Very soon, I’m going to be an angel. Before you reach for the sympathy cards, I can assure you I feel fine; I’m not planning on leaving this earth any time soon.
On Christmas Eve, I’m doing my annual gig at my church: as the Christmas Angel, I narrate the Nativity story at the early children’s service. It’s one of those simply magical events. The church is beautiful and dark with twinkling lights. Everyone’s excited. And as my Angel tells the story, the children come and join me at the appropriate time , dressed as little shepherds, donkeys, stars, wise men, angels and the occasional Lady Gaga.
Church has always been one of the most communication-accessible areas of my life with hearing loss – because I understand most of what’s being said and sung. I grew up listening to music lying on the floor, ear pressed against the stereo so I could ‘get the words’. That was the theory, anyway, because I still have my own lyrics to many songs. (They don’t make sense, but I make up for that with a terrific sense of rhythm.) It took many years and good hearing aids before I knew the proper words for some songs. Even now, if you were to watch me singing in a group sing-along, you’d see my lips moving in different directions than anyone else’s – it looks like really bad lip-synching, although I’m just singing it like I know it.
In answer to that beautiful Christmas song, Do You Hear What I Hear?, my answer is most likely probably not. Take Walking in a Winter Wonderland, for example. The first two lines go like this:
♪ Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening…♪
♪ Sleigh bells ring, are ya with me?
Don’t delay-y-y, your naughty whistling…♪
That’s they way I heard the words. Now, if this song had been in the Presbyterian hymn book, I’d have got the words right from the get-go. Growing up in a church-going family, all the hymns were printed right there, in the hymn book. Once I learned to read, I sang those songs the way they were written, with words that made sense (more or less.) Hymn books were trailblazers of print interpretation!
The church I went to as a child used an amplification system that, when the minister spoke in his already booming voice, almost blew the roof off. But, in my pre-hearing aid days, it sounded fine – if I was paying attention. I think that’s why my dad and mom (6’4 and 5’11” respectively) felt safe sitting near the back of the congregation. They didn’t want to block the view for people behind them and they figured their hard of hearing daughter wasn’t listening anyway.
In my teens and twenties, still a regular church-goer, my hearing worsened. I sat closer to the front, as did my parents who were aging and shrinking, posing less of a barrier to the smaller people behind them. Sitting at the front, I could speechread the minister and other speakers, but difficulty came with prayer time (you know, the long ones). When I closed my eyes, as we were supposed to, I couldn’t understand anything between Dear God and Amen! I didn’t want to risk offending the Almighty by closing my eyes and drifting off to I-can’t-hear-you-la-la-land, so I scrunched my eyes shut and kept repeating to myself, “Ditto, Lord! Whatever he’s saying, that’s goes for me, too. Ditto-Amen.”
These days, I’m a bit smarter. My church is accessible with good acoustics, a superb sound system, and FM receivers that I hope somebody is using. I still sit in the second row for easy speechreading. But now, I keep my eyes open during the prayers – to watch the lips of the person reading the prayers. It’s always a shock for him or her to look around and catch me staring them down. I try not to smile because it throws them off, and then other people wake up, thinking prayers are over.
Recently, a progressive church in another area of the city wanted to become more accessible to people with hearing loss. They asked me to come and speak – not to an accessibility committee, but to give the sermon.
Oh, jeez. At first I was nervous, as if I were an impostor. But I’m not the granddaughter of a minister for nothing; I rose to the occasion because I had something to say. We want people who are deaf or have hearing loss to understand, to be included in a worship service (or any other kind of gathering). They need to learn how to ask for accommodation, to understand they have the right to do so, and how much they are missing if they stay in the shadows. And the requested accommodation should be provided; wherever people gather, whether in a house of worship, in a city council chamber, in a school auditorium, or in places of leisure – no one should be excluded because of their (dis)ability, gender, sexuality, race or beliefs. Those barriers are person-made; they are not naturally-occurring or in any way divine; they don’t belong in an inclusive, caring environment.
This Christmas, will I hear what they hear? When the little ones come out on Christmas Eve, they may not get the words to the carols quite right. Some people sitting in the audience may not hear or understand every amplified word coming out of the Christmas Angel’s mouth. Many may not even be ‘believers’, and that certainly doesn’t matter, either. If you’ll forgive a little seasonal, sentimental mush – it’s the coming together, with excitement and joy, that makes the night special, beautiful. It’s the hope that maybe next year, we will communicate better and bring more peace into the world.
And I can say this because I am, after all, an Angel.