From Sound to Silence
5 August 1990
On one of those treasured visits from Michigan to my parents' home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, I communicate through a magic pad with my 80-year-old mother, who four years previous took the final step from hearing-impaired to deaf as she gave up wearing her now useless hearing aids.
"Do you hear anything?" I write.
"No,” she answers, her voice still strong although she cannot hear it. “Last night your Dad came in and found the TV blasting. Someone had left the volume way up; I didn't hear a thing." (Indeed, my father later explained, he recently tested her by sneaking up while she was reading and giving his hands a loud clap just behind her ear. Her eye never wavered from the page.)
What is it like, I wonder. "A silent world?"
"Yes," she replies, "it's a silent world."
As with Mother, so, I expect, with me. I have known for many years that I am on a trajectory towards her deafness. When tested as a teenager, my hearing pattern mimicked Mother's—an unusual "reverse slope" pattern of good hearing for high pitch sounds and poorer hearing for low pitch sounds (making soft male voices harder to discern than higher female voices). In bed upstairs, I can hear the high-pitched microwave oven timer, which my wife, Carol, snuggled beside me, cannot. But I cannot recall ever hearing an owl hoot. Carol touches my leg with each hoot: "There, can you hear it?" I hear nothing.
As a graduate student my peculiar loss made me a case for study and discussion in front of twenty doctors and residents at the University of Iowa Medical School's hearing clinic. It was a precocious experience of what Dr. Seuss predicted in You're Only Old Once!
You'll be told that your hearing's so murky and muddy,
your case calls for special intensified study.
They'll test you with noises from far and from near
and you'll get a black mark for the ones you can't hear.
Then they'll say, "My dear fellow, you're deafer than most.
But there's hope, since you're not quite as deaf as a post."
In my early forties, an audiologist (a specialist in assessing and ameliorating hearing loss) wondered aloud that I was able to cope with life without a hearing aid. But my coping is far from perfect. Already, at age 47, I seek seats front and center at lectures, meetings, and the theatre. In restaurants, I prefer corners or to be against a wall. When teaching psychology classes at Michigan’s Hope College, students occasionally snicker after I answer a question inappropriately. At home, I sometimes miss what my children say. Visiting Scotland, where we recently lived for a year, I ask Carol to handle calls (to avoid the double whammy of discerning the accent above lost sounds).
At the moment I have a 1980s vintage hearing aid, but it magnifies all sounds—including those high-pitched sounds that I hear reasonably well. Crashing silverware becomes distracting, irritating, almost painfully loud. Part of that “loudness” may be relative to my adaptation to a quiet world, rather like my complaining of the sun’s brightness after emerging from a movie. Bothersome loudness also results from a common but little-known hearing loss oddity. Damaged hair cell receptors within the inner ear may fail to respond to soft sounds, yet respond normally to loud sounds (with a boost from neighbor hair cells which also begin to respond). Ergo, normal hearing progresses from perceiving quiet sounds through moderate to loud and very loud. But once a person with a significant loss hears something, further loudness quickly progress to very loud and uncomfortably loud. A hard of hearing person who misses soft sounds that others hear may therefore hear loud sounds quite normally. Amplify all sounds—including loud sounds—and some noises will become uncomfortably loud. (One doesn’t need a hearing aid at a rock concert—which hard of hearing people will want to avoid anyway to protect their inner ear’s remaining healthy sensory receptors, the hair cells.)
Moreover, merely magnifying sound far from its source hardly improves clarity. It's like a microphone recording a speaker from across a room.; it records the voice’s reverberations and all the intervening sounds as well. One must also suffer the distracting sound of one's own distorted voice. So I seldom wear it. (A friend reports a similar experience with his unused hearing aids, which “so greatly magnified the noise of chewing that I couldn’t eat and converse at the same time!”)
But surely my resistance is due to melt. And surely, having scorned my mother's embarrassed social withdrawal, I will suffer similar wounds. "Not having understood what was said in a group," she reminisces, "I would chime in and say what someone had just said—and everyone would laugh. I would be so embarrassed I could fall through the floor." Increasingly, her way of coping was to avoid getting out on the floor in the first place. More and more, she shied away from public events, or cued my amiable father to take her home, or found excuses not to mix with people who didn't understand.
Will I do the same? Will I break my private vow not to repeat her past? Do I dare to hope that I might usefully illustrate the struggles of hearing-impaired people—by recording samples of my experiences in this journal and reflecting on them from my vantage point as a social psychologist?
In the world of the hearing-impaired, those deaf since birth are my distant cousins. I empathize as I read their stories. But I would not trivialize their experience by identifying it with my own. There is a great divide between those natively Deaf or deafened before spoken language and those hard of hearing and later-deafened. I can hardly imagine the consciousness of those for whom, with apologies to St. John's Gospel, in the beginning there was no word, only silence. I can no more imagine congenital deafness than can a near-sighted person imagine blindness. Unlike them, I have known, and still know, the sound of waves splashing, of symphonies playing, of children laughing. Thus, my immediate kinfolk are those millions of fellow travelers anywhere on the slow voyage from sound to silence, from hearing to nonhearing. It is for them, and those who love and wish to understand them, that I record my journey toward a silent world.
The Beat Goes On
28 June 1991
My 21-year-old son Andy returns home from a week-long visit with Seattle relatives. While chauffeuring his grandmother he discovered a positive side to her deafness—he could play any music as loud as he wished. I chuckle at the image of my ultra-conservative 81-year-old mother driving around Seattle with Led Zeppelin rock music blaring on the car stereo. Then I ponder: Will he—or his child—someday drive me to the beat of heavy metal bands? Please, my child, make it Vivaldi.
Knowing that my extended family had already welcomed my oldest son, Peter, in a successful move to Seattle, I ask: "Did they try to woo you into moving there?"
"Some of them did," I think I hear him say.
"Some of them did?" I say.
He gives me a blank look.
"Some of them did?" I say again, hoping to confirm my understanding and to draw him out.
Without ever answering, he and his mother exchange smirks. "I know what we need to get Dad for Christmas," he says, "one of those magic-slate writing boards, like grandmother has."
Flushed with embarrassment and irritation, I drop the question.
Excerpted from A Quiet World: Hearing Loss and How to Live With It by David G. Myers, published in 2000 by Yale University Press.
Copyright c 2000 by the David and Carol Myers Foundation. All rights reserved.
A Quiet World is available through your local bookstore or from Amazon.com.