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I Am Donald – Short Story

I Am Donald – Short Story

A deaf man who experiences the terror and frustration of losing his sight, develops a new lease on life and a sense of purpose thanks to the discipline and creativity of sculpture, the kindness of friends, family and helpers and the companionship and security of a guide dog.

I Am Donald – Short Story

He woke in the stillness of early morning; at least he felt that it was early morning, it was impossible to tell in the silent dark. Kaboo shifted beside him, sensing that he was awake.

As his feet touched the floor and found his warm slippers, Kaboo moved to his side, a reassuring touch that gave him the security of knowing that he wasn’t alone. Kaboo was the third generation of guide dog he had owned. He made his way to the bathroom, his fingers trailing along the wall even though he could sense where it was. It was habit now, to orient himself through touch.

Soon Debra would arrive to prepare his breakfast and he wanted to be up, showered, shaved and dressed by then. He liked Debra; they were both profoundly deaf and shared a special bond. She understood him in a way that others did not, since she could speak his language. Deafness isn’t a disability, it’s a culture. Together they would open the mail and she would bring with her the morning paper. Gently turning the pages, the feel of the newsprint beneath his fingers gave him a sense of completeness and a link to the distant past.

A gentle touch let him know that the community nurse had arrived. Even though he knew when to take his medication, how many pills and how often, they still liked to send someone to watch over him. She ran her thumb across his forehead, left to right, it was his sign for nurse and the way she let him know she was there.

It was time to prepare for work, retrieve his tool box from the garage, get Kaboo into his guide-dog harness, fill his backpack. Kaboo would need his rubber bone and water bowl because it would be a long, hot, dusty day. Debra handed him a packed lunch and a water bottle. Maree arrived to take him to work so he needed to hurry up. Maree was an important person; she’d been instrumental in helping him to adapt to the long slow decline in his sight and was the link between him and the hearing world.

Bon would be waiting for him at the sculpture garden. He had first met Bon 30 years ago, when she was creating clay pottery. He had shuffled into her studio, head down, no longer able to continue with his love of painting. She had taught him to sculpt first in clay and later in stone. There he had found his purpose – not only an avenue to vent his frustration, but also an opportunity to create something magical, something that was truly unique and hopefully something that he could sell.

Today was a very special day. They had worked together for months on a huge stone sculpture of two hands cupped together, large enough for people to sit in. Today it would be hoisted onto a truck and taken to its final resting place where it would welcome everyone to Van Asch Deaf Education Centre. He had left the school with little future ahead of him and now he was returning as an accomplished artist. Students crowded around to see the sculpture being lowered into place; they marveled at the man who could neither hear nor see and looked at what he had accomplished. If he could do it, so could they.

He thought back to the years he had spent at the school, from the time he was little through to when he was a teenager. In the early years, all the students boarded at the school and later they were allowed to go home on the weekends.

Signing at school was forbidden in those days, but that didn’t stop them from signing in the dormitory at night. They hid under tents of blankets and signed by torchlight. It was a risky business and if you were caught, you could be caned.

The slow and insidious loss of his sight had gone unnoticed by those around him and this meant that he had missed out on much of what was taught in the classroom, where the focus was on learning to lip read. When the teachers said they could not help him anymore, he stopped going to classes and was given a job working in the school grounds. As a young, deaf man with increasing vision loss, his future looked bleak. He remembered how he had loved to cycle in those days. He had set his road bike up with panniers so that he could carry a tent and a sleeping bag and had biked around the South Island. The accident had put an end to that; he had been cycling over a narrow bridge and hadn’t heard the truck coming up behind him. He remembered being sucked up in the air as the truck whooshed past and thrown over the side of the bridge, breaking his collarbone. Lucky for him the driver in the car following behind had seen what happened and clambered down the bank to get him.

Then there was the council flat that he was given when he moved out of home. How he had loved to sit at the kitchen table and paint with watercolours. His fists clenched as he recalled how he had been taunted and set upon by gangs of youths who had quickly learnt that he was unable to identify them or call for help. It got so bad that he had chained and padlocked his wallet to his belt. He’d even seen one of them climb through his window and steal money from his drawer. His stomach churned as he relived the absolute terror of knowing he was losing his sight and the fits of rage born of frustration. How, as his vision deteriorated, he would walk into doors and walls, the injuries to his face and hands. How he would bash them as they had bashed him, putting his fist through cupboards and kicking holes in doors. It got to the point that his landlord refused to maintain his flat. “He’ll just wreck it,” they would say and so he lived in what rapidly became a hovel.

He was adrift from his culture, no longer able to see the hands that signed to him. As his peripheral vision closed in, they signed in an ever-decreasing space, as if in a tunnel, and slowly the light at the end of the tunnel also began to dim. In order to adapt to a life of low vision, he joined in with some of the events and groups for the blind. There, people were welcoming and kind but he couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t read his signs. He didn’t fit in anywhere.

There were local groups of hearing- and vision-impaired people but their needs were different; they weren’t born deaf like he was. He had begun to attend conferences for people who were deafblind and realised then that he wasn’t alone; there were others like him. He had even been asked to be a guest speaker and to showcase his artwork: pottery, jewellery, stone sculptures. His sister had put together a presentation about his life and Bon was there to showcase his work. It was incredibly exciting but also terribly stressful, pushing him out of his comfort zone.

And here he was today, back at the school that had shown him what it meant to be deaf in a hearing world. The students crowded in to watch him sign in ‘old New Zealand sign’ the language that had been developed by torchlight under blanket tents and later taught at the school. Maree communicated for him, relaying responses using the ‘hands-on sign’ language that they had developed. The deaf students looked on in fascination. Ever-faithful Kaboo sat at his feet and was another source of joy for the onlookers. He thought of that wonderful, memorable day when he’d been introduced to his first guide dog, Lobo. Nobody was going to mess with him with a big golden retriever at his side. Lobo was his protector, his best friend and his ever-present companion. Still, there had been problems. Lobo very quickly worked out that he couldn’t hear him and often got the better of him; stealing food off his plate and even from the supermarket shelves if he could. He’d had to work hard with the instructors to learn how to handle him.

How free he felt when he would fill his backpack in the morning with food and water for them both and set off up the Port Hills for the day, returning only as the sun began to set. Mum would be standing at the gate, chewing her nails, worried that he wouldn’t make it home before dark and not knowing where he had gone. His chest would swell with pride as he passed by and knew that he was an independent man.

Gone was the man who shuffled along with his head down, who was isolated from the world around him. Gone was the fear and dread of what life had in store for him. These days he is always busy planning his next sculpture, his next exhibition, creating the stock that he will need for the busy Christmas markets. He looks forward to the people he will meet, people who are touched by the courage and strength of a man who faces life without hearing or sight and who creates things of real beauty. There is always a cuddle to be had.

It amuses him that he has sensitivities and awareness that others don’t expect. He will turn his face into the wind to catch the scent that wafts on the breeze; everyone has their own distinct fragrance. He doesn’t particularly like the vibration of loud music, it is too unsettling, but he always smiles as he lifts his feet at the exact moment that Debra comes close with the vacuum cleaner. At heart he is a real softie, can feel the emotions emanating from those around him and often gets a sense of what they are thinking. There isn’t much that slips past him, but he doesn’t always let on that he knows.

On the way home, they stop at his favorite café. He relishes the smell and taste of freshly brewed coffee and scones dripping in melted butter. The other locals are used to seeing him here and many linger to say hello. He runs his fingertips over the face and hair of those he knows as they congratulate him on a job well done and he thanks them all. He is already envisioning how his next sculpture will look, how his hands will transform it into physical form through touch.

His heart is full as he eases himself into his favorite chair. Kaboo brings him his tug-a-rope and he plays with him for a while. Soon he will heat up the dinner that Debra has prepared for him, switch on the lights as it is getting dark and turn on the television for awhile. His heart swells with pride. He knows who he is: stone sculptor, lover of dogs, deafblind man; he is Donald.

AUTHOR KATHRYN GIBSON

Kathryn Gibson has a BA in psychology and sociology from the University of Canterbury and a keen interest in the way culture shapes an individual’s perception of themselves and the world they live in. She has spent many years backpacking throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, journalling her experiences and the stories of the people she met along the way. 

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