One of the most appealing things about this book is Shea’s amiable, matter-of-fact tone, his lack of self-pity. Another is his lifelong love of language and communication of all kinds: the English language, the French language, the language of the law, the glorious language of music, the sign language employed by the profoundly deaf, which Shea calls “the language of light.” He remembers the sounds of nature he knew as a child (birdsong, wind, waves) retreating from his experience early on, “short-lived but graced with a fading, irresolvable beauty.”
Most seductive and most necessary to him was what Shea calls “my language of lyricals, my second tongue.” He coined the term “lyricals” to refer to the nonsense words and phrases he hears instead of what people are actually saying. When he arrived at Andover for the first time with his mother, Shea heard the headmaster tell all the new boys, “That you Arthur Dobbs super sense of the country.” His mother asked young Gerry, “Aren’t you proud?” He said, “Very,” having quickly figured out that the headmaster must have said the students were in the top 2 percent of the country.With the help of lyricals, Shea could make transitions that brought understanding: Arthur Dobbs/are the dopps/are the top, super sense/2 percent. In this way he habitually translated what he heard from nonsense words to conventional speech.
Shea’s lyricals are commonly known to the hearing world as mondegreens, after the words in an old ballad, “laid him on the green,” which were misheard as Lady Mondegreen. Most of us know comic stories in which children pledge allegiance by saying “I led the pigeons to the flag” or intone “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy” for “Surely, goodness and mercy” in the 23rd Psalm. For the partially deaf, these mondegreens — Shea’s lyricals — are not a joke but a lifeline.
Lyricals took Shea through Andover and on to Yale, where he sang with the university’s a cappella group, the Whiffenpoofs, and excelled in written work and in small-class discussion. Larger lectures in echoing lecture halls presented baffling difficulties. “I attributed the problem to a slower intellect,” he writes, “and I considered myself lucky to be at a great university, with a lurking suspicion that I didn’t belong there.”
He fell in love, but the girl he loved worried that he didn’t seem to listen to other people. Later she thought that he was in some way detached, “always adrift.” She finally left him to marry another man.