by Kathy McKeon

Someone asked me why I would bother taking a deaf-blind woman to a Bingo game in my building. The short answer is that she gets to be in the company of her neighbors and she gets a meal prepared and served by the Bingo ladies. The fact that she can't see or hear doesn't even matter. She can feel the full room. It helps with the loneliness that is with her constantly.

Try plugging up your ears with some cotton or with earplugs and blindfold yourself with a dish towel. And NO PEEKING! Do that for just one hour and then multiply that deprivation by 24 hours. You can try it without having to do anything; you can just sit there and concentrate on being deaf and blind, and just feel what it's like. Then you can hope to know how my neighbor feels. Then you can understand why Margaret would like to attend a Bingo game that she can't hear or see.

This lady never goes out on a regular basis. A sister-in-law helps care for her material needs -- medicine, banking, rent, clothes, and sometimes groceries or a meal. She takes her to get her hair done, or to the doctor's. A dedicated aide comes in to help with her housework several times a week and to do any shopping she needs done. She has a lovely woman named Belva who has been coming faithfully since 1989 to read the Bible with her. Once a week, over and over, this 90-year-old woman comes to visit her 85- year-old friend, and they read the Bible together. One reads it in Braille, the other reads it in large print. One is white and one is black. One is a Jehovah's Witness, one is a Baptist. Together, they have traced the path of Jesus, over and over again. Together, they have studied the life and times of the Bible. Together, they have forged a bond that is strong enough for a deaf-blind woman to cling to on her lonely days. And most of her days are lonely.

Why does she want to go to Bingo? She hasn't heard a human voice since 1960. She lives alone; her only sibling died fairly young; her parents are long gone. At 9 years of age, she had whooping cough and measles. It left her optic nerve and inner ear nerve damaged. By age 12 she was losing her hearing and her sight. By age 15, she was legally blind. She stopped going to public school in the 10th grade. She learned to cane chairs, knit and crochet. She attended a school for the blind in Connecticut, where she lived with her mother; she learned to read braille. Somewhere along the way, she learned to cook for herself. She is a senior volunteer who makes lap robes, shawls and washcloths as needed. For her, Bingo means she will not be alone for a few hours. Bingo means she will win prizes that she can use, so she can spend her cash on something else. A jug of laundry detergent, a roll of paper towels, a box of cookies and a chocolate bar are precious commodities to this lovely and independent woman.

Rather than be bitter about her lifelong condition, she is pleasant and sweet -- funny, too. She loves a good joke and she loves the gossip of the building. For a deaf woman, she hears more than I do! She often tells me what's going on where we live. To communicate, she places her finger on a round disk, where each braille letter pops up, one letter at a time. Her visitor types the letters to each word, and Margaret spells them in her head until the sentence is done. It takes longer on some days to get the message across. Her patience is longer than mine -- it's her only way to talk to someone. She and her regular visitors have developed a type of shorthand. One touch on the back of the hand means yes; two is no. Hugs are always welcome. Tactile impressions help make up for the other sensory deprivations, but can never be enough.

One of her favorite excursions is out to dinner on her birthday. Her friend Patty and family take her out for a fish dinner, which she loves. Next is to my apartment. I am four doors away. She has shared Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with me. We all enjoy each other tremendously. After we eat, we lead her to my big blue recliner chair, where she naps while we do the dishes. She says she sleeps best here -- we are awake and watching over her, so she sleeps deeply, for once. She has been on the Spirit of Norfolk a few times and just loves that boat ride. Bingo is her next favorite activity. I raise her arm into the air, and she knows to yell out, "Bingo!" Her neighbors and I always chuckle to hear her enthusiastic shout. We're all happy for her. Even when we fail to make Bingo, the volunteers let her shout and then give her a prize to take home. She knows by feel and weight what it is before we can even tell her.

Now that you know what deprivation she experiences, maybe you can understand how Bingo is so important. It's not about the game; it's not the winning, although she loves her prizes. It's about friendships. It's about being with people who feel like family. It's about knowing that you aren't all alone in this wide world. It's about being able to feel that someone is near. It's knowing that God is in charge, and that your friends care about you. Deaf, blind, paralyzed, arthritic, old, young, hurting or not -- it's that someone loves you enough to do your banking and pay your rent; to take you to a Bingo game that you can't see or hear. You can feel it, can't you?

Anyone willing to write a braille letter to Margaret Beale may reach her at 613 Scotland Street, Apt. #110, Williamsburg, VA 23185. The author of this article can be reached at [email protected]. She is a former RN, now disabled by a spinal deformity; her abilities are increased by a happy chocolate Lab, Rebel, who is trained to pull her out of bed and to pick up what she drops.

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