Lizzie Smith

Man can go to the moon, but a person who is DeafBlind drinks a glass of water, and people say it’s ‘Amazing’!”

Jerrie would proclaim this at meetings in ringing voice that probably echoed performances she’d given at Carnegie Hall back in the day.

So I learned to never call Jerrie amazing, and I cringe when others do. That exalted status denies her humanity, changes her into an icon that can’t be touched, not someone you’d laugh with, or drink birthday champagne with. And aren’t you hinting that not much can be expected of a person with DeafBlindness?

I definitely flinched, interpreting during a television interview at her home. The young reporter, after asking Jerrie questions about her life, wanted a demonstration of how she handled everyday tasks.

“Maybe—pour a glass of water?” His eyes lit up.

But Jerrie was gracious and gave a tour of her kitchen, subtly letting him know that her culinary abilities extended beyond enjoying water.

Of course, I think back to younger days, before I knew people with disabilities, before I was hit by a car and spent a year on crutches, before I started volunteering for disability rights organizations. One time, coming home from night school the summer after graduating high school, a blind couple boarded the bus. The husband and wife laughed and chatted, but I felt panic. What if I had to help them? What would I say? What would I do?

If I’d had a different life, I’d be just like that young reporter. I’d probably suggest that Jerrie have a glass of water, too.

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Many television and newspaper stories highlighted Jerrie’s accomplishments:

• Geraldine (Jerrie) Lawhorn had been completely deaf and blind since her teens.
• After graduating high school, she studied drama at the American Conservatory of Music in New York.
• She wrote one-woman plays and performed them at Carnegie Hall.
• She taught poetry for the Hadley School for the Blind (now the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired) until in her mid-nineties.
• When her mother became sick with cancer, Jerrie was the one who took care of her.
• After her mother died, Jerrie lived alone until in her mid-nineties.
• Jerrie was the first African American DeafBlind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
• She served as treasurer for a DeafBlind social club for decades.
• She instigated DeafBlind regional conferences.
• She wrote an autobiography, On Different Roads.

But Jerrie was modest. When a reporter compared her to Helen Keller, she demurred, “No, no.” She enjoyed honorary luncheons and dinners, but, I think, more for the chance to socialize and connect with others. DeafBlindness is at its core the height of isolation, and Jerrie was gregarious. She liked people.

On my refrigerator is a Christmas card containing a picture of Jerrie and Chicago journalist Harry Porterfield. The day of the interview at Hadley, before Mr. Porterfield arrived, Jerrie bought a set of Christmas cards that had a place for inserting photos. Although she couldn’t see them herself, she liked showing photos to her sighted friends.

“Maybe you could get your picture taken with Harry Porterfield,” someone suggested.

“Ask him,” I urged Jerrie.

“No! You ask him!” said my not-normally-shy friend.

The admiration was not one-sided. Mr. Porterfield once said, in an aside, that every time he went to do any interview, he always brought along Jerrie’s autobiography for inspiration.

I treasure my copy, too; she signed the inside cover: “To our Diane.” I love reading about the roads she traveled.

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She was born in Dayton, Ohio, and then her family moved to Chicago, Illinois. She lost vision when she was about eight. She was hard of hearing but enjoyed listening to radio: jazz or shows like “Little Orphan Annie.”

One teenage day, a horrible ringing began in her ears. When her mother spoke, Jerrie couldn’t make out the words.

She went to bed, hoping she’d wake up and hear Chicago sparrows chirping in their back yard, her brothers’ bickering, the crackling of her mom frying breakfast in the kitchen.

She heard nothing.

Jerrie wrote about the experience in her novella, The Needle Swingers Baby, published right before she graduated high school. There’s a fun fictional plot about an abandoned baby rescued by the school sewing club (the “needle swingers”). But the book also deals with Jerrie’s loss of hearing. How, the morning of the day the terrible ringing began, she’d confided to friends that she sensed something dreadful was about to happen.

Jerrie stopped going to school. Her mom learned the manual sign language alphabet and taught it to Jerrie and the entire family. They spelled words into Jerrie’s hand, and Jerrie replied, using her voice.

One day, Jerrie’s teacher wrote, saying she thought they could help Jerrie.

Jerrie did not want to go back: “How can I go to school like this?”

But her mom made her go, and Jerrie came home gushing about her day. All her classmates had been taught the manual alphabet: “I guess they like me better than I thought.”

Jerrie writes that her mother kissed “her child who had learned that day that nothing is impossible to love.”

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The power of friendship remained with Jerrie her entire life; she valued friendship more than almost anything else. Friendship gave her life joy.

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When I first met Jerrie, she was in her late seventies. I was a single mom and had just started as manager of the DeafBlind program. My boss said it was fine to bring my two-year-old son to social club meetings: “They like children.”

Still, I was nervous; my son was a typical toddler who ran about merrily during meeting announcements. But when I introduced my wiggly little offspring, Jerrie reached out, touched his curls, and smiled. “It’s good to have young blood here.”

Years later, I would work for Hadley, too, and a few years ago, a friend and I began visiting Jerrie every other month or so.

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Marchae and I became writing buddies after meeting at a class, and when she mentioned that her mother was dealing with vision loss, I told her about Jerrie. Marchae and I met regularly to write and chat. What if we wrote at the Starbucks by the 35th Street Red Line stop and then visited Jerrie, who lived nearby?

A ritual began.

After creativity at Starbucks, we’d take the 35th Street bus to Jerrie’s apartment building, first stopping at the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. We’d pick out something for Jerrie as different from Meals on Wheels as possible–maybe tuna salad on a croissant, maybe a caramel latte with whipped cream.

Jerrie had a knocker outside her apartment’s door, as well as a special doorbell that connected with a device that vibrated, letting her know you’d rung the doorbell. She’d open the door, the bar latch still in place, and she’d reach out her hand.

I’d sign my name into her hand, or Marchae would sign hers.

Jerrie would repeat the letters, joy in her voice: “D-i-a-n-e! M-a-r-c-h-a-e!” (Before meeting Marchae, Jerrie took care to ask how to pronounce “Marchae”—”Mar-shay.”)

Jerrie’d make sure to offer us goodies from her kitchen, too; one time she made us a fruit salad. She’d tell us to get pop from the refrigerator. After she died, Charita, an interpreter who was like a daughter to her, told me how Jerrie had anticipated our visits and would always remark, “I’ve got to get some ice cream for the girls.”

We’d talk about everything: our families, the DeafBlind community, politics, and religion. In between visits, we’d email her, sending her articles we thought she’d find interesting, and I’d try to find transcripts of President Obama’s speeches. She’d read emails on a computer equipped with refreshable braille device—the metal dots would go up and down to make the shapes of the braille letters.

In the nursing home, at the end of her life, Jerrie’s mind would drift back to those days; she’d tell us to go get pop from the refrigerator, still wanting to be a host to her friends. Her interest in others did not fade. How were people in the DeafBlind social club? What was going on in the world? Were things getting better for DeafBlind kids?

Jerrie lived at the nursing home about nine months. At first we were able to bring her chocolate treats, but then she was connected to a feeding tube. Before, she’d been able to email her friends, but her fingers became too weak to press the keys of the braille device. We brought her poems, but her fingers became too tired to feel the braille. Few staff at the nursing home signed, despite the sign language alphabet posters that we pasted on the wall.

What was the isolation like for Jerrie, not just at the nursing home, but her whole life? When I was awaiting knee surgery a couple of years ago and couldn’t leave the house for days, I thought of Jerrie. How had she remained such a joy to be around, when I had instead rediscovered a vocabulary of curses worthy of a salty sailor? But another friend reminded me of how Jerrie had in fact often talked of the isolation and loneliness of DeafBlindness.

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Jerrie died six months shy of her one-hundredth birthday.

A group of us friends were there with her when hospice staff disconnected life support. Our love contrasted with the sterile setting, where we had to wear gowns and sign to her through latex, were told that Jerrie could still “hear” us, and a staff member carted in a stereo player and blasted religious music full volume: “It’s too quiet!”

But maybe Jerrie “heard” our signs through the gloves, maybe she felt our love.

I keep one of her poems by my desk always. The last lines celebrate friendship:

“There is progress and beauty

where good friends abound.”

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  1. What a great tribute to Jerrie! She truly was “amazing” , not because she was DeafBlind, but in the way she approached life and all the people she met. She would join me in exercising at Hadley when she was in the building at lunch time; we would get the giggles together when she needed help getting back up from the floor. Thanks for the wonderful memories you shared.

  2. Wow, Diane! You impress me. I’ve known you for how many years now and had no idea of your connection to disability. This is a wonderful tribute to your friend. I dislike reading on my computer so I save articles I want to read later on my e-reader. But I couldn’t stop reading this. We should talk more sometime. Thanks for sharing this and big hugs!

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