I was fifteen years old and waiting after school at a corner for a bus. When it arrived, I got on it and sat down across from a man who sat with his eyes closed, smiling, with his hands resting on his cane. I could see by his white cane that he was blind. He was a big man, dressed neatly, maybe in his forties. Then I noticed a badge on his coat pocket. In large letters, it said: “I am blind and deaf.”
My fifteen-year-old mind grappled with the question of how could someone be blind and deaf. How could this man be taking a bus without a companion to guide him? Most of all I thought: How could this man be smiling? I only had a few blocks to go. When I got off, the blind and deaf man was still sitting there, smiling.
I’m a very old man now but I have never forgotten the blind-deaf man who so profoundly affected me as a young man.
In my twenties, I learned American Sign Language (ASL) and worked with the deaf and hard of hearing. I spent quite a bit of time teaching that language to a blind man who was going deaf. His wife had asked me to teach him. “He’s blind and now he is going deaf. How will we be able to communicate?” The manual alphabet and “signs” he could feel in his coupled hands, gave them a way to manage the rest of their lives together.
I retain an image of the blind and deaf man who I saw sitting across from me on the bus when I was fifteen. His silence spoke to me, and his blindness opened my eyes. His serene smile left me changed for the better. I have never been the same and I have never shared this story with anyone until now, Ash Wednesday 2023.
As I got out of my car in the church parking lot this morning, I was thinking how much lighter it is at 6:30 AM than it was at the same time a month ago. A red bird was singing a bright melody close by. As I entered the church to prepare to offer the Eucharist I thought about those signs that alert me to the meaning of this day. A blind and deaf person has to feel for the signs that will reveal meaning. My sense of touch will search for Lent, too, in the movement of the priest’s thumb as he marks me with black dust in the form of a cross.