A Life & Death in Silence Violence cuts off a long struggle to communicate

April 16, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

Since childhood, Don could understand his brother Charlie even when others couldn't. And most couldn't.

They invented their own sort of sign language as kids when it became obvious Charlie, five years younger, was born deaf. But it went beyond those made-up signals -- somehow they understood, they got it, when it came to each other.

"Charlie and I had a special communication," Don Christensen, now 46, says. "I don't even know if I can describe it to someone else. We just knew how to indicate to each other where we wanted to go or what we wanted to do.

"Charlie looked to me, like, if things got too frustrating, either with the kids outside or with my folks trying to get him to understand something. I was the one to step in as the intermediary."

Understanding and being understood was a lifetime struggle for Charlie. Deaf and speechless in a hearing and speaking family, and a hearing and speaking world, Charlie was like a foreigner in his own country. He signed fluently, but that only took care of half the equation. Few hearing people can sign -- and even Charlie's family learned to do so only at basic levels -- so misfired messages and unexpressed feelings constantly shadowed him.

But Charlie had been going to counseling sessions on Tuesdays, his family said, and that was helping with the immense frustration that daily life presented him.

In fact, that's where he probably was headed, his family later surmised from his meticulously notated calendar, around noon on March 7. He was waiting for a bus several blocks from his apartment in Northwest Baltimore when two youths approached. not entirely clear what happened, but a witness has said they started picking on Charlie.

It wasn't even a robbery attempt -- Charlie's wallet was found on him. In any event, Charlie is believed to have picked up a bottle and either thrown it at the youths or held it up to defend himself. One of the youths pulled out a gun and shot him in his left leg,

striking a major artery. They ran off as Charlie, bleeding ferociously, fell to the ground unable to call out for help.

A good Samaritan, Johnny Dow, stopped, and he remains haunted by Charlie's final, frustrated effort to communicate. Charlie, he believes, tried to sign: Take my belt off and use it as a tourniquet. Johnny Dow didn't understand and vainly kept trying to stanch the bleeding until the ambulance came and took Charlie to Sinai Hospital, where he soon died.

It's hard to imagine what the silence and the fury must have been like for Charlie during that last hour.

Alone

"He had to feel so scared and so alone," his youngest sister, Catherine, says.

Charlie was shot within blocks of the place he had moved to precisely because it promised the opposite: safety and a sense of community for deaf people. He was among the first tenants when the Louis W. Foxwell Sr. Memorial Apartments opened in 1982, rising eight stories high atop a hill on Greenspring Avenue.

The apartments were designed specially for deaf people, with flashing lights as doorbells and with television monitors to let residents visually communicate with the front desk and security guards downstairs, as well as with other tenants.

For Charlie, it seemed ideal, a place to live independently in his own apartment but in a building filled with other people who spoke the same language and shared the same experiences.

"Hearing [persons] I just don't understand," Charlie was quoted as saying, through a sign interpreter, in a story about the Foxwell Apartments in The Evening Sun on Dec. 29, 1982. "Hearing can't sign."

The 154-unit building is named after a hearing man who devoted his life to working with the deaf. Louis W. Foxwell, a minister, was born to deaf parents and learned sign language early on. He became pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore and once successfully assisted police in a stand-off with a deaf man.

But on April 2, 1974, Rev. Foxwell himself was shot and killed outside his home by two youths who also fled without taking his wallet. He was 58 years old.

Beset with controversy

It's impossible to know what Rev. Foxwell would think today of the building that bears his name and is meant to honor his memory. But surely he would have hoped for something better for the deaf than a building that has been beset with controversy from the start.

Numerous deaf activists fought plans to build the apartment complex, predicting it would become a "ghetto" and "dumping ground."

Rev. Foxwell's son and namesake, also a minister, ultimately succeeded in getting the monument to his father built, but, within a year of its opening, it was already in trouble: Rev. Foxwell Jr. was accused of failing to provide the counseling and vocational services to tenants that the state was paying him for.

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