I’m not complaining, just explaining. I’m a post-op laryngectomy. I can’t talk. A year now. You begin smoking as a child, long before your brain has fully developed, far prior to your shift into the third chakra, as those in the know understand; and then it is incumbent upon your adult, thinking, reasoning self to stop—to end your life-long nicotine habit when you have a job and a spouse and children and debts and broken things and responsibilities that could fill a list long enough to wrap around the Earth one and a half times and Mars more than that, I think. I stopped, honestly I did, but it was too not-enough and past the buzzer. Nobody can say for a fact why I contracted larynx cancer, but who am I kidding? I smoked, I got cancer. Post op ergo propter hoc. They say we humans have five senses. Still, sometimes I feel like we have six and I’m missing one.
Seems to me it requires one of our senses to say, “Hey buddy, knock it off!” Or, “What’re you lookin’ at, corksacker?” Imagine: You get in a heated argument and your opponent pauses while you scratch out a page-long note with all the emphasis marks in the right places to produce your desired effect. And then that person tells you he can’t make out a certain word. People aren’t capable of keeping their indignation ramped up through all of that. The anger subsides. It takes speech to enjoy the thrill and brinksmanship of a good verbal joust. Still, speech is not a sense. We have (or don’t have) the senses of sight and hearing. We have the gift of speech, and that’s how it is. I’m missing a gift.
This leaves me with two pertinent questions: 1) How do I handle it? 2) How does everyone around me handle it? I went to buy some clothes a few months back, because new clothes make a person feel better. I explained to the sales clerk by way of my little whiteboard that I could not talk. Bless his heart, he thought he would prove his empathy and display a solid measure of fellow feeling. This he did by not speaking himself. He desired that I squeeze between two standing racks of hanging clothes so that I might get a look at his computer screen and see the discount he was giving me. He didn’t tell me this; he gestured the whole thing. And so it went until I paid for my items and left. No verbal expressions of gratitude on his part, just visual ones: smiles, nods, and thumbs up—same as I. The guy, of course, thought I was deaf. It would’ve confused things all the worse to write that I could hear and that he could go ahead and use his voice—that doing so wouldn’t hurt my feelings any. It was easier just to let it go. Happens all the time. I’ve learned to point to an ear, nod my head, and mouth the words “I can hear.” I have an electronic speaking device like the guy on “My Name Is Earl,” but things have to be pretty quiet for people to hear it.
I was talking music with a friend of mine recently, and by way of felt-tipped erasable marker I asked if he was familiar with a certain song. “No,” he said. “How does it go?” I gave him a look and started counting down in my head until I saw the light bulb pop up over him. And BINGO! There it was: that semi-embarrassed grin that says “Oh…yeah.” I would’ve loved to hum a few bars for him. At least this way, though, we got to laugh. And I had the song in question playing on my smartphone as soon as the ancient 3G could produce it. Throw in texting and emailing, and out of all the centuries of human history to date, I picked the best era to go mute. Someone told me the other day I should go on Jeopardy, that I’d be good at it. Tick tick tick tick tick…Ding! Oh…yeah.
I squeeze through narrow store aisles and inevitably almost bump into someone. They say, “Pardon me.” I say nothing. I want to ask for pardon, too, or say, “Not at all,” or anything to be polite, but all I can do is walk off and leave someone thinking people can be real assholes. I’m a white guy, and when I bump into a black person without speaking, I cringe at what I’m sure is being thought. I don’t bother to beg pardon from your kind. This happens way too often. Or for instance when I reach behind a lady who is standing there reading an ad flyer to grab an item, and she says, “Oh. I’m sorry,” but without looking up from her reading material. If she looks up, I can smile and visibly wave it off at least. But she doesn’t. She expects me to answer that it was no problem at all. I don’t, of course. I move on in silence, leaving her to think some people can be real assholes. None of this means I’m not in fact a real asshole, because I kind of am, but for reasons other than a shortage of common decency.
In a large and crowded pool hall, I slip off to the bar and buy my buddy and myself a beer. A mug in each hand, I serpentine through people and tables and see my friend wandering off. I’m close enough that I can call his name and make him turn around and take his beverage. Except that I can’t. Instead, I try sending mental signals, produce in him the sense that he’s being observed. But that’s wishful thinking. I follow him around for five minutes before I give up and find a safe place to stash his drink. That’s nothing, though. I order a large pizza online one night, to be delivered, in the course of which I click a wrong button and end up ordering two. If I can talk, no problem: I make a phone call and straighten it out. The pizza site gives no options to send an email and I end up eating forty-five bucks worth of pizza for three days. One night the pizza guy can’t find the right buzzer for my apartment. He rings someone else’s for a while until he gives up and calls the phone number I’ve entered into the proper field. I can’t answer. I suspect correctly who’s calling, however, and hurry to the entrance of my building before he goes away. When I add that to the fact I can’t make use of drive-through fast-food lanes, I have become a healthier eater. The signs at those places will say something to the effect of: Speech or hearing impaired customers may order at pay window. That only works when there’s no line ahead of you. When you’re in line and stop in front of the speaker, the poor order-taker has no idea why you’re not answering her May I take your order greeting. Better to just eat like you care for your health, which, finally, I do.
I haven’t been pulled over by a cop yet since this has all gone down, although it’s only a matter of time. And you can bet I’ll milk the sympathy gland with all I’ve got if there’s one to be milked. To get out of a ticket? Hell yeah. I mean, who wouldn’t? I can’t foresee, though, how that scene will play out. If he’s looking at my license and asking questions, I’ll have to get his attention somehow without spooking him into going for his sidearm. Waving my arms…nope. Taking a chance there. Clapping my hands? No. Uh uh. He or she will just have to get pissed at my snotty ain’t-talking-to-you attitude and look at me. Will I have an explanation ready on my writing board? Let’s hope so.
No one has explained it to me adequately yet why when they remove your larynx you can no longer breathe through your face. (I haven’t asked, though, since it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like the doctor will tell me I’ve made a good point and insist on fixing that.) Instead, your neck becomes the new turnstile for air to come and go. This takes some getting used to. I put off looking in the mirror three days the first time—until I had to. But many weeks went by before I had a grasp of what all that would mean to me.
For years I kept an Irish tin whistle in my vehicle. Whenever I’d hit a red light, I’d pull it out and play it to pass the time. That and my harmonica went out the window after the ectomy. (Mouth instruments aren’t something you can give away very easily.) I carry an accordion around with me now. A friend of mine brought out his blow-dart tube the other day, and I communicated fake-mournfully that I’d never be able to blow darts again. “Oh man. I’m sorry. I never thought about that.” I laughed. I never blew darts anyway. But I did blow on hot soup. Hey, I just thought of something: how would the cops handle me at a DWI check point? “Blow, blow, blow, harder, harder, harder!” Heh heh. Make me. One way or another, I’ll have fun with the cops over this someday.
Actually, I have in fact lost one of my senses—the sense of smell, although not completely. A scent or odor has to be strong enough to slap the olfactory by itself. I can’t vacuum the air with my nostrils anymore. (So much for some other bad habits.) This means the smoke detector will probably wake me before the smoke does. I have to take the kitchen trash out whether it’s full or not, just in case, every other day. Bathe at least once a day and go with a light application of aftershave or the eau de parfum. Febreeze and candles. I have no idea where I am with the scent levels so I have to settle for judgment calls on that stuff. I bought some cologne the other day and told the salesman I would just have to trust him on his recommendation.
I’ve found ways to deal with the removal of bodies of water from my pastimes—I have other, land-based activities to occupy my canoeing, kayaking, tubing, swimming, skiing, boating, parasailing, and fishing time. I hope, though, I never find myself standing on a bank while some child—anybody, but particularly a child—is screaming for help in the middle of the lake. Once in my life I dived into a river and pulled a drowning person to safety. (I also once jumped into a lake to drag my vehicle to safety after I’d left the emergency brake and gears unapplied.) Beyond throwing someone a PFD, I am now useless in that situation, and that’s scary. And that’s not all. If I get into a wreck, the paramedics aren’t going to figure out I’m what they call a neck breather unless I’m able to pull my turtleneck down or my yank my scarf away. I need a sign around my neck, a driving sign: Neck Breather—No Breathalyzers or Soliciting.
I’m having much fun, though–on this page and in general. I can run, jump, climb, kick, exercise, hike, backpack, camp, write, read, pluck strings, pluck birds, throw knives, annoy friends, learn, drive, see, hear, taste, feel, and other things with a teenager’s energy minus his bumbling confusion. I’m glad to be alive. Sneezing is a little weird, but I’ll take it. I wanted to write about this one time, and I have done so. Maybe somebody facing the same rest-of-your-life will see this and know he isn’t alone, and that it could be a lot worse. I was feeling sorry for myself one day, sitting behind the wheel at a stoplight, when I looked over and saw a blind man, tapping his white cane, waiting for the light to change so he could cross the street. His eyes were fixed directly on mine, as if he could see me. I shivered, mentally apologized for my unmanly self-pity, and—lesson learned—carried on. He would’ve traded afflictions with me in a heartbeat.