When my wife, Barbara, suddenly lost her hearing four years ago, her life and that of our family changed irrevocably. From being a group of people who take hearing for granted, we became one for whom it is a tenuous gift.
Barbara had been deaf in her right ear for three years already. She was packing some boxes for our move to Texas, suddenly felt dizzy, sat down, and couldn’t hear at all. No treatment—including agonizing injections into the inner ear—did any good. She was profoundly deaf, and for the next several months, every word I said to her had to be written down. Somehow we managed to drive across the country, buy a house, and settle into a new city where we knew next to nobody. In the process, I learned that being deaf is like being in prison, only worse. There is no reprieve, no exercise time, nothing but unremitting solitary confinement.
A number of people remarked at the time on the irony that I, a Beethoven scholar, was put in the position of Beethoven’s close friends during his final years. I guess this was supposed to make me feel better. It made me feel for Beethoven.
Three years ago I wrote on the ams-list about our experience, first, with the pocket talker—a kind of high-tech version of Beethoven’s ear trumpets—and then with a cochlear implant. Since then, Barbara has been implanted in the right ear as well, and she can now “hear” out of both, as long as she keeps changing the batteries (they last about six hours between charges). A microphone in front of her ear canal picks up sounds and transmits them to the processor behind her ear, which digitizes them and warps them in a variety of nearly incomprehensible ways. They are then transmitted to a magnet, which she attaches to her head opposite another magnet that has been implanted in her skull. The digitized sound impulses go from there to the implant, which relays them in the form of carefully spaced electronic impulses to 19 electrodes imbedded in her cochlea.
The result registers on her auditory nerves as sound, although not in a very precise manner. She had to learn to recognize my voice—at first, I sounded like Mickey Mouse, then graduated to sounding like Michael Jackson—and those of our children, whom she still can’t always tell apart. She can talk on the phone to some extent, although even one-on-one conversation can still be a struggle, especially when there are distractions.
And then there’s music. At first, we were hoping that she would eventually be able to return to singing in a choir with me. So far, that’s proved elusive. If she hears music she’s familiar with, she can usually recognize it. Occasionally, she can even learn a new tune, although that’s a rarity. So far, the choir is still hopeless, since other parts singing at the same time (she’s an alto) make her deaf to her own voice.
When we go to a concert together, we feel elated if she is able to distinguish one instrument from another. Strangely, she can often hear the timbres even if she can’t hear the melody. The truth is, I can really only imagine what she’s hearing, and her patience in continuing to attend concerts with me (even if only occasionally) is astounding. We used to go all the time, but will probably never do so again. (There is hope, though. A new external processor has recently come out that, unlike the ones we have, is designed to help with music listening as well as with speech. So far, our insurance has refused to pay for it. Hearing music isn’t a “medical necessity.”)
Listening, it turns out, really is hard work. After a day spent trying to figure out sounds that everybody else takes for granted, Barbara is mentally and physically exhausted. Then she takes off her “ears” for the night, and silence settles in.
This has been a learning experience for all of us, of course, and often enough I do find the grace to be thankful for that part of it. I never knew the extent to which hearing skills could be learned, and it’s been an ear-opener. It has also made be profoundly grateful for something that most of us never think twice about: the symphony of noises, both wanted and unwanted, that barrages us day in and day out and that is our most powerful connection with the world and with each other.
I’m leaving on vacation on the 27th, so this will be my last post for a while. I just wanted to take the chance to show that I can write about something other than you-know-what. Thanks for all the intellectual stimulation; I’ve enjoyed blogging with you