Theo Mechtawi hears what others do not.
“I hear songs — songs!” said Mechtawi, 76, of Washington. “I hear talking. I hear lectures sometimes. I hear it in my head. I hear it like it is real. It’s not; it’s a phantom. Sometimes, I hear a person calling my name, or knocking on my door, and then I remember: ‘You are deaf! Don’t be silly. Sit down.’ ”
After years of ear infections, Mechtawi went deaf more than two years ago. He still speaks (and does so rhythmically, poetically, with perfect enunciation). But until recently, he struggled to hold conversations without the aid of handwritten messages, “and some people hate to write,” he said disapprovingly.
Last week, the national nonprofit Twilight Wish Foundation gave him an UbiDuo, which helps the deaf communicate face-to-face. The device — a keyboard with a small screen — allows people to type out their part of a conversation while Mechtawi reads the words and responds verbally.
In a common room at Senior Life, an adult day care center in Washington, Mechtawi peered at his screen.
How did you end up here in Western Pa.?
“It was a state of civil war,” replied Mechtawi, who was born in Syria but lived much of his adult life in Lebanon, where he taught school. He fled the country in the early 1980s.
“When you leave, you leave everything behind,” he said of departing Beirut. “It was impossible to carry on a normal life. It was fear. Constant fear. You are walking down a street, and suddenly, a building would explode. You are sitting in a house, and suddenly, a rocket would come through your wall. It was that bad.”
I imagine that life here is much different.
“I like it here. It’s my home,” he said. “I feel all right. You see, I am a believer of God and a follower of Jesus. That takes up my life and distracts my attention from what I really am: an old man approaching his end.”
People fear growing old.
“People are wrong,” he said. “If you practice the Ten Commandments, God will open ways for you, and you will have respect as an old man and help will come from around every corner. I’m living it. I don’t want to be young — no, no, no. I lived it, and I successfully passed it.”
Many people feel isolated without their hearing. Do you?
“At the beginning, yes,” he said. “I found it embarrassing. You tell people, ‘I am deaf,’ and they say, ‘Never mind,’ and just walk away. … Now I can communicate. Do I want to have my hearing returned? That would be a blessing. But I don’t need it. I want to live my old age. I am an old man. I enjoy it this way.”
He nodded while considering questions and forming responses. He gestured for emphasis and leaned in to make a point.
Then he smiled, pleased to be holding a conversation, as he once always did.