Between 2000 and 2011, 215 people in America died from objects falling off buildings. And no, in the scheme of mass shootings and domestic homicides and car accidents, this statistic is nothing. Irrelevant. Flaccid, lifeless. The likelihood of a carpet bag filled with steel hammers falling twenty-nine stories, making contact with your skull, and fusing a metal-and-brain sandwich into hot concrete is nearly zero. For the most part, you should feel inclined to leave your protective headgear at home.
And yet, at 5:11 pm on April 14th, 2003, while most people were scrambling through the city rush to finish their taxes, the intersection of State and Roosevelt fell quiet as a Dreadnought guitar dangled from the seventeenth story window. And although it seemed impossible to quiet the stop-and-start staccato of pumping brakes on uneven roads, the rustle of plastic bags swallowing wind, the clack of stilettos, the whir of hot, heavy air from subway grates, the whine of dogs, and the swift collaboration of leather on fabric as briefcases sashayed by, everything was muted when that guitar made contact with the dense Chicago air.
Patrick’s earliest memories were mainly of lemony cleaning fluid and outdated, oversized housecoats. And anger. Hot, magenta-colored anger, anger bruised beyond its normal reddish hue to something much more distorted. His mother worked as a maid for as long as the sun was in the sky each day, and his father was magnetized to the oil out in North Dakota, promising his mother, him, and his twin brother money that never came, money that was undoubtedly spent on sucking down brews to stave off the frostbite and the absence of women for miles.
The other thing Patrick remembers was the music. Or rather, the lack thereof. His mother was a musician when she wasn’t strategically stacking bins of useless knickknacks in overcrowded apartments. She told Patrick stories of how she first got his father’s attention through the simple plucking of wiry strings. Patrick would listen to stories well into the night, placing weary fingers on his mother’s lips when his eyes got too heavy to lipread. This was before ‘experts’ started telling Patrick’s mom to learn sign language (experts really just being wealthier people that read the New York Times and decided opinions for everyone else). For the first five years of his life, Patrick was without a native language, living in stagnant sentences, skating over stories without emphasis, squinting to see the world through clouded gobs of White-Out, struggling to fill in the gaps of words he missed, only to miss more. Forever failing to close the gap, knowing language only as the harsh thing that stung his throat and tickled his nostrils. And the music – that was the worst of all. Five-year-old Patrick once loved the vibrations that pulled the flap of skin away from his teeth when he put his mouth close enough to taste his mother’s guitar strings, loved the varied speeds of sound that would jolt through his veins and quicken the flow of blood every time a different string was plucked – that was, until his twin brother Michael told him there was so much more of music that Patrick couldn’t hear, could never hear. No matter how close Patrick pulled himself into the polished, curved body of his mother’s guitar, Michael would always mouthed the words, “You’ll never know how beautiful mommy’s music is.” The colorfully expressive arches of Michael’s eyebrows as he formed the words to Patrick suddenly made Patrick’s world all the more black and white. He was living in a vacuum, and failing to keep up. He begged his mother for a way to language, for a way to that music.
Which brings us to 2003. Patrick was ten, and language was beginning to sprout from his fingertips, though the striking new choreography often fell flat beyond his one-way mirror. Most others simply gawked at him through his strange song and dance. Worse yet, though there was still barely any money to speak of, Patrick’s mother splurged every Thursday after school on piano lessons for Michael; a Deaf son didn’t need music lessons. So, each Thursday, while Michael was at lessons, Patrick would trudge to a rich lady’s apartment with his mother, only to sit sulkily in an overbleached silo as his mother scrubbed and the last light was drained from the sky.
Sometimes though, his mother would take breaks from cleaning. She would put down her damp rag and wipe her brow with the back of her wrist. She would bend effortlessly into a handsome old rocking chair that pointed toward a jagged skyline. She would pluck away at the rich lady’s guitar, the one that stood in the darkened corner, building a thick coat of dust. Patrick would kneel beside her in that chair and place his elbows at his mother’s hips so that he was cradling the widest part of the guitar in his arms. Although Patrick was too old for his mother’s lap, he knew no one would witness their bizarre ritual all the way from the seventeenth floor. He would turn his head to one side, so the soft fabric of her dress was under his cheek, and also so that he couldn’t see the disjointed, soundless words falling from his mother’s lips as she sang. He would focus on the rhythmic crash and fall of a melody between his arms, the rapid staccato of an anxious, desperate ditty, the slow and dewy drift of a languid love ballad. It was all there, in the space between his neck and shoulders and wingspan, in the soft comfort of his mother’s dress – that was Patrick’s world of music.
Until that Thursday in mid-April, when Patrick lifted his cheek away from his mother’s fabric and she smiled weakly at him before signing, “Oh, how I wish you could hear all the songs I’ve written for you.”
A flash of white jumped in front of Patrick’s vision, and he strained every muscle not to lunge forward at his mother. Moving his hands wildly he signed back, “I hear everything.”
“Yes, well,” his mother hesitated, her hands hanging limply in the air as though they might snap off her wrists, “you know what I mean. Really hear it. The way your brother and I do.”
Patrick saw white morph into a pulse of red, magenta-red, which spread through his body before he made contact with that stupid guitar. Then, a flash of gray pulsed in his vision as he looked down at the darkening city, the tiny pinpricks of destinations and landmarks and vehicles and humans completely irrelevant from way up there. As Patrick dangled that dumb music, the thing that was barring him from his own family for ten years, Patrick’s mother pushed him aside, knocking him flat on his back so that Patrick saw blue, bright blue, as he stared up at the painted ceiling. From on his back, Patrick saw his mother’s contorted face form around a scream – she was too stunned to sign, to speak in his foreign tongue.
And just like that, at 5:11 on April 14th, 2003, some of Chicago stopped. For the first time, as a guitar pummeled toward the concrete, they were listening to the unspoken words of a Deaf ten-year-old.