A Note That Changed My Life
AS TOLD BY IRENE HOCHSTENBACH
It happened on a Tuesday evening in 1972. I was 16 years old and had accompanied my parents to a religious meeting in Eindhoven, a city in the province of Brabant, in the Netherlands. I felt insecure and wished I were somewhere else. Then two young women handed me a note with a message: “Dear Irene, we would love to help you.” Little did I realize how that note would change my life. But before I relate what happened next, let me tell you something about my background.
I WAS born on the island of Belitung, in Indonesia. I remember some of the sounds of that tropical island—the rustle of palm trees in the wind, the gentle murmur of a nearby river, the laughter of children playing around our house, as well as the sound of music filling our home. In 1960, when I was four years old, our family moved from Indonesia to the Netherlands. We made the long journey by ship, and the sound I especially remember is that of a favorite toy that traveled with me—a little clown with a set of drums. At age seven, I lost my hearing because of an illness, and since then I have not been able to hear any of the sounds around me. Memories are all I have left.
Growing Up Deaf
Because of the loving care of my parents, at first I didn’t fully grasp the consequences of being deaf. As a child, I thought that even my huge hearing aid was kind of fun, though it was of little use to me. To communicate with me, neighborhood children would chalk whole stories on the sidewalk, and I answered them, even though I couldn’t hear my own voice.
As I grew older, I became aware that I was different from the people around me. I also began to notice that some people made fun of me because of my deafness, while others excluded me from their company. I began to feel isolated and lonely. I started to grasp what it meant to be deaf, and the older I got, the more afraid I became of the world of hearing people.
To enable me to attend a special school for the deaf, my parents moved the whole family from a village in the province of Limburg to the city of Eindhoven. There, my father looked for a job, and my brother and sisters went to a new school. I’m grateful for all the adjustments they made for my sake. At school, I was taught to adapt the volume of my voice and to articulate more clearly. And although the teachers did not use sign language, my classmates taught me to sign.
Living in My Own World
As I grew up, my parents tried hard to communicate with me, but there were many things I did not comprehend. For example, I didn’t understand that my parents were studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I remember that one day our family visited a place where lots of people were sitting on chairs. They all looked to the front, sometimes applauded, and now and then stood up—but why these people did all of that, I didn’t know. Much later, I learned that I had been at a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My parents also used to take me to a small hall in the city of Eindhoven. I felt that it was all right there because everyone was kind and my family seemed happy, but why we always went there, I didn’t know. Now I know that the small hall was a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Unfortunately, there was no one present at these meetings to interpret the program for me. I now realize that those present wanted to help me but that they did not know how to deal with my deafness. At these meetings, I felt left out and thought, ‘I wish I were at school instead of here.’ But just when those thoughts were going through my mind, two young women scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. That was the note I mentioned in the introduction. I had no idea that this note would be the start of a precious friendship that would free me from my world of isolation.
Developing a Precious Friendship
Colette and Hermine, who sent the note, were in their early 20’s. Later, I learned that they had come to the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was visiting to serve as regular pioneers, or full-time ministers. Although Colette and Hermine did not really know sign language, I managed to read their lips as they spoke to me, and in this way we communicated quite well.
My parents were pleased when Colette and Hermine asked about studying the Bible with me, but these young women did much more than that. They tried hard to interpret the meetings at the Kingdom Hall for me as well as to involve me in association with others in the congregation. They practiced Bible presentations with me to use in the preaching work, and they also helped me prepare student talks for the Theocratic Ministry School. Just imagine, now I even had the courage to give a talk in front of a group of hearing people!
Moreover, Colette and Hermine made me feel that I could trust them. They were patient and listened to me. Although we often laughed about my mistakes, they never made fun of me; nor were they embarrassed by my presence. They tried to understand my feelings and treated me as an equal. These kind girls gave me a beautiful gift—their love and friendship.
Most important, Colette and Hermine taught me that I had to get to know our God, Jehovah, as a friend who can be trusted. They explained that Jehovah had seen me sitting in the Kingdom Hall and that he understood what it meant for me to be deaf. How grateful I am that our common love for Jehovah brought the three of us together as friends! I was moved by Jehovah’s care for me, and out of love for him, I symbolized my dedication to him by water baptism in July 1975.
Accompanying a Special Friend
In the years that followed, I became acquainted with more and more Christian brothers and sisters. One brother became a very special friend to me, and we were married in 1980. Shortly thereafter, I began to serve as a pioneer, and in 1994 my husband, Harry, and I were assigned to serve as special pioneers in the Dutch Sign Language field. The following year, I faced a challenging assignment. I was to accompany my husband, who can hear, as he visits different congregations as a substitute circuit overseer.
This is how I go about it. When we visit a congregation for the first time, I promptly go up to as many brothers and sisters as possible and introduce myself. I tell them that I am deaf and ask them to look at me while speaking slowly to me. I also try to give an answer right away at the congregation meetings. And I ask if someone is willing to be my interpreter for that week of meetings and field service.
This approach works so well that at times, my brothers and sisters forget that I cannot hear, leading to comical situations. For instance, they tell me that when they see me walking in town, they blow the horn of their car to greet me, but of course, I don’t react. I too forget my limitations sometimes—like when I try to whisper something confidential in my husband’s ear. When I see him suddenly blush, I know that my “whisper” was much too loud.
Children help out in unexpected ways. In one congregation that we visited for the first time, a nine-year-old boy had noticed that some in the Kingdom Hall were a bit hesitant to talk to me, and he decided to do something about it. He walked up to me, took me by the hand, led me to the middle of the Kingdom Hall, and called out at the top of his voice, “May I introduce Irene to you—she is deaf!” Those present came up to me and introduced themselves.
As I accompany my husband in the circuit work, my circle of friends keeps growing. How different my life is today from the years that I felt excluded and isolated! Ever since that evening when Colette and Hermine slipped that little note into my hand, I have experienced the power of friendship and have met people who became very special to me. Most of all, I have come to know Jehovah, the most precious Friend of all. (Romans 8:38, 39) How that little note changed my life!
[Picture on page 24]
I remember the sound of my favorite toy
[Pictures on page 25]
In the ministry and with my husband, Harry