Death of Frank Rice

You just don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone
Frank Rice dies in Newcastle

Newcastle man Frank Rice, deafened like Evelyn and me in later life and a close friend for many years, died last Friday after a long illness. He had just turned 70 and St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in the town was packed to the doors for the funeral mass on Sunday morning.  RNID Director Brian Symington travelled down with me and helped interpret a most moving and reverent service for our popular friend.

Frank, the priest told the large crowd, was a man of deep Christian faith and compassion who in spite of his 90% hearing loss had a great fund of knowledge and loved reading and asking questions about all kinds of spiritual matters. He got on fine with his hearing buddies at the pub, joined in the craic and banter and was an active participant in the weekly quizzes. He was enabled to do this partly by his expertise in lip-reading and later-on with help from his cochlear implant.

Frank started to lose his hearing during his early teens and by the age of 17 was almost totally deaf. He refused to let this interfere with his ambitions, studied and became a qualified social worker, married Kathleen, a lovely hearing girl and went on to rear six splendid children in their splendid house high on the hills.

I first got to know Frank about 25 years ago when Queen’s University under Dr Roddy Cowie began a programme of research into the special problems faced by deafened people and we were brought in to help. It was also about this time that doctors at Belfast City Hospital began perfecting the device which when implanted behind the ear and connected to the cochlear helped restore sound. Frank was one of the first to undergo the operation and was fulsome in his praise.

There are probably about 2,000 of us in the province – people who were born with normal hearing and became deaf at a later age after acquiring language and the rudiments of education. Typhoid did it for me at the age of eleven and mumps for Evelyn when five. I’m not sure what happened to Frank, but it does seem that the later deafness strikes the more difficult it is to adjust and it’s very hard for those deafened in later life to avoid thinking about things like bird-song and beautiful music on top of the daily struggle of communicating with shop-keepers and others who do not always display any sense of patience with our problem.

Frank helped Dr Cowie set up regular discussions at the university with small groups of other deafened folk but it was not long before we found that the problems of communication in such a diverse group were very difficult to overcome. The born deaf or pre-lingual deaf have their sign language and the hard of hearing their increasingly excellent digital aids, but how do you replace the spoken word when this is suddenly cut off? And if you’re married when it happens will your spouse be able to cope? Can you keep your job? If you’re a student, can you keep up with your studies? And how on earth are you going to continue with the casual chats and coffee mornings you used to enjoy with neighbours? As Helen Keller so famously said, “Blindness cuts you off from things, but deafness cuts you off from people”.

All this effort to lead as normal a life as possible took a great toll on Frank and he went through several periods of deep depression. As the children grew up and left home for university and other activities he moved to a smaller flat in the centre of town, but even this proved too much for him and he spent his last days in a pleasant care home overlooking the sea just outside the town. He was happy with his books and subtitled TV and told us about the great time he had the previous Christmas when all the family got together and took him out for meal in the town.

There was a large choir singing Abide with Me as the coffin was carried out  and Brian told me how beautiful was the music. Like all deafened people, music is the one thing people like Frank and I miss the most.

from Bob Mc Cullough – Belfast Telegraph

e-mail bobmccbelfast@yahoo.co.uk