I sat in the front row of Weiskotten Hall in Syracuse, NY, just a few seats from the poet Joyce McAllister. We’d come for the launch party of The Healing Muse 2016. I came to read my prose piece about my brother’s death. Even more, I wanted to hear other’s read and connect to this community.
A woman bent close to Joyce and complimented her on the recent publication of Before We Knew. This chapbook, Joyce’s first, was published in 2016, her 85th year.
Kathy Kramer, another Ithaca poet who has had many poems published in The Healing Muse, drove Joyce to the reading. I’ve been to many Healing Muse gatherings since my first publication in the journal three years ago. Joyce and Kathy are always there, sharing their inspiring words.
When it was Joyce’s turn to read, Kathy stood and held her friend’s right elbow, like a daughter, like a lover, stabilizing each cautious step. The Healing Muse editor Deirdre Neilen moved to Joyce’s left side, one hand on Joyce’s rounded back and the other on her left elbow. Their tenderness supported me, too.
I watched as Joyce stepped to the stage with the determination of an athlete. She carefully opened her pages on the podium and smoothed the folds. Each page was three sheets wide with black block letters two inches high marching boldly across a white expanse.
If my hearing showed up on paper, the letters would look like that.
Joyce grinned at the audience while someone adjusted the reading light. She didn’t hurry or apologize. She was a proud diva, a poet with thick glasses and cheeks flushed pink. I didn’t detect a drop of the shame I often feel about my own infirmity.
My eyes were wet before Joyce read a word. The hall was hushed, expectant. Out of silence, her voice rose from her belly, deep and vibrant, filling the room.
She read her lines like they mattered, the way they deserved to be read. The way we needed to hear them. Then Kathy read Joyce’s second poem with the same conviction. When they were through, the audience clapped and clapped. Was I the only one in tears?
I heard every word and understood each line–a small miracle for me. Despite the microphone, I struggled to hear the readers that day. Some were shy. Some hurried through. I wanted to tell them they deserved to stand at that podium. “Watch Joyce,” I wanted to say. “She’s showing us how to believe in our words.” Each reader had a piece accepted by this beautiful journal focused on medicine, illness, healing, and disability. “Your work matters,” I wanted to tell the timid ones. I needed to remind myself, too.
Some days, I want to run from the world. I want to surrender to deafness and be a hermit. Rip out the hearing aids. Throw out the phone. Stop straining to decipher muddled voices. Stop bothering to put my friends through one more repetition of the meaning I missed.
But there stood Joyce, a woman who knows darkness and hardship—her husband’s illness and death and the indignities of age. And blindness. An unimaginable hardship for a poet or anyone, but does she let it stop her? No.
When it was my turn to read, I didn’t apologize before I began. I asked if people could hear me. They nodded that they could. I didn’t apologize when tears rolled down my cheeks. Instead, I followed Joyce’s lead, looked up and out, and read my story as though it mattered.
The Healing Muse is the annual journal of literary and visual art published by SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities. You can find excerpts at the Healing Muse Cafe blogspot. You can also find readings of my first Healing Muse article, “Only Kindness Makes Sense,” and Joyce’s poem in that same issue, “First Winter.”
For another post about the challenges of hearing loss, see I Want to Understand You: Hearing Loss, Grit and Grief.