Friday, November 2, 2007

Signing His Way Across America

His funny and sad tales of
growing up with deaf parents

By Erica Tobin

No one has ever been able to pronounce Alan Abarbanell’s last name.

“It didn’t matter if they were deaf or hearing, everyone mispronounced my name,” Abarbanell told his audience at a recent performance (10/22) at the University of Pennsylvania.
Abarbanell’s stop at Penn was part of The Abababa Road Tour.

Abababa was a name given to Arbanell by a friend who could not pronounce Abarbanell. The one-man show, part of a national tour by the 44-year-old Chicago performer, chronicles his experiences growing up in a deaf family.

Abarbanell did not simply speak to the audience. He communicated with the entire audience, including the deaf members, by simultaneously signing American Sign Language.

Abarbanell is a member of the CODA organization, a group for Children Of Deaf Adults. Each year, the adults in the organization get together so that they can talk about their experiences growing up with deaf parents.

“CODAs tend to lie,” according to Abarbanell. “They’ll tell you things like… ‘I’ve been signing since the moment I was born.’ Or, ‘I’ve been interpreting since the moment I was born,’ and that’s a lie.”

Arbanell comically suggested that he may be the exception to the rule. He said, “I have been interpreting since the moment I was born. And I’m not lying.”

The exact moment Abarbanell began interpreting for his parents began when, he said, “Everything was dark, quiet, I was floating. And suddenly there was a push, and push, and a pull, and there was lights, there was noise, and the doctor pulled me out, and he flipped me upside down, spanked me on the butt, and he said, ‘it’s a boy.’”

He said he remembered clearly, “hanging upside down, and my mother waving at me saying,

‘Alan, what did the doctor say?’”

He said he signed: I’m a boy.

Abarbanell did not see a comedic side to his entire experience growing up with deaf parents, however.

One embarrassing moment occurred when he invited his classmates back to his house for lunch. Both of his parents worked, so the boys would be free to make a mess in the kitchen.

After lunch, the boys jumped around the living room, hopping from chair to chair. Then, the boys leapt off of the furniture, hit the hardwood floors that covered the house, and laughed when they felt the vibrations of the floor planks.

On this day, unbeknownst to Abarbanell, his father was home sick from work.

His father, Joe Abarbanell, screamed when he felt the vibrations of the floor. When Alan’s classmates asked him what the horrific noise was, he was so embarrassed that he told them it was the dog.

Abarbanell said, “It was the first time, it was the first time in my life, I realized that I was a little different. My mom and dad are different, because that noise… that was my father.”

The fact that Abarbanell’s parents were deaf made his life more difficult in some ways, but their deafness made one specific incident much easier for him. He was able to communicate with his mother during her final days of life, when she was in the hospital.

His mother had lapsed into a semi-coma, where she was half awake and half asleep.

Doctors told Abarbanell that it was important for his mother to have family with her while she was in her coma, to support and comfort her. One by one, his three brothers sat with their mother; they held her hand and kissed her goodbye.

Finally, it was time for Abarbanell to say goodbye to his mother. He saw her lying in her hospital bed, hooked up to countless machines. An oxygen mask covered her mouth and nose.

His mother opened her eyes, and he begged her to stay alive. In response, she signed to him.

Abarbanell said, “I got to see my mother’s last words. If my mother were hearing, she’d have the mask on, and the tubes, and the tube going down her throat. She wouldn’t have been able to speak. But my mother was deaf, and she signed. And she signed to me… ‘you are my precious son, and I am going to love you forever.’”

Since that moment, Abarbanell said, he is eternally grateful to have been born a CODA.


You can learn more about the Abababa Road Tour here.

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