Silence

“I enjoyed reading these notes, though I never saw or spoke to the woman who wrote them. I didn’t even know her name. We were two strangers sharing scraps of paper concerning the one person we had in common.”
Author

Cyrus didn’t need to shave very often, but when he did shave you knew it, and not only because of the potency of his aftershave. He’d walk up to you and stroke his baby-smooth cheeks with his baby-soft hands, sticking his jaw out for added emphasis. He had prominent front teeth and a pronounced overbite, and gave the impression of being friendly and eager to socialize. His glasses were usually halfway down his nose, so he looked over them more often than through them. He had a gangly build and big feet, and most of his pants were so short that even when he was walking, you saw a couple of inches of exposed white sock.

He moved awkwardly, with his feet angled out, but he always looked eager and excited about where he was going. He always volunteered when there were boxes to be carried in the Glass Department, though the task of managing arms and legs simultaneously seemed to confuse him. The box would restrict his view somewhat, prompting him to set each foot down tentatively, as though he weren’t completely sure the floor would still be there.

Cyrus had muscular dystrophy, which revealed itself mainly in his hands: for their size, they were the weakest I’ve ever seen. They were big and white and cold and slick and squishy. When I was shaking his hand or guiding his hands through a task, it felt as if there were no bones or muscles inside the skin—just a lot of soft, spongy flesh. In the Toy Department, he could put a bolt, washer, and nut together, and he quickly learned that the crescent wrench should be turned clockwise in order to tighten the nut, but it took weeks of practice before his thumb could press hard enough to move the knurled roller that opened and closed the jaws of the wrench. Similarly, when he was steelwooling glasses, he knew I wanted him to rub harder. Sometimes when he saw me watching him, he’d stop working and hold both hands open, palms down, then make several pushing-down motions. I’d nod—“That’s right, try to push harder”—but he just couldn’t summon the strength.

Cyrus was nonverbal, though he did make a few sounds. Once when he was standing in a line behind Ken, I watched him make a whooshing sound—sort of like whistling, but without any note—to get Ken’s attention. When Ken turned around, Cyrus held his arm out, indicating that his sleeve had come unbuttoned and he couldn’t fix it himself. So Ken buttoned it for him.

There was one sound that Cyrus made so often it became another of the Center’s strange background noises, like Margo’s table-slapping or Barry’s whooooooaaaa-ing. At the end of lunch or break, when a supervisor announced that it was time to go back to work, most clients would stand up quietly, though a few might call out, “Okay!” or “Go to work!”; while Cyrus invariably responded with an “Uh!” This wasn’t exactly loud, but it was noticeable. Likewise, if I asked him to do something for me, or explained how I wanted a job done, he’d nod and say “Uh!”—his way of telling me he understood.

In the lunchroom Cyrus was alert, quick to laugh at the shenanigans of Chuck and Jerry and Herbert; and through laughter he became a part of things. He had a tremendous desire to communicate, and nothing excited him more than the opportunity to learn a new word in sign language. Like most clients, Cyrus spent about an hour a day in classes, which covered a variety of subjects, including memorizing the days of the week; learning to read some “survival words” (stop, men, women, danger, exit); counting; measuring; cooking; learning to write your name and address; and practicing how to behave in a restaurant or a store or a bus. In class, signs and spoken words were taught simultaneously. Cyrus would practice a new sign along with the other clients; and while they were repeating the word, he’d say, “Uh! Uh!” leaning forward with each uh, totally absorbed in learning this new word.

Cyrus knew more signs than most Division I clients, but considering that signs were his only means of expressive language, his signing was very limited. He could convey only a few words on a given subject.

One Monday morning he walked up to me and signed hamburger.

“Hamburger?” I said.

“Uh!”

“Did you bring a hamburger for lunch today?”

He shook his head, then signed pop and potato chips.

“Is that what you’re having for dinner tonight?”

He shook his head again, then pulled a carefully folded note out of his pocket and handed it to me.

“Oh, you and your mom had a picnic at the park yesterday?”

“Uh!”

“And you had burgers and chips and pop?”

“Uh!”

“Great. It sounds like you had fun.”

“Uh!”

Cyrus depended on other people to speak for him; his stories and messages came through intermediaries. Bowling was his passion, and twice a week he’d show me a note from his mother listing the scores he’d gotten in league play—sometimes 150 or more. Then he’d demonstrate his form, with his stride and the arc of his arm becoming suddenly, almost incongruously, fluid. As the imaginary ball rolled down the lane he’d urge it on, and when it toppled the pins he’d leap in the air with both fists upraised.

In 1981 Cyrus’s parents separated. He remained with his mother until January 1982, when serious health problems led to her hospitalization. The notes didn’t stop coming, however; in fact, they started coming every day. From reading them, I got the impression they were written by a family member—an aunt, perhaps—who was taking care of Cyrus part-time. The notes would talk about Cyrus going bowling with his dad or spending the night at his sister’s, or they’d describe the chores he did around the house. One time the note said that Cyrus was thirty-one today, and that his brother would be throwing a party for him that night. After I wished him a happy birthday, he signed thirty-one, then shook my hand excitedly and pointed to his back. It took me a moment, but evidently I got the idea, because when I gave him a pat on the back, he nodded and grinned and said “Uh!” The next day the note said that at his birthday party he had received gloves, a hat, a coin purse, ten dollars, and best of all, a Barbra Streisand album.

I enjoyed reading these notes, though I never saw or spoke to the woman who wrote them. I didn’t even know her name, and I’m sure she didn’t know mine; we were two strangers sharing scraps of paper concerning the one person we had in common. Cyrus couldn’t read, but he knew what the notes said, and it was important to him to show them to me and one or two other people. They were his way of telling us how his life was going, his way of providing a link between home and work.

But even with all the messages sent first by his mother and later by another family member, Cyrus was an enigma to me. There was one Cyrus, eager and ebullient, whom I saw at the Center and read about in the notes; but there was another Cyrus who, at home, was anxious and apprehensive. Often he’d miss five or ten days of work a month, and not because of illness; his mother said he just refused to get out of bed in the morning. She said he was nervous at home, always wringing his hands, rarely eating. He’d come to work for a day and seem enthusiastic, then stay home the next three days. This erratic attendance went on for years until finally, about a year after I left the Center, he dropped out altogether.

Through his sign language and body language, and through the notes he gave me to read, I learned something about the places Cyrus went and the activities he enjoyed, but nothing at all about the things that troubled him. In the matters that distressed him most, he was doomed to silence. Undoubtedly the tension between his parents and his father’s departure from the home left him anxious and depressed, and his mother’s declining health only added to his worries. The pain of loss and the fear of more loss may have gradually immobilized him—until, in the end, just walking out the front door became more than he could do.

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