Monty grew up in the Rhineland, the fourth son of a rich farmer who also owned quarries and factories. But Monty was unhappy. Age 12, he told his parents to send him to a smart boarding school so someone would look after his spiritual needs. He went to a Jesuit School near Geneva. He spoke German as his mother tongue, but was educated in French. He went to London for a year to perfect his English. He studied law, wrote his PhD in French and became Dr. Monty. He ended up working for the United Nations and was posted to Italy where he learned Italian, and met his future wife. He became a major player at the UN, working mainly to help refugees coming from conflict zones. One of his assignments was in Turkey, where he learned to speak Turkish. Later, he spoke Dutch. He has numerous publications to his name.
Monty was sixty when I first met him. He lived in Tuscany where he had an olive farm and played at being a farmer. He had to get a ton of olives together and take them to the press. He gets vats of oil back. The man who works the press doesn’t start it up for less than a ton. That is more than Monty can pick in two or three days. Why two or three days? Because the olives picked on day one, start to go off on day four. He has to have a ton by the end of day three. If the weather gets warm on day two, he is in trouble.
Thus, Monty hired the locals to pick his olives. Monty paid well. The workers thought he was the madman on the hill, took his money and laughed about him behind his back. Monty was as clever as he was generous so knew what they thought and said. He is rich and why shouldn’t he spend his money helping people by letting them pick his ton of olives? Their opinion of him was irrelevant.
Monty used to go to London every year to hear Beethoven’s Ninth, played at the Albert Hall during the Proms. It was a ritual – Albert Hall, Prom, ninth symphony. Beethoven was profoundly deaf by the time he wrote the ninth. On a winter trip to Istanbul to visit a mutual cousin, Monty told us he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. There was no prognosis, so he rose every morning and held out his hands to see if he could detect any tremble.
Later, he changed his diagnosis from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. Why the initial lie? Everyone knows how Alzheimer’s ends. Few know about Parkinson’s. Maybe he needed to provide a cover for the fact that his German began to have mistakes in it, which no native speaker would make. He started mixing up his five languages.
We collected him from the station one day, after we hadn’t seen him for several months, and he presented us with a note book. He had written in it, ‘can’t speak; can still hear some things.’ We communicated in writing from then on.
It was soon obvious that he heard little. Sitting in company, he would laugh at the jokes a second after others and not know when to stop. People started treating this brilliant man like a geriatric, who perhaps shouldn’t have been allowed out. Some refused to be bothered with his notes. He still drove himself from Tuscany to the Rhineland and continued to visit us, on his own, unable to speak or hear.
Physical contact with others had become a problem. He couldn’t abide being touched. The way he crossed major roads was suicidal. If you are a bit of a dreamer and have no warnings, no aural input, a main road seems empty.
His use of written language deteriorated. If you never hear your language, you begin to forget it. He began to use only one preposition – at. At home, at the pub, at February, at car, at platform, at summer. He lost the respect of others, who couldn’t see him how he used to be. Finally, he couldn’t be bothered to read what others had written on his pad. I asked a question. No reply. He waved his hands, because it was too tiring to write things down. He gesticulated, but it only meant something to him.
Yet his mind was razor sharp. He helped his nephew finance the purchase of a vineyard in France and dealt with the legal arrangements. He convinced his favourite Italian architect to design his son’s new house. I’ll never know how.
His only real means of communication was through his mobile phone. He sent text messages to everyone he knew, but didn’t hear the incoming ones.
He was out the room for a moment. His phone rang. I picked up. It was his bank, who needed to discuss some matter with him.
‘He isn’t able to communicate with you. He can no longer talk,’ I explain.
‘Can you ask him to call in when he is next in town?’
‘Of course. I’ll pass the message on.’ I pause. I can’t let go. Unable to imagine how this bank interview would function I explain again, ‘But he can’t talk.’ Perhaps I am embarrassed for him. I don’t want his oddity to be exposed to his bank. Maybe they will do something to disempower him. And yet, it is me who is disempowering him. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
‘Maybe you should call his son and communicate through him,’ I suggest.
She finishes the discussion curtly but politely. ‘Just pass the message on. Thank you and goodbye.’
Monty returned and I scribble what has happened. He is devastated. I begin to realise what I have done and that he will never trust me again. I only saw the disability.
I try to picture what a deaf man hears. I think he understood a lot in the early days of increasing deafness, but it became fuzz, a nuisance. He used a hearing aid, but that only increased the volume. Now he hears nothing. I imagine a world of silence. It must be like a wall pressing in, every waking hour. I think the silence is, paradoxically, the loudest thing he has ever heard.
I try to imagine the frustration of being able to speak five languages and communicate in none. You are in a world without humour, can neither make a joke nor enjoy one. You are in a world without emotion. No one knows how or what you feel. We are in a restaurant and the pudding doesn’t arrive. I chide the waiter. Monty is angry, because he is inviting everyone to the meal and I have indicated that I am dissatisfied with what he has organised, but he couldn’t fix it.
How can you love or be loved if you can neither give nor receive expressions of feeling? It is a cold world.
Aged 96, Monty’s mother had recently died. I met the woman who once looked after her. She tells a funny story about the old lady, which is no way disrespectful. It is a compassionate story of caring. It has a funny ending and we all laugh. Monty has understood only that it is a story about his mother and that it caused mirth among the listeners. He thinks we laughed at his mother’s expense and is furious.
We are in a restaurant and his grandson, who was a year old, is tired and becomes problematic. His daughter-in-law decides she should take him home so that he can sleep. She leaves with the boy. Monty is cross. He hasn’t been able to hear the boy complaining and crying and assumes his daughter-in-law is being difficult and spoiling the evening.
The spectrum of misunderstandings broadened.
How did it end? Monty’s brain seized in traffic. He couldn’t move, brought the city to a standstill and lost his driving licence. He couldn’t use public transport so was housebound. That accelerated his illness, and he gave up communicating, and then recognising. His mind was finally a jumble of unused memories. He had a fall, is now bedridden, needs to learn to walk again, but how do you explain the need for movement to a man without an experience left to call on?
I can do only one thing for him – remember him how he was.