Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Yom Kippur brings me to New Orleans, again

Yom Kippur brought me to New Orleans 11 years ago, and it brought me back again last Wednesday.

On August 29, 2005, I was a first-year college student at Bryn Mawr, watching the news come in about Hurricane Katrina. I had never been to the Gulf Coast, never knew anything about it, but was strangely moved by the unfolding events.

I took scholarship money I had won from my childhood synagogue, and bought a plane ticket, telling no one but a few new friends at school. I spent a week in Slidell, Louisiana, taking care of people's pets that were left behind during the haphazard evacuation of the region.

I was there over Yom Kippur, the holiest of days to Jewish people. It is a day of deep reflection, the culmination of Ten Days of Awe during which we recount our misdeeds and repent for our sins. We do not eat. We do nothing but pray. We remember our dead as we ask G-d to inscribe our names in the Book of Life for the coming year.

That Yom Kippur in 2005, I fasted in the hot Louisiana summer among strangers, anxious animals, and devastation. I went to no temple services, nor did I say any of the conventional prayers. I can't recall if I even mentioned it to anyone at the volunteer site. I felt more meaning in the holiday than I ever had.

At that time, I fell deeply in love with the Gulf Coast. I became committed to contributing to a more secure future for the delicate city that welcomed me.

I spent over six years living there, working in the social service sector and building community with spirited, loving, and creative people. I learned American Sign Language because it opened worlds of understanding to me. I was able to develop relationships with individuals I never would have been able to communicate with before. Elderly Deaf congregants of my neighborhood's Catholic church welcomed me to their homes. A Deaf-Blind woman showed me how she trained her own service dog. Young hard-of-hearing students invited me to their sports games. ASL interpreters gave me criticism and feedback so I could improve my language skills.

One of these generous people was Keith Blamble, a bright-eyed Deaf man from rural Maryland who came to New Orleans to teach ASL at the community college. Keith was a total hippie, in the best sense of the word. He was animated about the possibilities of universal love and peace. He got excited about hanging with his friends, eating vegan food, and driving long distances just to see what was at the end of the road. He approached conflict with the hope of resolution. He was a beautiful, beautiful person.

Keith signing "Imagine," by John Lennon (via LadytVic)

Keith died 11 days ago, from suicide. It is a stunning loss to the New Orleans Deaf community, to my world, to his family, and to anyone who was ever touched by his sunshiney smile and big brown eyes.

Last week - back at Bryn Mawr College, this time in a premedical graduate program - I found myself planning another trip to New Orleans over Yom Kippur in the midst of tragedy, this time, for my friend's memorial.

I found out about Keith's death while I was visiting the medical school in Rochester, New York. A main part of my interest in Rochester is that it offers a Deaf Health education pathway for students to volunteer in clinics that serve the Deaf community there. I was excited to FaceTime Keith after my visit to tell him how it went. He had always been a huge cheerleader for my ambitions, and a steady comforting presence in stressful moments.

Whenever I complained that my coursework was difficult, Keith told me to hurry up and get through it so I could become his signing doctor. He told me he'd move to Rochester if that's where I ended up, and he'd even bring an extra sweatshirt for me, knowing I am a big baby about the cold. In one of our last conversations, he said he never doubted my ability to get through all the hurdles of medical school, because he'd seen how stubborn I am. That was Keith - calling it like he saw it, and showing love through it all.

Keith struggled with loneliness and feeling misunderstood. I regularly apologized for my slow, error-prone signing, knowing how difficult it could be for him to discern meaning from my stories. I worried about my ability to converse with him in a way that was authentic, friendly, and in keeping with the conventions of Deaf cultural etiquette. Through it all, he was always very supportive, teaching me new signs or better ways of phrasing ideas. With me, he signed just as fast as he would for another Deaf person, believing that I could pick most of it up if I paid attention.

Keith told the longest stories of anyone I've ever met. It was a good thing he repeated himself a lot because he signed so fast sometimes I would catch maybe 60% of what he was saying. If I tried to retell his tales of woe to others, I often could say only that the gist of it was that "He was frustrated because somebody else did something that wasn't considerate."

And now - in his absence - it's hard to say if I ever really knew Keith, or I just knew my impression of Keith. Grief clouds my memory. He told me early in our friendship that he could tell I had a good heart. I could tell that about him too. He trusted me with a lot of personal stories, and now I'm pressed to remember specific details of any of them:

Did he really say what I recall, or did I just piece it together from context clues of the conversation? Did he really communicate a particular story so emphatically, or was that just his baseline exuberance that I wrongly ascribed to his tone? It's hard to know, and now I can't ask him.

Here is what I am now converting to memories that were, until this past week, images of our friendship in my mind's eye:
  • Keith teaching everyone - including children - how to curse in ASL
  • Keith deciding his students should come play Taboo at the bar for "office hours"
  • Keith ordering Black and Tans in sign language from the initially bewildered waitstaff at Bayou Beer Garden. They later trained him as a barback and hosted a memorial when he died. Keith, who lovingly nicknamed one of the workers a "tall-ass clown"
  • Keith "helping" me do my ASL homework by laughing at how hearing people never understand Deaf humor
  • Keith running over a squirrel on the way back from Jean Lafitte Park, in the middle of a conversation we were having about why we don't eat meat
  • Keith humoring me by staying in instead of going out, because I wanted to spend time with my cat
  • Keith asking me why I feel sad working with homeless people, and if maybe that's not a bad thing, because it shows I care
  • Keith describing light rain as "cute"
  • Keith offering to sneak me into Jazz Fest for free, as his "disabled person support staff"
  • Keith running into my house in his underwear after going to Jazz Fest during a thunderstorm and drenching all of his clothes; Keith and me drinking and shooting the shit while waiting for his clothes to be done in the dryer; Keith repeatedly saying how disappointed he was that he didn't get to watch "Snoop Doggy" perform
  • Keith and me chainsmoking American Spirits on my porch, commiserating about failed romantic relationships, and deciding if we should go get Thai food and beer somewhere 
  • Keith helping me pack for my move to Pennsylvania. He was the only person who could roll up my camping tent without the zippers getting caught.
  • Keith showing up with a crew to my going-away party; Keith smiling and watching as I sang old-timey labor protest songs with another friend. When I apologized for excluding him from the music, Keith told me he didn't mind not knowing what the lyrics were; he could tell they were important to me
  • Keith texting me a bunch when I was on the road from New Orleans, knowing I was already homesick
  • Keith sending me an eagle postcard from Alaska, thanking me for being his friend
Keith was an enormous part of my New Orleans story, my growth in sign language and Deaf culture, and my path to becoming a doctor. I am shocked that I have to miss him. I am sad that all my accomplishments will have to be shared with him in memory.

Now I'm scouring Facebook for photos of Keith, which have become so precious and limited. Now I'm trying desperately to remember everything about him. Now I'm staring out the window at orange and red trees in a blue, blue sky, feeling sad for Keith, who will never see this again. Or maybe this is all he sees.

A prayer for the dead, said on Yom Kippur:
נֵר יְהוָה, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם;    חֹפֵשׂ, כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן
The human soul is the light of the eternal


  1. Arielle, I can't tell you how happy I am to have read this. Keith was a great friend of mine. I'd like you to know how much it means to me to hear your words. My name is Christopher Fuller. I'm one of the few people that Keith spent his time with in Alaska. I don't have Facebook or any other social media presence. I'd like to try and reach out to more people that new this amazing man. I don't know how to contact you other than this comment. I suppose we could figure it out.

    1. Hi Christopher, Thanks for your message. I am in touch with Keith's family, if you'd like me to pass on your contact information. (arielleschecter at gmail dot com)