Monday, December 04, 2006


When I was a kid, I took trip once to state park in Kentucky with my Aunt June and Uncle Gibby. They were always fun to be around because they were so cool and interesting. They were young and hip and funny and had both spent time working as actors which made them way more exciting than ordinary people. And they were both deaf.

At some point during our trip I became aware that my aunt and uncle were upset about something, but I didn't understand what it was. Whenever they came to visit I always had to take a crash course in sign language, but I never really got very far. The best I could do was spell out words with my fingers. I picked up a few of the signs for words here and there, but couldn't keep up any kind of a conversation. Fortunately they could read lips fairly well and were very patient when it came to signing words slowly enough for me to understand. But when they started signing to each other, I was lost.

Eventually it was explained to me that they were upset that the state park had made no accommodations for deaf visitors and they weren't able to understand much of what our tourguide had been saying. There was no written information, very few signs or markers and certainly no simultaneous translation.

I remember feeling bad because I could not help them. I didn't know their language and I was unable to tell them what the guide was saying. I felt guilty. I also remember how mad my Uncle Gibby looked. He wasn't mad at me, of course. But he sure was mad at the folks who ran the state park. And he let them know it. He was very good at communicating, better than most hearing people.

I especially loved watching him communicate with my Dad. They were brothers and so my dad had grown up using sign language. It was always an amazing transformation to watch my normally taciturn father become this incredibly expressive, cheerfully animated chatterbox whenever Uncle Gibby was around. But Gibby seemed to bring that out in everyone. We all loved to talk to Gibby because he was so much fun to talk to. He always had something new to say or a new way to say something. He was interested in everything, and he made you interested in whatever he was talking about. He was a born teacher.

Years later, just after college when I was living with my parents and trying to figure out what to do with myself, Uncle Gibby came for a visit. He was in the area to give a guest lecture at Yale on "gestural communication." At the time I had no idea what that meant. I clumsily questioned him about it using my extremely rusty finger-spelling. He smiled and went to his portfolio and pulled out two pieces of posterboard cut out in the shape of 'thought balloons' like you see in comic strips. He held the first thought balloon up to his head. It had the word 'car' written on it. Gibby frowned and shook his head, 'no, that's not it...' He then held up the second thought balloon. This one had a photograph of a car pasted on it. Gibby's face brightened into a smile and he nodded, 'yes, that's it!' He held out both hands as if he were holding a steering wheel and mimed the act of driving. He then mouthed the word "car."

Suddenly I realized that after all these years I could finally speak his language. I laughed. Of course, "car" is not just a word, it's an idea. Communication isn't just about words and sentences, it's about getting your meaning across, however you can do it.

For the rest of that weekend, Gibby and I talked about anything and everything and it was a blast. We acted things out, used props, made faces, gestures, signs, anything we needed. We had long serious discussions, short exchanges, running jokes; we told stories, shared ideas, communicated... It was great.

At the end of his visit, as we were saying goodbye, Gibby signed something to me. He held his fingers to his chin and swept his arm forward and down to say "Thank you," then he formed the letter "C" with both hands and alternately raised them to his mouth, to say "(for) communicating."

I was so happy I almost cried. I gave him a big hug and thanked him too. I was so glad that he understood what I was trying to do and that he appreciated my attempt. And he knew how much it meant to me.

In that one short weekend, I felt like I was able to make a real connection with this man I had always loved but with whom I'd never had a "real" conversation. I will never forget that wonderful feeling of knowing that we understood each other.

What Gibby taught me during that visit has stayed with me and has opened my mind to a much greater understanding of the act and art of communication. Gibby spent his whole life teaching the world how to communicate better. And he never heard a single word. But he showed the rest of us how to hear and how to speak and how to listen and how to understand. Because he really did love to communicate. He loved to find out what others were thinking. He loved to figure out how to get people to understand things. He loved to learn and he loved to teach.

Those of us who knew him were extremely lucky. I feel like he is with me now and I want to make him proud. I am glad I had a chance to learn from him. I am deeply grateful that he was part of my life.

Thank you, Gibby, for communicating.

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