyfriend to change his Facebook status to “In A relationship” because I wanted those meds to work and work fast. They didn’t. I tell no one about the black sinkhole except for Dan, my good and kind husband who guards the secret like it’s a magician’s trick. We both know that crazy and unstable does not get hired, does not get invited to fabulous parties. We both know that all crazy and unstable gets is judged.

Meds are added, taken away, tweaked and tweaked again. There are pretty little yellow pills, rainbow capsules and ones that look like teensy hotdogs. Another one make me feel l’m on a tilt a whirl and I throw up for 24 hours straight. Some work a little, some not. I don’t know. My brain skates the edge of winter-gray and presses at my brain.


INTO THE BLUE Arlene Malinowski

And then I just stop. Mail and magazines are left unread. Clothes with zippers and buttons and proper fit sit in the closet. The TV flickers like ghosts in the night. Phone calls roll into voicemail. The bed becomes both my shroud and sanctuary. I look into the mirror of the medicine cabinet. I’ve become invisible-even to myself. I wonder when is it time to find a new doctor? Until one day she says kindly; “I think we should wait to see if this lifts. Your body’s been through a lot. I don’t know what else we should try right now.” Six weeks later she moves away to a city that’s warm and sunny.

How are you? the question comes automatically from the mouths of others. “Fine, I’m just fine” I reply smiling, pink bubbly. A dozen years of acting classes, money well spent. In my soul, I dream about Sylvia Plath and Bell Jarring. I curse my electric oven. And then Dan does the unthinkable and betrays me. I hear him in the other room on the phone, “She’s clinically depressed. It’s bad. We need to get her into see someone now.” I panic, “What are you doing? I was just having a bad moment.” He holds me, “I had to tell someone. I’m scared for you”

My head is spinning lurid purple. “Don’t you understand they’re going to tell everyone!” He doesn’t listen. There are phone calls to brothers and friends and colleagues and I’m in, right away with a guy who is not taking new patients. They say he’s a rockstar but I don’t care. Now the whole family knows. Screw them.

I look around the waiting room. I feel like I’m sitting in the middle of a pharmaceutical Burning Man. The patients rock and mutter and sweat and tremble and stare glassy eyed and get up for cups and cups and cups of water. These are the last chance people and I am one of them. There is a place in your mind that is so far down you don’t see color. That’s where I am.

We wait for 2 hours and when we finally get into his office it looks like a bomb hit it. There is stuff everywhere, it feels like the inside of my brain. He looks nice, like the kind of guy that you should have gone out with in college instead of chasing the bad boys who would make out with you at a party and then dump you for a girl named April- at the same party. I hand him the history that Dan so meticulously kept and I tell him the dark side of calm. “The gnawing at my brain is relentless. I can’t do it anymore. I want go to sleep and never wake up again.”
Dr Last Chance leans in, connects with me my eyes and says in a low quiet voice;

“I know you’re in pain but you need to know that we have lots of options to try.” and then starts naming off lists of drugs and drug combinations. When we are leaving I throw my arms around him and hug him hard and he hugs me back.

Hope is a great gift- maybe the best of all gifts and that’s what he gave me. I slowly start to come out of it. Depression like mine doesn’t just go away, it leaves quietly and surreptitiously like the honey colored light at dusk but word about my break down spreads quickly and at full tilt. I am humiliated beet red but the most unexpected things happen. A funny card shows up in the mailbox. A hand reaches out. The kind opportunity to teach a class if I felt up to it is offered. And people whisper to me “Me too! I have it too” and I wonder “why didn’t I know this about you? Why didn’t we know this about each other? It would have made everything so much easier.” But these timid, tentative and big-hearted acts of care surround me. I swallow my fear and I recognize that loosening the shame and releasing the secret into the blue- saves me.

NOTE: My one-woman show  “A Little Bit Not Normal”  A serious comedy about depression-  Spring 2014.  This Blog, the show, talkback sessions, community writing workshops, articles in Huff Po, publications & the book- is part of my initiative to become part of the national conversation around mental  Illness.  Kickstarter will be launched later this year.  I hope you’ll join me- because its 1 in 4 of us suffer sometime in our lives- and much of that time it is in silence.

Kicking the Habit

985C1E54Kicking the Habit

I grew up in Paterson, NJ.  It was a tough neighborhood where the second graders cursed, the nuns smoked and the dogs snarled.  But the most feared group in all of Paterson … the ones who terrorized children … the ones who promised that retribution would be swift and merciless …  was not the Jersey Mob but the Jersey Moms.  And we all understood that you could never go against The Family.

In our neighborhood, every mother made it her business to make sure that every kid stayed out of trouble.  Mrs Koos, down the street, was forever yelling from the stoop “Jesus Christ hanging on the cross, you’re gonna get hurt doing something like that!”  When Stevie and Alfie’s Mom, who regularly wiped dirt from our faces with a spit-on tissue, would catch us misbehaving she would get eye level, shake us or hit our butt and hiss, “Don’t let me catch you doing that again.”

Mrs. George could break up a fight just by barking, “Hey you, come over here and sit until I tell you to get up”.   However, she sometimes would give the offender a snack if they looked like they were truly sorry and promised not to do it again. So, we all learned how to play her.

Occasionally, the Jersey Moms would get into it amongst themselves over who hit whom first, but for the most part, they were loving and fair with us all of us. The other Mothers were like that.  It didn’t matter, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Irish, Italian or Puerto Rican, the Jersey Moms all operated the same way except for mine.  Because my mother was Deaf, the hearing world was one she didn’t live in. It was one she didn’t understand and a world that didn’t understand her.

In the Deaf community, Mommy was popular, quick with a joke and unselfish with her empathy.  At home, she was strict and punished us regularly for being disobedient, but she never stepped in to reprimand someone else’s kid because her inability to hear made her uncomfortable and timid.  She also never stuck-up for us when another Mom falsely accused us of a crime we didn’t commit.

It’s not that she ignored trouble.  If someone fell off of a bike or was throwing asphalt like the Bell kids across the street often did, she would quietly try to fix the situation with a small wag of her head, a silent hug or a wave of her finger. No screaming or punishment was ever involved.  And because she could only rely on her sight to catch the trouble makers, they often got away with murder when my she was around.  It was embarrassing knowing that everyone in the neighborhood thought she was a pushover.

We belonged to St Brendan’s Parish where I also went to school.  We had always been a devout family.  We went to mass on Sundays and everyday during Lent.  We went to weekly confession on Saturday afternoon which really threw a wrench into playtime.  We fasted and abstained on the first Friday of the month, said Novenas and lit candles.  Crucifixes, statues of saints, pictures of heaven and hell, Bible storybooks, pope mugs (which we were not permitted to use), and rosary beads crowed every available space in our house until it looked like a religious garage sale.  My parents wanted to make sure there was an early warning system for those times we were thinking about committing a sin. The only thing that was missing was an angel in our bathroom to protect us while we were peeing.   My parents believed they had three financial obligations: rent money, food money and money for the “suggested donation” at church.  Everything else came second.

I loved going to my Catholic school.  I loved the gray plaid uniform with its matching beanie.  I loved all of my subjects, and not only did my homework but all of the extra credit too.  I loved the maps that pulled down from the ceiling, smell of the blue disinfectant and the echo of footsteps when you were the only one in the hallway.  I couldn’t wait for the school day to start so I could say the Pledge of Allegiance, read out loud, and pray at my desk.  I especially loved the pencil sharpener that attached to the wall, and our janitor Mr. Malzone who smoked cigars in the school and had one eye that bounced around like superball. I was taught to work hard, pray hard and respect God, the teachers, and my parents, in that order.

One morning, when I was in the fourth grade, I asked Mommy to write a note for school.  She replied by kneeling and tugging up my knee socks which were always poodling around my ankles. “Mom, stop! Don’t,” I signed, before explaining my request. “They want volunteers to work bingo.  You can’t hear the numbers and I know you don’t like going to school, so I need an excuse.”  Mommy leaned back on her heels and signed back,  “I always so much nervous going your school. Your teachers hearing and smart. Maybe I no understanding them but if it’s important, you know I go.”  She smiled and went back to grooming me.  She was always doing that like the monkeys I saw on Wild Kingdom, except she didn’t eat the nits.

My school was always looking for parent volunteers and Mommy did her part by making cupcakes for the bake sales or crafts for “Brendan’s Bazaar,” but I knew from experience that anything requiring her attendance made her uneasy, so I never brought up being a lunch monitor or chaperone.

Another reason I never asked Mommy to volunteer was that she had a part-time job.  It was the 1960’s and all the mothers we knew stayed at home. Our family didn’t have the luxury of relying on only one paycheck, so Mommy took a job from 9:00AM until 3:00PM at the Maryknoll Catholic Missionary Magazine managing the subscriptions.  I knew Mommy’s job was my parents’ secret shame. I was told not to tell anyone especially the teachers because, “It’s no their business.”  However, I always suspected my parents they didn’t want people to think that we were Deaf and poor.

A few years before this, my Mother and I went to my second-grade parent-teacher conference without my father, because he was working the second shift.  Although he was also Deaf and never used his voice outside of the house, he was handsome, affable and comfortable with putting hearing people at ease.  He would smile warmly and look people in the eye.  Sometimes, he would pantomime a compliment, like. “Wow, look at this kid, he’s so big,” or, “This car is the best one made,” or, “The food was so delicious, I will have to waddle home.”  My father would shake people’s hands or pat them on the back or take out a pad of paper to write, so my mother often relied on him to break the ice with strangers.

I didn’t feel nervous that night without my dad at the conference. Being the hearing child of Deaf parents, I did the kinds of things that many first-generation kids on my block did for their immigrant parents: made their phone calls, corrected their correspondence because English wasn’t their first language, and negotiated the parts of their life connected with the outside world.  I was a shameless show-off, so I enjoyed taking care of things and explaining whatever my parents needed to know.  When people would compliment me or give me the occasional cookie or quarter for being such a, “Good girl,” it always made me feel smug with pride.

Before this parent-teacher conference, I had handled these types of transactions on a small scale … explaining at the car repair shop and the bank, ordering at Pizza City and the deli or calling Granma to let her know we were making the two hour drive to visit. So, the night of the conference, I figured if the teacher decided not to write everything down, I would be doing the talking.

When we got to the school, my classroom looked so fancy, decorated with streamers and the glittered posters we had been making for days.  Mommy bowed her head at the crucifix as a sign of respect and wandered around the room carefully inspecting each piece of artwork, waiting until all the other parents had left.  It was only then that she ventured to the front of the room with me.

“Mrs. O’Keefe, this is my mother,” I said.

Mrs. O’Keefe’s had her gray hair was all done up and she was wearing a pretty blue dress and a gold circle pin I had never seen before.  She smiled kindly, looked right into Mommy’s eyes and shouted, “WELL HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU!.”   Mommy lowered her eyes, and using her Deaf voice, she whispered.  “I’m so nervous to meet you.  How is Arlee doing in school?” She smiled shyly, and then suddenly, awkwardly, remembered to put out her hand to shake.

I wondered what Mrs. O’Keefe would tell her?  A few times I hadn’t finished my arithmetic because I was dilly-dallying, and once she made me clean out my sloppy desk in front of the whole class.  In addition to the jumble of paper and books, elastic bands and chewed pencils, I found an old sandwich smashed in waxed paper.  I wasn’t worried though because I made sure that I hid the sandwich in the trash before she  could see it, and I always got good grades.

I looked at Mrs O’Keefe, “My mother wants to know how I’m doing in school.”  She nodded her head generously and talked in her regular low voice, “Arlene is a very good student.”

We were used to people yelling around us, and I took it as a compliment that they were trying to be nice, even though they did look like idiots.

Mommy watched me intently as I confidently signed.  “I am a very good student.”  She smiled.

Then Mrs O’Keefe said, “She’s a very smart little girl.”  My hands jabbered with joy as I signed, “She said I am very smart.”  This was a coup.  Mommy would let me stay up late and she would brag to all her friends.  Then Mrs O’Keefe  lowered her voice, looked over the tops of her glasses and said, “But she talks entirely too much”.

My thoughts whipped around like a pinwheel in a hurricane, and magically, my hands took on a lie of their own.  I suddenly found myself wordlessly signing, “But the boy behind her talks too much.  Mommy and Mrs. O’Keefe looked at each other, nodded their heads in agreement, exchanged knowing glances and timidly shook hands goodbye.  Crashing through the double doors into the night, I felt like I had just discovered my super-power: the power to hide the truth from my parents.

I didn’t feel that I was being deceitful, exactly. After all, I was Catholic and I knew I could go to hell but I didn’t want my parents to worry so I did my best to protect them in just like I was going to take care of this Bingo situation.

“No, don’t worry about it, I signed to Mommy. “We’ll just write an excuse.  It’s not a big deal.”  Mommy first took out the scratch pad so we could figure out what to say, the two of us weighing each word, crossing out and starting again.  We decided that the best tactic was to say that she simply had another appointment.  That way, we didn’t have to explain about not being able to hear the numbers and the working part-time because it was, “No their business.”  Mommy copied the note onto nice manila paper, signed it with a flourish; Sincerely Yours, Mrs. Dorothy C. Malinowski, folded it, dropped it into my book-bag, (which also was always a mess and harbored many stale, fugitive lunches) and kissed me goodbye.

That day should have been the happiest moment of my fourth grade existence because it was the day that Jan Mascellino, the most popular of the “Populars” picked me to be part of her group.  Everyone knew that being part of the 6 Girl Army of Cool had its advantages.  They had an all-access pass to the front of any line.  They dictated fashion trends like how the beanie was to be worn.  One year, they decided it was cocked to the left, the next year back onto the crown of the head. The Populars ascribed the ranking of everyone in our grade, and had first dibs on the boys they would cheer for during gym.  I always got John Perragallo a mid-level kid who was smart, nice and had a head the size of a basketball. I could do worse.

Huddled together and squirming like kittens on that sunny but brisk Thursday, Jan’s clique was having another one of its infinitely private and enviable discussions when she looked up, sighed disgustedly and said, “Arlene, come here. We need you to even up the “Mummala-Cummala line.”  Me, included with the Populars?  I was elated at the unexpected miracle from a benevolent God in the parking lot/playground/loading dock of St Brendan’s school.

Mummala-Cummala was a call-and-response song accompanied by dance steps and snapping fingers.  Two rows of girls would line up face-to-face in equal numbers, the first row, dancing and singing “Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the second row of girls who would repeat, ”Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the first line of girls singing, “Hey Nonny, Nonny La-Veesta,” and so on and so forth.  This eight-line, call-and-response would then be repeated thousands of times by dozens of uniformed girls every day before school, during recess and on the way home.

I didn’t run with this clique and was never asked to participate, but today the beautiful Maureen Miller was absent, so there were an odd number of girls. They needed someone to even up the line. This one-day-only entrée to the Populars could change my life.

Occasionally, Maryann Rodzen, who lived next door to a Popular, and I would let ourselves fantasize about becoming a permanent alternate, the “go-to-girl” in case someone was sick or hurt or dead.  However, we both understood that we could never be gifted with a guaranteed spot because the caste system had already been pre-determined by the time we were in the first grade.

Jan only had to murmur her request. That was all the invite I needed, before I  flung aside my book-bag  and ran over to the cool girls as if I’d always belonged.  We were only a few minutes into the singing, dancing and snapping when I felt a looming over my shoulder and heard the familiar clickety-clack  of rosary beads.  I looked up to see that it was Sister Mary Concepta, the meanest nun the whole school, who had stopped me. “Miss Malinowski, You left your book-bag in a pedestrian zone and I tripped over it.  I could have been seriously injured were it not for the graces of Almighty God.”  Her dry, bony hands were grabbing my ear, pulling me across the playground.  She sat me down hard on the steps, and I tried not to cry.  Watching from the sidelines, I didn’t know which hurt more, my pinched ear or the mortification. But one thing was clear, I was destined never to “Mummula-Cummala” with the Populars again.

Sister Mary Concepta was about hundred and ten years old and had been dying of cancer for decades, but everyone said that she would live forever because she was so mean that not even God wanted her.  She was one of those nuns whose beady little eyes roamed the classroom all day for another victim; someone too fat, too stupid, too poor, too weak or too different. Then she would break them, all in the name of the Good Lord, of course.  It was Catholic School Darwinism, at its best.

I had become the bacteria in her microscope, and there was no escaping.  Everything I did was scrutinized and magnified.  If I accidentally dropped my ruler, she’d accuse me of doing it on purpose, and I’d get a whack on the palm–with my own ruler.  If my work wasn’t perfect, I was sent to the board to do it over and over,  each time getting a huge X drawn through my answer in chalk until it was right.  Flying erasers often found my head, and the living daylights were shaken out of me until I felt like a milk shake in the blender.  Sister Mary Concepta, who looked like a raptor in a black and white habit, became my own personal drill sergeant.  After only a few weeks, I could hardly lift my eyes from my penny loafers, and the Populars had shunned me, tittering loudly whenever I got in trouble.  Populars are like that.

I never knew when, where or how Sister Mary Concepta was going to swoop down like a crow to peck my eyes out, but I knew that she would.  The other kids couldn’t help me, because then they might get it too.  Bullies are like that.  But the worst part was the shame and the fear that walked along side me where my guardian angel was supposed to be to be.  I had become a puny, anxious nerve-bucket.  Once in a while, there would be a kid who might give me a little smile or sneak to help me pick up my lunchbox and check my thermos for broken glass, but most of the time I was alone.

However, I was not her sole victim.  She scared Louis Triganni so much, that he peed on himself with such regularity.that it was hard to recognize him with dry pants on.  And Susan Wildermuth started to pull out her eyelashes until she resembled an ostrich.  No one was exempt from Sister Mary Concepta except the Populars, or so it seemed to me.

One day when the entire class was talking, Sister pointed to me and said, “Miss Malinowski, in order to exonerate the class for talking, stand in the corner like Christ on the Cross.”   It was the first time I had ever heard of this type of punishment, so I didn’t have any role models, except Jesus, of course.  The class froze. The jibber-jabber stopped, as I stood in the front of the room underneath the crucifix which was positioned in between the map of New Jersey and the loud speaker.  I glanced up at the cross to study it.  It looked simple enough.  I stretched out both of my arms, crossed one foot over the other, and then debated.  “Should I do the head or not?” The pull was irresistible.  It’s true that I wanted to be authentic, but I also wanted to be funny.  I wanted her to know that I could not be broken, so I cocked my head down and to the right and made the sad Jesus face.  The class laughed, and I realized that there was one silver-lining to the whole situation.  I was fast becoming a celebrity with the boys at school for being able to take it and not cry and I was a girl.  You couldn’t buy this kind of PR in grammar school, where the popular boys had more sway then the popular the girls.

But in the end Sister Mary Concepta was wearing me down and I tried everything to fix it between us.  Everything from writing a note of apology, to carrying her book-bag to the convent. I even tried praying Mary and for the intercession of the Saints to help me out.  But in the end, nothing worked, and I knew I couldn’t tell my mother.  After all what could she do?  She was Deaf .

The crazy dream started soon after that.  It was always the same. I would be at Nash Park swinging so hard I felt like my feet could kick the blue out of the sky.  My parents were pushing me as I closed my eyes, faced off with the sun and jumped.  WHOAAA!

I would land and tell my parents I had to go to the bathroom. They would wave me off smiling and as I walked across the playground woozy from the swing to heaven,  kids would suddenly surround me, running and laughing, screaming and playing.   When I squinted my eyes, they all looked like a bag of jellybeans being shaken.  I’d feel happy as I considered what I might eat later at the Hot Grill across the street.  Maybe I’d order a “hamburger all the way,” with the brown, hot sauce or maybe French fries but never both.  We couldn’t afford it. I’d walk into the damp, smelly bathroom where the cool felt good on my skin and my eyes would start to adjust to the darkness, when I’d feel a brick of fear smash into me, realizing what was about to happen.  I’d start to suck air.  “Get Out” my guts warned me. Every muscle strained as I felt like I was running in quicksand.

“Nooooo!  Come back!” I’d holler, as I ran out of the stone building and turned the corner.  But it was already too late.  Everyone had left.  Everyone had left Nash Park.  I heard the gate shut and the chain lock.  Just beyond the gate, everyone was leaving.   Beyond the gate, I’d see the back of Mommy and Daddy’s heads walking away from me, leaving me all alone

“Help me,” I’d shriek, knowing they couldn’t hear me, but I’d keep screaming anyway.

My heart hurt with every step they’d take.  I’d smash my body into the grate of the fence and try to will it through the metal. All alone in Nash Park, that’s when I’d sense them.  They would come for me like they always did.  I’d hear them bray, hiss and spit before I would see them: The llamas.  Hundreds of them would approach from behind the bathrooms, from under the swings, from the monkey bars and the dug out.  I could feel the ground shiver behind me as I started to climb the fence.  The sun would become blinding, and sounds would get louder and louder as the llamas came closer to take me.

Then I would wake up in my bed, sweaty, breathless and breathing .  After a while, I would get up to go sit on the floor of our dining room. There, the light of the red and green neon sign from the White Leaf Cleaners streamed in through  the window and it always calmed me.

The troubles with Sister Mary Concepta and the dreams kept going until it happened: It was a sunny day at school.   Sister Mary Concepta called to me, “Miss Malinowski, you are a disgrace to God himself.  Why didn’t you complete this bingo form as instructed and write down your phone number?”

Standing up at my desk, as was the custom to show respect, I replied, “We don’t have a phone, Sister.”

“You don’t have a phone! She wheezed like an accordion.  Miss Malinowski, you are the Devil’s lie box.”

I imagined a gigantic package festooned with red pitchforks and Satan horns that held every untruth I had ever told.  Sister peered so close, I could see a few  hairs the color of dust escaping from her veil, which  answered the question we had all been wondering for years; Oh my God, nuns did not shave their heads.  They were not bald.  It was a shocking revelation on the same level as unlocking the 3rd secret of Fatima.

Sister Mary Concepta continued to stare.

“Sister, I’m not a Lie Box.  My parents are Deaf and that’s why we don’t have a phone.  We use the one at the candy store.”  I was being honest although it felt like I wasn’t telling the truth because I had the “Lie Box” picture stuck in my head.

“Oh right, your parents are the deef and dumb mutes.” She paused and mused for a moment.

She’s taking pity on me, I thought.  I should have used this Deaf thing a long time ago.  Of course.  I suddenly saw all of my problems being carried away by happy little bluebirds like in the movie Snow White.

Then, rolling her beady eyes to heaven, she sighed, “Well, I should have known.  How can I discuss your conduct problems with your deef and dumb parents who can’t talk?”

Something inside of me exploded. “There’s no such word as DEEF, my parents are Deaf and just because they don’t hear, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them.”  Then under my breath I added, “They’re not the ones who are dumb around here,” even though I knew better.

“Once again, you’re as bold and brazen as brass, spat Sister Mary Concepta.  “Kneel at the crucifix and think about your sins. I don’t know what kind of heathen parents would bring the sinful likes of you into the world.”

Time both expanded and collapsed as I saw myself getting expelled from my favorite school.  But, I quickly rationalized, that if I end up going to PS 25, at least I could wear culottes and sneakers.

I knelt down and stared at poor Jesus hanging there on the cross, and for the first time I broke down and cried.  I cried all through school and all through detention.  Eying me, Sister Mary Concepta exhaled, “Go ahead Missy, cry me a river”.  She seemed tired too.

After I was finally dismissed, I picked up my book-bag and cried all the way home.  When I got there, Mommy was on her hands and knees next to a pail of water laced with Mr. Clean.  I knew she couldn’t hear me and didn’t want to scare her so I stamped on the old wooden floor so she could feel the vibrations.  She saw me in the doorway and with her rubber gloves still on and said “Arlee, what’s the matter? Why you cry?”  Normally, watching her sign with big, fat yellow cleaning gloves would make me laugh like crazy, but not today.

“Nothing.  Don’t worry about it,” I signed.

“I’m a mother. I can help you.”

“You can’t do anything!  You’re Deaf! So leave me alone!”

My Mother’s hands darted fast and hard, “Arlee, if you don’t tell me what’s happening, I go to the school right now.”

Everyone knew that there was no fate worse than having your Mother show up at school getting all involved.   It would be horrible having to watch Sister Mary Concepta vaporize her.  Or worse, having my mother side with Sister.  So I gave up.  “OK Ma! I’ll tell you!  You can’t go to the school. I’ll tell you.”

And I did tell her, about the Populars, “Mumumala-Cummala”, the book-bag, the ear pulling, the shaking, the yelling, the hanging like Jesus, the lie box.  I told her everything.

“Come here,” Mommy signed as she hugged my head.  “My poor Arlee.  Mommy will take care if it. Put on your coat.”

“No Mom!  Just leave it.” I begged.

But Mommy didn’t listen, and it wasn’t because she couldn’t hear.  Mommy marched the four blocks to the convent, her blue sweater flapping furiously in the wind like the wings of an angel with me dragging behind her.  “Wait! No Ma, Please!”

When we got to the convent, I could smell dinner coming through the door, and I knew this was a bad idea.  I pulled on her and smiled through my panic, “Don’t worry about it.  I’m better.  I can take care of this myself.”

Mommy bent down to my height and mouthed, “I take care of it.  Finished.”  And for a sliver of a moment I saw her head pull back in hesitation before she rang the doorbell.  It chimed loud and low and long, and after an unhurried minute, I heard the latch unfasten.  My heart was pounding in my chest as the door slowly opened and there standing in all of her meanness, was Sister Mary Concepta.  She smiled as if she was waiting for us to drop by and have some cake and coffee. She started to speak, but Mommy cut her off, looking her straight in the eye, “Sister, I no care if you’re teacher.  I no care you if you’re big shot hearing nun.  I no care you think I’m dumb because I’ma Deaf .   This is my daughter, you no touch her.  You no talk fresh mouth or you be sorry.” And then her eyebrows shot up as she added, “Sister, I think you’re little bit not smart because God no like mean nun.  Oh-no!”

For the first time in my life, Sister Mary Concepta was absolutely speechless, and I never loved anyone as much as I loved Mommy in that moment.

“Come on Arlee. Time to go home.”

To this day, I try to imagine what was going through Mommy’s head to give her the courage to stand up to everything she feared. Because after that day, the day that Mommy roared, and the angels sang, things were different for me at school. I felt like I was in the center of a Deaf world that loved me, listened to me and protected me.  Mothers are like that.

Big Hearing Girl

Image“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”          Graham Greene

 After years of living under the watchful eyes of Grandpa and Aunt Jane, my mother and father bought our new house the summer of 1963.  Buying that house was a big deal for them because Mommy and Daddy were Deaf and after a lifetime of struggle and exclusion this house was a declaration of faith in themselves and more importantly their independence.  

385 Buffalo Avenue was a city house, a big yellow and brown two-family in the old section of town.  It sat at the intersection of two busy, noisy streets which really didn’t matter to my parents because they couldn’t hear it.  We were sandwiched on one side by Sonny’s Sweet Shop where you could buy candy, cigarettes and girlie magazines and by the Garcia’s house on the other which was so close to ours that on hot nights when they were playing cards at their kitchen table, I could press my nose up against the screen in my dark bedroom and see who had the best hand.  

That summer, we settled into our new, free life.  My parents threw parties and cookouts for housefuls of people, all of them Deaf.  It something they never did at the old house and I guessed that it was because they didn’t feel like the other backyard belonged to them.  Their friends were always laughing and signing as they turned the chicken legs on the grill or put mercurochrome on a skinned elbow.   I loved to watch their hands dance through the air like confetti even though I knew it wasn’t polite to eye-drop, which is the Deaf version of eavesdropping.  

My parents friends were always on “Deaf time” which meant they came early and left late. They came early because it was their one chance to connect with their tribe and at the end of the night their hands lingered on every last moment that they had to talk and be understood.  

These were people who went to jobs in hearing factories, print shops and filing rooms working silently with their heads down until they punched the time clock. They shopped in hearing stores handing their deli lists to the counter clerks and worshipped in hearing churches where they wrote their sins down on a piece of paper slid them under the confessional door and waited for the priest to write their penance and slide it back out.  Even in the homes that they grew up in most of their families couldn’t communicate beyond a gesture or a home sign or a note.  

That summer we moved into the new house was special for me too because I was finally going to turn six years old and become a big girl.  I hated being treated like a baby; having to wear a sweater when I wasn’t cold, being forced to eat what I was told and a hundred other things that I was sick of.   It was obvious to me that turning six would change all of that.  

In school I would no longer be a little kid who went a half a day to kindergarten.  I would be in 1st grade, wear a uniform, write with a thin pencil and sit my own own desk.  On television the Beaver and Timmy and Lassie were free to roam around to do whatever they wanted to. 

Even in the eyes of God I was grown because Sister Mary Concepta told us that “the age of reason” was when you were held accountable for your own sins and could go to hell.  Technically I knew “the age of reason” was seven but since I understood right from wrong and was tall for my age I figured God would let me slide.  

My birthday party was held outside on a warm July night.  We had hotdogs with buns and the women brought dishes of Ambrosia salad, deviled eggs with parsley on top and the men brought cigarettes and Schlitz beer, which to my enchantment was aways was advertised as blended with “just a kiss of hops”.   After everybody had eaten supper and the sky was becoming burgundy-gray someone turned on the porch light so the Deaf could see each other to talk.  The bulb attracted dozens bugs and I always wondered how a single light could draw so many insects come together at one time.  

Mommy brought out a homemade Duncan Heinz cake and the light from the candles made her face sparkle like a holy saint in a stained glass window.  All the kids at my party ooohed and ahhed because it was time.  With faces shiny from buttered corn, we shimmied in between the adults and everybody sang “Happy Birthday” which was a mess.  Our parents would start the song, some of them signing, some of them using their Deaf voices which sounded like they were squealing or growling, and then us kids would join in trying to follow one or the other. 

When I blew out the candles I made two wishes; one for a Chatty Cathy doll that talked when you pulled a string and the second wish, my serious wish was for Mommy and Daddy to start treating me like I was a big girl.  

 “What you wish for?”  Mommy signed as she bent over to hug me. 

I shook my head “no”.  

It was a perfectly ridiculous question because everyone knows that if you told, your wish doesn’t come true.    Then Janey’s father who was almost as handsome as my father lifted me high into the air and passed me from person to person so they could kiss me and gave me six birthday spanks for good luck. When my feet finally touched down I was dizzy but it didn’t matter because it was finally time to open my presents.  

I wasn’t much interested in the cards but Mommy made me open them first, the bills fluttering into my hands like big green snowflakes.   After what seemed like an interminable amount of envelope handling and hugging I was allowed to tear the wrapping paper off of the first present.  Daddy tried to horn in and help me.   

“I can do it myself”, I mouthed him so he could read my lips.  I got a few puzzles, some clothes, and Puffs which were candy cigarettes that I was forced to share with everybody.  I also got pick up sticks which Mommy took away later that night saying that they were too dangerous but as she pulled out the last box I knew what it was right away.  It was Chatty Cathy.  And because my first wish came true I was positive that my second one would be also be granted and I was more than ready for my new life. 

After the cake and the presents were done we ran around the yard screaming our heads off safe in the knowledge that no one could hear us and try to shut it down.  And our mothers took turns putting their hands on Chatty’s chest and then pulling her string to feel the vibrations when she talked.  Even then I knew that I was a child who was loved and I never doubted my place in the Deaf world.  

A few days into my sixth year the strangest thing happened.  Mommy and Daddy still acted towards me like I still five years old.  They treated me the same way they treated Baby Diana and she was only three.  I did not think this was right.  It didn’t make sense because I knew the alphabet, how to write my name and address.  I understood not to get into a car with strangers especially if they offered candy. I could say the act of contrition and tell time. I believed they were too careful with me and even though I didn’t know the word overprotective I understood exactly what it meant 

For weeks afterwards my hands would plead,

“I want a bicycle.  Everybody else has a bicycle”

“No” my fathers hands flapped.

I’m going to take a bath alone.


“Can I go play in the parking lot of Paulies Bar?


No matter what I asked for the word that tumbled off their fingers was always the same “no, No, NO!”   I grew to hate the sight of their pointer and middle fingers bouncing off their thumb, the sign for no.  All the other kids in the neighborhood had chores and allowances.  They were allowed to cross the street and walk to the park without their Mothers.  Jorge’ next door was even allowed to steer his father’s car and he was younger than me.  What was worse was that he bragged about it.  “My Dad says that pretty soon I’ll be driving”. 

“Well I’m allowed to stay up until 9:00 every night” I lied, just to get even.

“It’s not fair”, I’d sign over and over again to my parents until I started to sound like Chatty Cathy who was now broken.   I felt like I was trapped between the never and the now.  I was sure that they treated me like a baby because they were Deaf and didn’t understand how hearing people who talked English did things.  I knew this because Dougie Koos had the same problem and his family was from the old country and only spoke Albanian.

Later that fall, after much pestering, Mommy didn’t always make me hold her hand on our way to school. Sometimes I even dared to walk a little in front of her which she didn’t like because she couldn’t talk to me if I couldn’t see her but I didn’t care.

And then it happened one day in November the nuns dismissed us early.  It was exciting, like the unexpected gift of a snow day generously bestowed.  In the playground which also doubled as a parking lot, many of the mothers were already waiting for their kids.  Mrs. Miller had on a black chapel veil with big sunglasses which I thought looked stupid because it wasn’t even summertime and Mrs. Washington, who was the only colored mother in the entire school, was crying and held a ratty Kleenex to her nose.  

Even Sister Mary Concepta, the meanest nun in the whole school wasn’t yelling her head off but quietly prayed on the big rosary that hung from her waist as she directed traffic.    

“Why was everyone unhappy” I wondered and I tried to look sad just to fit in.  Some of the older girls, the popular ones, stood around blubbering and I thought they were probably just showing off.  Then (breath) it occurred to me that my mother wouldn’t be coming to pick me up because the school couldn’t call her because we didn’t have a telephone.

My parents always said that since they couldn’t hear we didn’t need a phone.  Besides they thought phones were only to be used for important business and if they needed to get business done they either did it in person, sent a post card or had Aunt Jane make the call for them.

Standing in the school yard that day, I realized that with no mother coming I could walk home by myself and no one would ever have to know.  I tried to look casual and nonchalant as if walking home alone was something that I always did.  Then when no one was looking I ran down the street, my arms pumped and my knee socks puddled around my ankles and I felt like a puppy who had just found a hole in the fence.   Breathless and breathing, I made a quick stop into Sonny’s to buy some candy with a dime I had filched from Aunt Janes’ purse.  I was always stealing money from this purse or that but no one ever noticed.

 I loved going into the Sweet Shop because Sonny’s was the hangout for everybody who thought they were somebody.  The guys were always kidding around, smoking and betting on the ponies.  Sometimes they even bought me candy because I was “Deaf Charley’s kid” and I liked that, but today as I walked into the store they listened to the radio mutely and I got a funny feeling in my stomach like something wasn’t right.  

At home Daddy’s white Chevrolet was parked in the driveway.  I panicked because he worked till 11:30 on the second shift.  Somehow he had must have found out that I had disobeyed them and now I was going to get into trouble.  I stood in the hallway eating milk duds trying to figure out my lie but when I crept into the house I saw that Mommy and Daddy were just standing in the dark living room.  Mommy was holding my baby sister Diana and crying and Daddy, still in his work clothes, was comforting them.  I had never seen Mommy cry before but even more remarkable to me was that the television was on.  It was never allowed to be on during the day, ever, that was the rule.  

I waited in the doorway and Daddy saw me he made a little space in their circle without saying a word and we stood there together for a long, long time.  It felt nice to be close to them and I started to cry too. But I didn’t know why.

We all sat on the sofa and started to watch the television in the afternoon but no matter how many channels we changed there were no cartoons, soap operas or commercials on so I tapped Daddy on the knee. “Why is there only news on?”.   

Daddy looked to me “What did the man say”?     

“I don’t know the sound not on”.  So Daddy adjusted the knob, watching for me to tell him when it was loud enough.  

Mommy thumped her foot on the floor to get his attention as she put baby Diana down on her lap so she could use her hands.  “Leave her alone, she’s a little girl.”  

My father shook his head in complict agreement.

I jumped up, “No I’m not, I can tell you.” And I planted myself right next to the television. My heart was pounding in my chest and I felt giddy and scared but most of all I felt like I had to pee.  I tried to concentrate on what the man in the glasses was saying, but he talking about the President and using big words.  Words I didn’t understand, like motorcade and sassination. 

“Why would anybody shoot the president?”  I thought to myself.   “He’s so handsome!”   

Daddy tapped me on the shoulder but I shrugged him off. 

“Wait let me think.”  The floors and walls disappeared around me leaving only the blue flickering light and my parents steady gaze.  

“OK. concentrate”, I thought to myself,“Sassination” means killed but depository?  I didn’t know what depository meant.  Then I remembered that Daddy deposited money into the bank.  

Then, in that moment of absolute clarity everything fell into place.  I was proud and calm as I looked right into my parents eyes and signed: “The President was shot in his car and a bank robber killed him.”

The rest, of course is history.  But they never did figure out who shot Kennedy, so I’m not necessarily wrong.  Now as I look back I realize that on that day in November of 1963 everything changed for me.  It was the day that I became my parents ears and voice, their connection to the hearing world.  I had finally become a big girl. 

I Haiku- Do You?


Up until 7th grade poetry was either boring or stupid and often both at the same time.  I was never really moved by Carl Sandburgs’ “Fog comes down on little cat feet” Although I can still recite it by heart- and recite it with meaning. Rhyming couplets were especially hard to write because of the iambic pentameter thing.  And the limerick, I thought those kinds of poem had potential. They were funny and sometimes dirty but they had to be five lines long, written in a particular sing-songy rhythm that had an AABBA rhyming scheme and that was even harder. Then there was poetry-poetry, which was just complicated and didn’t make any sense- ever.  But the haiku was Japanese and had a lot going for it.  It was short, only three lines, but the thing that gave haiku its haiku-ness was the number of syllables in each line, 5-7-5.  I could do syllables and not everyone in my class could.  Haikus didn’t have to rhyme and most of the ones in our English book were about everyday things like rain and flowers.  And even the weirdest ones were easy to understand.

The first cold shower; 

even the monkey seems to want 

 a little coat of straw.        Bashō: 

This was poetry for the people!

I’ve always considered myself a writer; a playwright actually, penning such works as “The Christmas Ornament” which had a fireplace, a manager scene, 26 lines and a cast of 13.  Playing all the parts I would sign the dialog to my Deaf mother as she typed it. I could often complete an entire work in just under an hour since she used a manual typewriter so there was no going back.  But after mastering the one act play genre I longed for a different creative outlet.

My previous attempts at writing poetry in the 5th & 6th grades often fell flat.  They were full of clichés and awkward rhyming.  But haiku?  Haiku I could do.  Mrs Valenz, one of the pretty teachers who wore plaid miniskirts and go-go boots, judged my first endeavor into the art form a critical success.

We wait for robins 

hopping on the new spring grass,

flying in blue skies. 

This ode to spring was praised for interesting subject matter and correct syllabification.  I was burbling with pride.

I did most of my haiku-ing with Carmel Vena, my best friend.  She was skinny, buck toothed and by far the best poet I had ever met but she was never a bragger.  But when her haiku was chosen to be hung on the bulletin board I got jealous and acted a little mean towards her just to get even.  We wrote haikus about our classmates, the cats in the alley, the new purple vests we wanted and we wrote about our families.

I hate my parents.

They never hear what I say

Not because they are Deaf

I wrote because I liked it.  I wrote because my Deaf parents didn’t understand the hearing me, but mostly I wrote because one afternoon Jeffery Hazlet leaned over to me and said, “Hey, Haiku Girl, can I borrow a piece of paper?”  It was an extraordinary moment in an ordinary life, I was considered a poet, a Haiku Girl, by the cutest boy in the 7th grade.  Haiku not only expressed my emotions but helped me figure out what I was feeling and why.  By the time winter ended I was writing hardcore haikus about black sucking voids and Vietnam.

War; man against man.

Protesters against the man.

We fight at what cost?

I used haiku to tease out the mysteries of life and the most touching and most profound were centered, of course, around love.

Sonny how could you?

Is she prettier than me

or is she a whore?

I wrote because had something to say and no one to say it to.  I wrote because I thought my voice was important to my generation and I wrote to become famous.  Although I pooh-poohed getting my haikus published, it was considered “too establishment”, I did like the idea of reciting my poetry before an audience.  Maybe I would travel around with a folk singing group who drove a VW bus from gig to gig performing for hippies, yippies and beatniks. (Although I wasn’t quite sure of what a beatnik was.)  With haiku my future was pregnant with possibilities especially after I didn’t make the choir.

Everyday is new

I start all over again.

Will it be the same?

Then one day it was over.  I just didn’t feel the need to document every emotion and observation that I had about myself and the world.  7th grade gave way to 8th and “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe and basketball games and holding hands with Thomas Costello.  And just like that I stopped being Haiku Girl and I stopped being Paula Rutkowski’s friend and it was OK.  They both were like a pair of dungarees that no longer fit. I still liked them but they had served their purpose and I was excited to get a new pair of Wranglers.

I miss Haiku Girl.  She was full of alienation and hopefulness, confusion and hormones. I miss how easily the words came to her and her unshakeable belief that she was an artist.  I miss how the inner censor who screamed so loudly in so many parts of her life was reverently, respectfully silent when she wrote haiku. There aren’t many of those haikus left. They’ve fallen victim to too many careless hands and too many careless moves.  But on those occasions that I do think about Haiku Girl and my younger self, I see a smoky coffeehouse full of beatniks in black berets and a dim spotlight shining on a lone solitary figure sitting on a stool reciting her favorite haiku.

My dreams are like stars

Even on the darkest night

they shine on and on.


My Deaf Mother flips down the visor and studies her face in the mirror.  She is wearing her post cataract surgery sunglasses.  They’re the cheap, plastic kind that wrap around your head to seal out the light and seal in the dark.

“I look like Movie star”, she muses.

“You do, Mommy”.

The traffic moves like an old man getting up from a nap and we are driving into the eye of a perfect storm.  It’s a Wednesday afternoon which means the stores in the area give a discount to anyone over 65, which includes everyone in Holiday City, a retirement community of ten square miles of the same 6 houses differentiated only by their lawn ornaments.  My parents have lived here for twenty years along with a set of gnomes, a twirling pinwheel and 3 fairies that poke out from the shrubs. These are the shrubs that my father manicures in the front yard with a pair of kitchen shears so they are perfect.  He likes to use a level.

I am driving my father black 1987 Mercury Grand Maquis, it is Jersey after all, and we creep/roll/inch/ along route 37 East which intersects exit 82 of the Gardens State Parkway.  It the main thoroughfare through Holiday City and it is the only road into Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, Point Pleasant and Long Beach Island.  It is July, it is sunny, it is Senior discount day and I am on the only highway to the Jersey shore.

I glance over at Mommy who sits on the edge of the seat bolstered by a car pillow looking like a chubby origami bird.   She closes the visor shut with a raised, penciled-in eyebrow.  The snap says, “Damn you Arlene, you never listen to me.”

The stop and go traffic lights are every few blocks and at the entrances of Sam’s Club, Walmart, Rosata’s market, Panda Palace, Burger King, the community hospital, the grey medical building, the blue medical building and the brick medical building.  I bear down on a yellow-turning-red light and Mommy throws her arm across my chest to brace me.  The old don’t drive like this.  They are slower, more mindful.  I am angry and in a hurry to go nowhere fast.

Mommy raises her penciled eyebrow again. “We should leave more early.”

“It’s only 3 miles away.”

“You never know, I no wanna be late.”

“We’re fine, Ma.”

“I like early.”

“I know.”

“Maybe we miss the doctor.  Then what happen? ”

“We’re almost there.”

“You can’t fool around with the doctors.”

“You’re right.”

Mommy readjusts her sunglasses.  “I got glasses free.  I like.”

“They were not free.  You paid for them with the surgery, believe me, you paid for them.”

“It’s wonnerful, I can see everything.”  She says as she leans forward towards the windshield to look at the sky.

“Operation yesterday, today I can see.  Unabelieve.  Almost is clear 100% but still blur a very little.”  She points to her eyes and then gently rubs her splayed hands against each other in front of her eyes, the sign for hazy, unfocused.   We’re stopped and I am grateful for a red light because I am having difficulty shifting my gaze between her hands and the road and I realize I am out of practice.

Deaf people can drive and have full conversations, arguments even with everyone in the car, the back seat included.  Their eyes dart attentively between the rearview mirror, the road in front of them and the hands along side of them.  Daddy’s never had an accident in 61 years and in the one accident that Mommy’s had she was in a parked car.  Their insurance rates are amazing.

The traffic light changes and the car lurches forward.  It’s got a hare-trigger gas pedal that I’m not used to.  I am not used to a lot of things these days; blowing out 53 candles on the carvel ice-cream cake, my parents moving from our house on Buffalo Ave, living though another Chicago winter.  “Sorry” this car is different from mine.” my hand quickly signs.

A year ago my sister called and said that Mommy was wearing shirts with food and stains and when she tried to ask about it Mommy got defensive.  I didn’t give it another thought because Diana and my mother were always quibbling over this and that.   But when I went home for Christmas the kitchen counters were a mess, there was dust everywhere.  When I went to go clean it she would snip “Arlee, Why for you clean again?  I just did”.

“Look, Mom, it’s dirty.”

But she would shrug and turn away, a physical punctuation mark to let me know that “conversation over”.

“I no see nothing. You too much fussy.”

Nothing could be further from truth.  She was the fussy one.  My mother could keep house, do laundry, check homework, be chaufeur and make homecooked meals while holding a full time job.  Yes, Mommy was 83.  Yes, she had stenosis that gave her back troubles.  Yes, she had trouble sleeping but I knew she hadn’t slid into the abyss of old age.  Up until that point I had never allowed myself to.

When the opthamologist told Mommy that she had cataracts she balked by saying that “I see fine. doctors try steal money from old people.  I know their way”.  Later, she confided that she was scared to have the surgery because she was Deaf and didn’t want to be blind too.

“You know blind worse than Deaf.”.  I told her, “Mom Helen Keller said that blindness cut her off from things, but deafness her off from people”.  My mother made a face and said, “She no know what she talk about” and left it at that.

Prepping for the surgery, with the exacting and demanding schedule of eye drops every hour, was more difficult than the surgery itself.  Although the mere thought of staring into a blinding light while a laser peels away your cornea was enough to make my stomach blerg but I kept my trepidations to myself .  Daddy teased Mommy about divorcing him when she saw how he really looked.   After interpreting and getting Mommy situated, the surgery it was over in less time than it took me to read the old People magazine in the waiting room.

The surgi-center itself was sterile and austere and surprisingly deviod of color.  I didn’t know if it was just bad decorating choice or purposefully designed so the office wouldn’t be too overwhelming to the newly sighted because Mommy was speechless when she realized what the world really looked like.  “Unnabelieve”

In the car while I’m yielding to the GD cars coming out of the  GD I Hop parking lot Mommy shakes her head in disgust.

“You never listen.  You no know what the traffic is.  I know because I live here.  You want too much your own way.”

“You’re right, I was wrong”,  I say taking a banana out of my bag.  It occurs to me that it’s probabaly not a good idea to drive, eat and sign at the same time but I’m hungry.  Mommy senses this and peels it half way and hands it to me.  As I reach for my breakfast, I see them out of the corner of my eye; a jeep full of girls wearing bikini tops and the long-legged swagger of youth, and I am reminded of that summer.

It was the summer of fervent anticipation, five best girlfriends, and a rented house down the shore.  It was having a drivers license, a job, scorching tight jeans and our freedom.  It was the joy of being lifted by a lazy wave, the lure of being pulled by an undertow as powerful as first love and the sting of a shaved bikini line in the salty surf.

It was the summer of Sun-In and lemon juice that made blondes turn golden, redheads turn penny and brunettes turn orange.  It was the blistering looks from skittish mothers as they dragged their children away from the melee.  It was the silent exchange of smug glances at the women we vowed never to become.

It was the summer of surging beer shots and bong chasers, sleeping three to a bed and tiptoeing through a houseful of dozing bodies to make the noon shift at Maruca’s Pizza Parlor.  It was nursing sun burns, sand burns, whisker burns and rug burns with community tubes of Neosporin and aloe-vera.   It was letting ourselves be swept away by the endless flirting, the public make-outs and the sloppy breakups.

It was the simple, secret belief that we all would be young forever.

Mommy looks over at the girls, then back to me, takes the banana peel and puts it into a tissue.  “That was you a long time ago.”


“Me too”.


I watch her adjust the arm of her wrap-arounds where they bite into the soft skin above her ears. She sighs,

“Nothing stay the same.  Everything change.  That’s what life mean.”

“I know Mom.”Image

She smiles at the girls who bounce and sing along with Ke$ha’s, We R who we R and murmurs. “Unabelieve, I can see.  Almost is clear 100% but still blur a very little. It’s wonnerful.”

She tilts her head thoughtfully,

“Next time we should leave more early.”