All I Can Say

By 
Marion Agnew

Let mortals beware
Of words, for
With words we lie

—W. H. Auden, A Hymn to the U.N.

I never expected there would be music at this funeral.

Before Eric begins, he apologizes to the thirty of us gathered in the pet cemetery. “Sorry, I don’t know music,” he says. “But I played for Fancy. We did this together. So I want to do it now. I’m sorry if the music isn’t good.”

He sits cross-legged beside his dog’s body and breathes gently into a harmonica. A thin line of notes meanders upward, ruffling the leaves on the trees that protect us, the mourners, from the slanting late-afternoon sun. We file past the sleeping bag where Fancy lies, surrounded by her toys, framed photos, and flowers. Eric inhales and exhales. The random notes wind around and among us, a cord that binds us in grief.

Eric claims not to know music because he is culturally Deaf. The notes he plays are random in part because he can’t hear them. Fancy was his service dog. When he apologizes for not knowing music, he doesn’t use his voice. Instead, he communicates in American Sign Language, his hands and arms flowing in concert with the expressions passing across his face. His right fist rubs a quick circle on his chest, his index finger brushes his chest, his fingertips touch his forehead and then open as his head shakes, his open right palm waves in the crook of his left elbow. The signs for sorry, I, don’t-know, and music.

I blink away the tears to keep my eyes clear so that I can hear him. But I also listen at a deeper level—in my body.

~

My most vivid memory from my mother’s funeral service is also the music. My oldest brother sang a family lullaby. Only then did another brother’s composed façade crack, his shoulders shuddering in a sob under his tweed coat. He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose to stop his tears. I rubbed his shoulder, happy to cry real tears after crying invisibly during the years of my mother’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease.

My mother’s illness taught me about communicating without a shared spoken language. As she lost words, I interpreted her feelings and guessed her needs from her tone of voice and gestures instead of the gibberish her mouth produced. I sat with her and followed her gaze, commenting on what I thought she might be looking at. To make her laugh, I laughed.

We also connected through music. In her last year, she had seizures and moved into a nursing home. Her first weekend there, my sister and I sat with her at the piano in the institution’s dining room. The three of us played easy duets from a book my sister and I had used decades before. My sister provided the foundation in the bass while my mother and I played the melody in different octaves.

My mother played more accurately than I did. Born Jeanne LeCaine in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, Canada in 1917, she entered Queens University at the age of seventeen and earned a B.A. and M.A. in mathematics and economics in four years. In 1938, she entered Radcliffe—the part of Harvard University open to women at that time—and graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1941. During the war years, she worked in Ottawa and in Montreal, researching neutron transport equations as part of Canada’s atomic research project. Later, during her career as a mathematician and professor, she forged partnerships with mathematicians in industry and taught generations of mathematicians and future professors.

Now, though she no longer knew my name, she could still follow the line of notes across the page. After a few minutes, though, she lost momentum. Her hands dropped into her lap, and she sat motionless between us, her “girls.” Her smile lingered a few minutes longer, then faded.

Throughout her illness, my mother could make me understand her. She spent her last Christmas in the hospital, fighting pneumonia. Her eyes, iceblue and sharp above the oxygen tube snaking into her nose, snapped at me in fear, in command. I stood at the foot of the bed, facing her directly. In that frigid winter hospital room, I felt her wishes in my body as tangibly as if I’d walked into a wall of hot, humid summer air. I hurt. Make it stop. Ease my breathing.

Two years later, Eric became my American Sign Language teacher for one semester. At the end of the term, he teased me about having been a serious person, sombre and closed off to him and my classmates earlier in the semester.

I protested, as much as my limited ASL vocabulary allowed. “No!” I exclaimed, my index and middle fingers snapping against my thumb to show my vehemence. “Never! I’m shy; I’m scared. But my heart and mind were never closed!”

“Yes,” he insisted, “I got bad vibes.” His brown eyes laughed as he fingerspelled “vibes” for me; he raised an eyebrow to be sure I understood before going on. “Then after three, maybe four weeks, you opened up. I thought, ‘Finally!’”

I rolled my eyes and signed, “No! Never closed. Just shy, nervous, scared.”

His fist nodded “yes” at me again. “Whatever,” I responded, recognizing from arguments with my brothers the “Did not!” “Did too!” nature of our disagreement.

Eric believed that learning ASL had forced me to become more expressive and direct. Later, I decided he was right—but only half-right. ASL had reminded me of something I’d learned before. It was my mother’s illness that had first taught me how to find and listen to ideas and feelings with my body, searching for meaning without always assigning words. But when my mother died, I had been relieved to be able to retreat into words. To hide behind them. To use them—as I refused to use alcohol, drugs, or religion—to anaesthetize my pain.

During the first year after her death, I searched for an image that would perfectly describe the desolation I felt. Trudging through a desert. Trekking the windswept, ice-covered Arctic. Slogging in quicksand. I desperately wanted to capture that feeling in words, to fence it in. If I could find the perfect metaphor, the pain of grief would lose its power. I would be its master. The hurt would go away.

~

At Fancy’s funeral, Eric stands tall and pale in a yellow cotton shirt and tan slacks. A brown seed necklace lies on his chest. He had been battered and bruised when the drunk driver hit his van and killed Fancy, just four days earlier, and he will require back surgery. However, he moves through the warm June afternoon without apparent effort, his thoughts and attention on Fancy.

“Some people don’t think animals have souls. I believe animals have souls and spirits, the same as people.”

Eric is a large man, a broad-shouldered man—and a Deaf man. He can be intimidating to hearing people. Fancy, a medium-sized terrier mix with laughing eyes and black fur that floated as she pranced along, helped break the ice. Her friendly presence made it easier for people to reach out to Eric and respond to him. Fancy also taught Eric about the hearing world—he learned about people from watching the way they treated her. Of course, Fancy worked for him: she protected him, alerting him to a ringing doorbell or telephone, to a stranger’s presence. But Fancy also kept him company. Loved him.

Eric says, “She touched many people’s lives, the lives of you here today and the lives of other people who said they couldn’t be here.”

As he speaks in ASL, Debbie is his voice for the hearing world. A professional interpreter for eleven years, she still has trouble keeping up with him at times. She waves gently in the air, and he backs up to repeat his last statement. She’s not only his interpreter—she and her husband are Eric’s friends. Eric had been driving home from working on their farm when the accident happened. Debbie, too, had known and loved Fancy. Sometimes her emotions seem to break her concentration; she misses a thought.

When I listen with my ears, I find the funeral oddly quiet, compared to a church funeral. No booming organ, no choral music, no histrionic sobs. Just birds cheeping as they swoop past. A few cars and trucks murmur on the state highway a mile away. The tags on Fancy’s chain collar, which Eric has tied to his necklace, sometimes clink as Eric signs. Otherwise, the only sounds are muffled sniffles from people in the group, whimpers from a dog friend of Fancy’s, and Debbie’s voice.

But when I listen with my body, the funeral is very loud. I shut out Debbie’s words to hear Eric in the way my mother and Eric taught me. If communicating with my mother in that hospital room was like walking into a wall of hot air, listening to Eric is like standing in the blast of a fire hose. I must lean into it merely to remain upright.

“I don’t have anger toward the driver who did this,” Eric says. For “anger” his hands, with fingers spread and bent like claws, jerk from a point at the center of his sternum upward to his shoulders. Surely it would 38 Room | VOL. 34.3 be normal for him to be angry, for his rage to explode in violence, like the sign, like a volcano. But he continues, “It’s not good to live angry. It’s important to forgive.”

Grief is a land of opposites. I never felt more alone than when my mother died, but her illness and death also made me part of a new community. My wounded heart opened to others’ losses. When other people mentioned death and grief, I listened and asked questions so they could talk. Because of grief’s shadows on my soul, the beauty I could see— green leaves on trees, a smile passed to a friend—appeared brighter. Grief carved out more room for gratitude and forgiveness.

At the same time, grief isolated me. I lived far away from other family members. No one around me needed to reminisce about my mother, to remember the woman she had been before her illness. A few people who knew of her death murmured a condolence and changed the subject. Others knew and said nothing, as if my grief could infect them or cause their family members to die. Sometimes I looked in the mirror for the mark on my forehead, the one that must brand me as someone grieving, someone to be shunned.

On bad days, I could feel a dark hand closing around my heart. I could be doing something as simple as shopping when the hand clenched. Mothers and daughters looking for summer sandals, trying on flipflops and laughing together—my envy, my hurt made it difficult for me even to breathe.

The people who did talk to me were full of advice, of talk. They had little interest in listening. Listening might lead to tears—mine, theirs.

In my grief, I didn’t have a person to forgive, as Eric did. But I did need to learn how to live in the world again. Time helped. I wrote, went to a support group, played music, sang, cried, laughed, and wrote some more. I felt joy again, on occasion. I became interested in the world beyond myself. I enrolled in an American Sign Language class.

And I later understood that my wounds scarred over in part because I had covered over that part of me that had learned to hear with my body, below the code of words. I needed the protection the scars gave me to get through the world day by day.

In ASL class, Eric pushed me to open myself again. He reached for every person in that class at a deep level. He butted into our beginner conversations, sparse in vocabulary but full of earnest struggle to express ourselves. He teased, he poked, he challenged. He told us over and over that ASL is not fluttering hands making signs that correspond to English words. Instead, ASL is a unique language. Adverbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech appear in movements of the face, arms, and the whole body.

Periodically, Eric gave us pep talks. “Practice hard, and you will learn better and better and better,” he’d say. “Then if you see a Deaf kid, you can go up to him and chat with him. He’ll be excited.”

As I studied ASL, I began to re-learn—as I had first learned from my mother—that words are simply tools. To communicate with another person, in any language, I must open myself to be touched. I must stretch myself to understand.

~

Eric likes to make people laugh. At Fancy’s funeral he buries a pair of socks with Fancy because she loved to steal his clean socks and hide them outside. Most of the people at the funeral muster a smile at this story. Eric leads a final prayer, then kneels again. He lays his face next to Fancy’s and says softly but clearly, with his voice, “I love you, Fancy.” Two of his friends pick up the framed photos and wrap her body in the sleeping bag. A staff member from the pet cemetery helps lower the bundle into the waiting hole. The mourners stand quietly, taking the moment to breathe or to wipe their faces.

I watch Eric. I see him slip his harmonica into the grave with Fancy. As I wait in the receiving line to speak with him, I cry again for the simple lament he played earlier, notes now buried. I know, as he cannot yet know himself, that he will feel like playing music again. I want to tell him that, and more: Sit bravely in the darkness. Watch for the sunrise. Care for yourself, carefully. Let grief change you, because it will anyway, and you shouldn’t fight its changes.

When it’s my turn, I step forward and stand on tiptoe to pull his tall, broad body to me. His arms wrap my shoulders in a warm circle, and I feel him draw a breath. A final squeeze, and we let go.

That’s all I can say. And all I need to. 

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Marion Agnew's fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire and in the eleventh Ten Stories High anthology, and she has received support from the Ontario Arts Council. "All I Can Say" was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. She lives and writes near Thunder Bay, Ontario.

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