Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fruit of my Hands; Talking Hands

This afternoon my brother Curtis and I went to a gym about 20 minutes from our house, to shoot some baskets. Today we got the first sunshine we've had in a long while, and I wanted to do something active, but it was so cold that I was glad we were running around inside.

We played four games of Around the World, and I surprised myself by not doing too bad. I've played basketball so seldom that I'm a terrible shot.

It felt great to be running around - oh, I can't tell you how good! I definitely have cabin fever. Come on, spring!

While we were there, we met a deaf man. The first question he asked me, after finding out that I could sign, was "where do you do to church?"

How did he know we went to church at all? What made him ask that so randomly, and first thing after meeting me?

We had an interesting conversation. It sounds like he wants to come to church with us sometime. The Lord must have set up that conversation.

Hmm...have I mentioned on this blog that I know sign language? I don't think I have. I guess it never came up. Well, I don't sign that well anyway. But I have had the honor of being an interpreter at our church. It lasted for about four years, and was one of the most special experiences in my life.

You see, I signed for one man only.

His name was Mr. Fred, and he was a Grandpa and father to some of the members of our church. With shiny white hair and laugh lines around his eyes, it's a wonder I was scared of him.

But I was.

I already knew sign language - some - when we started attending this church. And they were praying for a interpreter to come; it was on the prayer list the day we visited the first time.

But I had studied S.L. on my own, and never used it outside of my family. I was very insecure and nervous about actually trying it out on a deaf person. What would he think of me, stumbling around in his world? My family - and his - urged me to let Mr. Fred know that I knew sign language, and could interpret for him, but I resisted. I didn't know if I could communicate. And anyway, how do you walk up to a stranger and offer to be his ears? I don't remember how long I refused to talk to Mr. Fred, but it was months.

Then our church decided to ask a teacher to come host a S.L. class for several weeks at church, during the weekdays. The plan was to make more folks comfortable talking with Mr. Fred, so he would feel more at home at our church.

Lots of people showed up for the classes, and I loved them. I was excited to learn that I had so many signs right, and to see that there was so much more I could learn.

...The thing I remember most vividly about the classes was the time the teacher walked up behind me, laid his hands on my shoulders, and told everyone around me "this girl knows a lot more about signs than she lets on. You let her show you how to do these."

Mentally, my jaw dropped. How did he know I knew signs? But I was very encouraged to hear him say that. It kinda made my heart soar. Maybe I really could sign.

Or maybe not.


Maybe not.

I still struggled. Mr. Fred attended the classes, and I talked to him a little bit, but I was still terrified at the thought of interpreting a service.

But one night at church several of us girls asked our parents if it was okay to all sit together during the evening service - just for fun. They were okay with that, so we all sat down together on the second pew on the right side of the church.

Now, I had developed a habit of signing all the songs we sang at church. Signing with can I explain it? ...It's like dancing, flying, spinning, crying. I love it. One of the boys at church had asked me; "Why do you always sign when we sing? Are you trying to show off?" He shocked me when he asked that, because I hadn't thought about it that way before.

"No, I'm not. I just love to sign."

I thought about stopping, after that, but I just couldn't. So I continued.

That Sunday night, I was signing along during one of the songs, and I heard - or felt, rather - a slight commotion in the pew behind us. Turing slightly, I saw that Mr. Fred and his son and daughter-in-law were filing into the pew behind us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them motion to Mr. Fred, pointing and nodding at me.

"Oh no. He sees me."

There was a tug on my elbow. There he was, grinning, and motioning for me to turn sideways so he could see what I was signing.

I obliged; I signed. It was easy. I had signed these songs so many times. I was conscious of the entire church's eyes, but mostly I just saw Mr. Fred. I was having fun. I was nervous, but I was loving it. ...But I was very nervous.

Song time ended. I sank into my pew, weak-kneed and head spinning. I was glad it was time for the preaching to start.

Then Mr. Fred tapped my shoulder. I turned, and he was motioning for me to translate.

"Oh no. I can't do this. Not a sermon. I can't do it." I grasped for words to explain to him that I hadn't meant to sign the service for him. But there he was, and suddenly I realized he had never heard our Pastor preach. Not one single time. How could I deny him the opportunity to at least hear a little?

So, swallowing hard, I stumbled through my first sentence. Sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, I made it through that sermon.

It was strange. Inside, I was trembling, nervous, jerky, frantic. Outside, I was actually signing a sermon. Deep inside, I was peaceful. I felt as if I were only a pipe; God's Word was flowing through the man in the pulpit, into the ears of the congregation. Now those words were flowing into Mr. Fred's ears too - they just had to go through me first. The honor of it all numbed me.

After that, it was a standard thing. Every Sunday night, Mr. Fred was there. And I translated.

We developed a relationship of sorts. What a sense of humor he had! He loved to pick on me. He loved to make me laugh right in the middle of the service. He taught me all sorts of new signs. I learned so much from him. He was always willing to tell me how to sign things "right," yet he never criticized my poor interpreting. I was slow, and my vocabulary was very limited, but he took what I had and thanked me.

Before and after services, we would talk. He would tell me stupendous stories in the good old fashion of an old-timer spinning a yarn. He would tell me of his growing up years. He would tell me, over and over, of the night he was saved, and the night God spared his life on a motorcycle. ...And the time he stole his brother's truck keys and drove around the neighborhood at 7 years old.

And he loved to talk about the rapture.

Other people in the church got involved too. They would come up and ask me to help them talk with Mr. Fred. They would talk to me about S.L.

Sometimes - often, really - I would dread Sunday night service a wee bit. Translating took energy and a lot of brain power. By the end of the service I would feel brain-dead, my arms would ache, my lips would be tired from mouthing words, and my mouth would be dry. I would feel like I'd preached the message. :)

But it was worth it. Oh so worth it!

I remember the time when, early in our acquaintance, Mr. Fred gave me my name. In the deaf community, one must have a sign name to go by, and it's improper to name yourself. Someone else must do it.

Mr. Fred asked me for my sign name. I told him I didn't have one. After thinking for a moment, he started nodding. He made the sign for missionary, and questioned me. I nodded that I knew that sign; a "M" hand circled over the heart.

Alright then, he signed. Now we do this. A-M-B-E-R. Your name. Your sign name...and he signed missionary, only with an "A" hand instead of a "M." My breath caught in my throat.

I could write for a long time about Mr. Fred. The memories are precious. For 4 years I was his ears at church. I loved it.

Last year, in February, right after his 81st birthday, Mr. Fred passed away. When I heard the news, I couldn't feel sorry. I had visited him in the hospital and nursing home, suffering so. I knew he had finally heard the words "well done, thou good a faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord." I didn't really cry, but two tears slipped down my cheeks - tears of joy. How I wished I could have been there, watching him explore Heaven, listening, listening, listening, as hard as he could!

Mr. Fred's funeral was the second one I had ever gone to in my life, and the first of someone close to me. I hadn't expected him to look so lifelike in the coffin. I hadn't expected such a jerk of emotions. I couldn't really think conscious thoughts, with words, but a dull knowing hung over me; "I'll never sign songs to him again. I'll never sign at church again. I'll never sign at church again." I didn't wish him back. I've never wished him back. But I felt so sorry for myself, left behind.

It's been almost a year now. I still miss him. I still miss signing. A lot. Lately, I've tried a few times to go back to my habit of signing the songs at church. I can't do it yet; I start crying. I miss it so, yet I lose control of my emotions when I do it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

...Well I've just gone and had a good cry on Mom's shoulder. I just couldn't keep writing.

Mom suggested that I not publish this blog post. It's too personal. I know it's personal. Believe me, I know.

But I want folks to know. I want them to know there was a man named Mr. Fred. I want them to know what a joy it is to be welcomed into that "inner circle" of a person whom the world views as handicapped. I want them to know about signs.

I want them to know what it's like to translate. It's work. Hard work. But it's fun. I think that's what hurts me most. I'm happy for Mr. Fred where he is. But I'm left with talking fingers, and no one to listen. That makes me sad.

So now I've poured out my soul into a little blog post. Well, a very long blog post. I hope y'all have understanding ears. I want you to feel what I've felt - the delights of knowing someone. The delights of helping him. The happiness of it all. If you can catch a glimpse of that, it's worth the risk I've taken in publishing a very personal blog post.


Sandra said...

Thanks so much Amber for sharing this with us, and me personally. I remember the first time I met you, I saw you signing to Mr. Fred during the sermon, thinking, "Boy, I hope that girl can keep up." You're right; it is such a joy to help someone out who you know could really use your help. Thanks for putting yourself out there by writing this post :)

Leah said...

Amber, thank you for sharing this, what a blessing God gave you when He sent you to Mr. Fred.
For some time I have wanted to learn to sign and I know a very little, but this has made me really want to learn now.
One of my Grandfathers worked with the blind and sometimes blind and deaf, he left a legacy for his grandchildren in that area.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

For sharing this.
For touching Mr. Fred's life.

I trust the Lord will bring someone else along, to expand who you are, and to add sparkle and love and care to another person's life by using you, your talents, your energy, your life.

For in him we live, and move, and have our being ... Acts 17:28.

In Christ,
Amy in NY

Alethea Jordan said...

I don't really know what exactly to say. I know when we first started going to church there, I remember envying you and how well you could sign. You looked so good at it. I had a desire to learn some, but I never got at chance to.

I know you were a blessing in Mr. Fred's life. I could see his eyes light up when you walked into the room. I could tell he appreciated you very, very much.

And as for not being able to use this talent again, I must say, nay. Don't think that way. God has a plan for you and you never know what it may have in store for you, but we know it's a good plan(Jeremiah 29:11). I believe God will give you an opportunity to use this talent again. Just wait.

Ruth Ann said...

this was very touching. I know what it's like to share personal stuff that mean so much to you, but thanks! Wow, to be such a blessing to someone else - ears when they can't hear. What an incredible special opportunity!

Amber said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, ladies, for caring. For your replies. You have touched my heart.

Jenny P. said...

I wish I had something brilliant to say, but I feel that would cheapen what you've shared.

Just know you've touched my heart, and it's encouraging to see how God uses even our fumbling, reluctant attempts to His glory.