As told by Charlie Morgan
Death seems so final. That’s a dumb thing to say . . . it is final . . . so very, very final. It’s the end of everything that really matters. It’s like driving into a brick wall. I’ve never driven into a brick wall but I assume the impact is the same as having someone die in your arms. It’s like closing a book you’ve been reading for more than twenty years. You remember everything you’ve read but you can’t open the book again. You set it on the table and stare at it – a tin cylinder filled with ashes. Everything that has gone before suddenly stops and you’re alone.
It wasn’t sudden. I knew it was coming and thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t . . . no one is. I didn’t realize until the light faded from his eyes and his body relaxed that he was truly gone and I was alone. It dawned on me at that moment – I had been loved every single moment of every single day since we met in that stuck elevator and now it was over, and I was no longer loved. Friends and family cared about me, but I no longer felt the love I had taken so for granted. How could I have been so careless?
We got off to a bad beginning that day. The day the elevator in Macy’s got stuck.
“What button did you push?” I glared at him.
“I didn’t push any button.” The tone of my voice put him on alert that I was pissed.
“Well, it didn’t stop on its own.”
“I’m pretty sure it did.”
“Is there an emergency phone?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” He was facing the flight panel. I was about to ask him to step aside when I saw what he was doing. He was running his fingers over the braille protrusions next to every button on the flight panel. Then it hit me – he was blind.
When I realized what he was looking for, I quietly said, “One row down – all the way to your left.”
His hand moved deftly to the correct button. He read the braille and pressed the button. The wailing sound was deafening. He let it sound for a few seconds, released the button and pressed it again for a few seconds.
“That should do it.” He turned and smiled. His eyes were open. They blinked and appeared normal.
“Yes, it should. Thank you.”
The gentleness of his voice made my rudeness feel that much worse. I wanted to apologize but I didn’t know how. He looked so serene standing there waiting for someone to acknowledge our predicament, I envied him. I took a deep breath and calmed myself. There was nothing to be done except wait.
Fortunately, within several minutes, voices began coming from above and below. Someone on the outside of the elevator told us they would get us out as quickly as possible. I acknowledged their assurance and sank back into silence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of my unintended companion. He must have been six feet in height, perhaps a little more, maybe in his late thirties, early forties – brunet hair graying slightly at the temples, an angelic but masculine face. He wore a well-tailored brown jacket over a green and white checked shirt along with worn but pressed jeans, and a polished pair of loafers. When I glanced at his shoulder bag, I saw it. The end of what I assumed was a white cane which probably folded up.
I wondered what his life must be like without sight. Was he happy? Was he sad, or maybe just content? Did he have a family, did he live alone? I didn’t see a wedding ring. Did he have someone to love him? My wondering about him was interrupted as the elevator began to move.
When it stopped, he asked, “What floor please?”
“Ah, would you tell me when we reach the lobby?”
“Yes, of course.”
He unfolded his white cane in preparation for departure.
The elevator slowed and stopped, the doors opened. “Here we are.”
“Thank you.” He moved out on to the lobby floor and headed for the entrance. I followed and watched him navigate with such ease that it suddenly dawned on me he was listening to the sounds around him for guidance. The swishing noise of the revolving entrance door was something I never paid attention to until now; it was obviously guiding him.
He exited the building and walked immediately to the curb, probably to get his bearings. He turned to his right and began walking to wherever he was going. I was curious and had the time so, I followed him. When he reached the corner, he stopped and waited even though the light was green. It was then I heard the automatic voice counting the seconds before the light would change. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get across in time. ‘Three, Two, One,’ the light changed.
I waited behind him, and was taken aback when he turned around and quietly said, “Are you following me?”
For some reason, I began to laugh. “Yes, I guess I am. How did you know?”
“Experience. Would you like to walk with me?”
“Yes, I would. If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. Let me take your arm.”
I moved next to him; he put his arm through mine. “Just be mindful of curbs.”
“I will.” I didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me my first lesson in communicating with the blind. The light changed; we moved across the intersection.
‘”I’m Chet Martin. Where you headed?”
“To the elevated.”
“Good, so am I. What stop?”
“I’m going north to Fullerton. I’m Charlie Morgan.”
“Ah, perfect, Charlie Morgan. So am I. Hope you don’t mind if I tag along.”
I laughed. “Not at all. It will be my pleasure.”
“Good.” He snuggled a little closer.
“Chet, I’m covered in shame.”
“I wanted to apologize for my rudeness earlier in the elevator, but I didn’t know how.”
“Well, consider it done . . . you didn’t know. And I better not sense any sympathy from you or you’ll have to find your own way home.” He grinned his lopsided smile.
I laughed. “Got it. What I’m afraid of now is your sympathy for me.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. You are more aware of what’s going on around you than I am. I believe you can see better with your ears than I can with my eyes.”
“Oh, that.” He grinned.
“Yes, oh that.”
“Wanna trade places with me?”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “That’s not fair?”
He laughed. “Just checking to see if you have a sense of humor.”
“Okay. You got me on that one.”
Chet’s eyesight failed him in his early teens. He was a teacher at the Institute for the Blind, teaching family members of the blind the various methods of communication as well as emotional support needed for all concerned.
We climbed the elevated stairs to the entrance turnstiles. As he began to reach in his pocket, I interrupted. “I’ve got it. You go first.”
I dropped the token into the slot and he moved forward. We didn’t have time to talk since the Fullerton train was pulling into the station. I maneuvered him toward the coach door and held him back when the doors opened and a few passengers got off. He pulled his arm away from mine and put his hand on my shoulder, pushing me into the lead. When the doorway was clear, I moved into the coach and found a seat for us. We sat in silence until we arrived at the Fullerton Station when I asked, “What’s your address?”
“Nope, that’s where I live.”
“You’re not going to believe this but I live right across the street at 399.”
“Wow, talk about coincidences.”
I walked him to the entrance of his apartment building. “Well, I guess that’s it. I’m very glad to have met you.”
“Likewise. Do you have a good memory?”
“I suppose I do.”
“Here’s my phone number. Call me so I can put your number into my phone just in case you’d like to get together again.”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Clearbrook 3 6148.”
“Clearbrook 3 6148 – got it. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay . . . bye.”
And I did call him. And we did get together – many times. He was so intelligent and well read, I had a tough time keeping up with him. There were never those awkward moments when you can’t think of what to say. He was always at the ready to discuss just about anything – ancient history which was one of my favorites, metaphysics, mysticism, and politics which I didn’t care for, but I let him talk just to observe the movements of his mind. The amazing part, he learned everything he knew through his fingertips.
And then one day he asked if I would be interested in learning sign language.
“You bet I would, but will I ever be any good at it?”
“When you can tell me a joke with your hands, you’ll be good enough.”
This turn of events brought us closer than I imagined. It was inevitable we became friends which pleased me and encouraged me to grasp signing so I could communicate with him by touch rather than sound. Having private conversations in the midst of crowds was so cool. I could see people watching us sign to one another and smiling at the beauty of it.
I had not realized our relationship had grown beyond friendship until the day we were traveling on the elevated from the Loop, he signed something I thought I misunderstood. I signed back, ‘What did you say?’
Then very slowly he spelled it out again. My heart rate increased along with my breathing as he spelled it out . . . I l o v e y o u c h a r l i e s t a y w i t h m e. I was so overwhelmed with emotion I just sat there. Finally, he added, y e s n o. For some reason, I couldn’t sign. My hand was all but paralyzed so, I whispered, “Yes.” And our lives changed immediately and forever.
As soon as we were alone he asked if he could look at me. I wasn’t sure what he meant so I asked, “What?”
He laughed and put his hands up. “You know what I look like. Now, I want to see what you look like . . . with my fingers.”
I grabbed his hands and kissed them, then stood very still, feeling the warmth of his fingers and hands caress my facial skin as he traced the features of my face, my hair, and my ears.
“I’ve wanted to do this for so long.”
“Why didn’t you ask?”
“I don’t know. Afraid you might say no.”
He stopped suddenly when his fingers moved across my cheeks. “Tears? Why?”
I grabbed his hands and buried my face in his palms, I was so overwhelmed with emotion. He moved his arms around my neck and drew me into an embrace until I gained control. He began kissing my tears away. Then my nose, forehead, cheeks, chin, ending on my lips. But his fingers continued their journey over the rest of my body.
When I giggled, he stopped. And I asked, “Are you trying to seduce me?”
“Do you want me to seduce you?”
“Well . . . okay.”
“You had to think about it?”
“I’m not that easy.” We laughed.
“Do you want me to stop?”
I smiled. “Hell, no.”
He laughed and then touched me again. “Wow. We’re going to have to do something about that.”
I agree with him; we consummated our relationship.
I was surprised when he began asking if we could go places I never imagined he knew about let alone would want to visit. I should have known better. He had read about these places and knew more about them then I did. When I expressed my uncertainty about why he wanted to go to these places, he blithely said, “To see them for myself.” When I hesitated, he reminded me, “You said it yourself.”
“What did I say myself?”
“You said I could see better with my ears than you could with your eyes. Remember?” He smiled that lopsided smile I had fallen in love with the first time I saw it.
“Oh, yes, I remember.”
“Now, I’m going to take advantage of you . . . provided you’re in favor of being taken advantage of.”
“I am. How could I possibly refuse you anything?”
“Good. You can be my eyes on these ventures . . . telling me everything you see.”
And so we did – many times, and each time we grew closer than the time before. And with each venture, my signing ability progressed to where I no longer thought about what my hand and fingers should do . . . it came naturally like speech comes without thinking about it.
Years later, when his health began to fail, I signed, ‘What do you have when you have two little green balls in the palm of your hand?’
He laughed and signed, ‘What?’
I replied, ‘Kermit’s undivided attention!’
He laughed and threw his arms around me, pulled me in tight and whispered, “That was perfect. Congratulations. No more lessons required.”
He always encouraged me to speak with him in sign. He said constant practice would bring perfection. And so it did, however, I was nervous the first time I signed with someone other than Chet. I learned later he had selected folks that he knew and let them know I was hesitant, fearing I would make mistakes.
Our relationship was so much like Ravel’s Bolero. It began slow and without much ado. But little by little, as the years unfolded, it grew and flowered without pause into a beautiful billowing crescendo of love and respect, and then suddenly ended the day I held him in my arms and his spirit slipped away; there was a devastating silence as everything crashed to a stop.
At the wake, I stood before his casket with a heart so full of pain I could not help myself. I began signing the words of Auden, I had memorized, over his remains . . .
Stop all the clocks, cut off the phone, silence pianos
and with muffled drum let the mourners come.
Let planes circle moaning overhead,
scribbling on the sky the message … He is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
let traffic cops wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East, and West,
my working week . . . my Sunday rest.
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought love would last forever . . . I was wrong.
The stars are not needed now, put out every one,
pack up the moon, and dismantle the sun,
pour away the oceans and sweep up the woods
for nothing now can ever come to any good.
A few guests, who knew signing, saw what I was saying and soon I heard sniffling sobs. But I knew Chet was no longer blind and could see with such clarity, he was undoubtedly enjoying the display of what he had taught me with so much love and patience.
I had his remains cremated and kept them until one of those prairie summer storms rumbled its way across the plains toward Lake Michigan. Reluctantly, I took the urn to the end of a breakwater along the lakefront and poured his ashes into the trailing edge of the storm, watching the winds carry his remains along with my tears to their final resting place.
With nothing of his left, a plan began to formulate. I bought a burial plot on a hillside overlooking Lake Michigan, purchased a beautiful marble headstone and a stone bench, had a bronze plaque made up with traditional information about Chet Martin in English and below that, in braille, was my personal token to my relationship with the man I loved and cherished. It was a place I could go to periodically and recall in peace and quiet my life with this remarkable creature who graced my life from the very day that elevator got stuck in Macy’s.