A while ago, I had the flu and my ears were blocked. One day, Garry removed his hearing aids and kept turning up the television until we could both hear it.
“That,” he said, “Is my world. That’s how much I can hear.”
I have never forgotten. Which is good because it’s all too easy to forget when it’s not your problem.
Many people don’t consider hearing loss a “real” disability. Is it because it’s invisible? I can’t walk much, can’t lift, ride a horse or bend. I am usually in some kind of pain ranging from “barely noticeable” to “wow that hurts.” None of which are visible to a naked eye. I once had a woman in the post office lash into me because I had a handicapped pass and she didn’t think I looked handicapped. Years later, I’m still angry. How dare she set herself up to judge?
People make assumptions all the time about Garry. They assume if they call to him and he doesn’t answer, he’s a snob. Rude. Ignoring them. If I’m with him I take them aside, explain Garry cannot hear them.
“You need to make sure he sees you and knows you are talking to him,” I tell them. I consider it part of my job as his wife. It’s rough being deaf in a hearing world. Parties are the worst. With so many people talking at once , it is impossible for him to hear one voice.
Mostly I can hear. Most things. Not as well as I did when I was younger. Background noise is more intrusive and annoying than before, but I hear well enough for most purposes. I depend on my hearing to catch nuances, to interpret underlying meanings of what people say.
Garry used to be able — with hearing aids — to do that too. It was important in courtrooms, while interviewing people and of course, in relationships. It’s not only what someone says, but how he or she says it. Body language, facial expressions … it’s all part of the communications package. But his hearing is worse now and much of this ability to catch the subtler part of speech has been lost.
When the hearing part goes, other senses have to compensate — but nothing quite fills the gap.
I am forever asking Garry if he heard “it.” Sometimes “it” is me. He often behaves as if he heard me though he didn’t — but he thinks he did. Sometimes, he didn’t hear exactly what I said. Or notice I was speaking at all. It takes him a while to process sound, to put words in order and make them mean something. It isn’t instant, the way it is for someone with normal hearing. He has to pause and wait for his brain to catch up. Sometimes, he puts the puzzle together wrong because he heard only pieces and what he missed was important.
There’s also the “what?” factor. How many times can anyone say “excuse me, can you repeat that” before he/she feels like an idiot? *
Human speech is not the whole story. There is music, soft and loud. The funny noise coming from the car’s engine, the scratching of a dog locked in the closet. Birds singing. A cry for help from a distance.
Garry can’t hear any of that. He could, years ago. So he misses it. He doesn’t hear the beep of a truck backing up. Or the sound of the water in our pipes which means someone’s using the shower. The little grinding noise of a hard drive going bad. Or an alarm ringing. The hum of the refrigerator.
All the little noises are lost to Garry.
What does silence sound like? When you hear only the very loudest noises, but none of the soft, little sounds? The explosion, but not a murmur? To be in that silence — always — is a different world.
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* Answer: Three.You can ask someone to repeat something 3 times. After that you are too embarrassed to try again. This is true for everyone, not just people with hearing problems. We all encounter accents we don’t get, mumblers, and people who speak too fast or too softly.