How appropriate! As I sit down at my computer to write an essay about my hearing loss, I hear the familiar—and annoying—beep-beep-beep indicating my batteries will lose power some time. When, exactly, that will happen is a deep mystery to me. The silent world might overtake me within 15 minutes. Other times it comes five hours later. And the left and right batteries never run out at the same time. Some malicious maker of hearing-aid batteries must program them to randomly expire, usually at the most inopportune time. And though it is unpredictable, this expiration is also inevitable.
For me, succumbing to the inevitable—that is, dragging myself to an audiologist to find out why the speech of everyone around me had become incomprehensible mumbling—was a very humbling experience that forced me to redefine myself in many ways. Now I was a toibeh loch. Literally, this phrase means "deaf hole" in Yiddish.
In my youth, I heard that slur many times, when my mother yelled at my father. He asked "What?" about 600 times a day, but resisted visiting an audiologist until well into his 80s. After he got his hearing aids, he found that he could turn down the amplification, which was advantageous in diminishing my mother's voice when she was a little less than loving toward him. And thus I found that my connection to my father, who died shortly before I was diagnosed with hearing loss, deepened in a way I would rather have avoided.
Losing my hearing seemed a fitting retribution for my poking fun and yelling in exasperation at the poor man. I treated him with disdain because he would grin stupidly at me rather than tell me for the 10th time that he did not understand what I was asking. Or he would respond inappropriately when I asked a question such as, "How are you, Daddy?" Only now do I understand his response of "Yes."
The idea of loss and connection has special significance to me, both personally and professionally. I am a college professor whose specialization is thanatology, the study of death and dying—or as one of my colleagues says, "The study of life, with death left in." Now I am a thanatologist with hearing aids, which is rather ironic given that our mortality-phobic culture frequently turns a deaf ear to discussions about death!
In my courses on death and dying, I frequently talk about loss. And so when I finally acknowledged that my ears—which I had taken for granted for so long—were no longer functioning the way they used to, I found myself enveloped by a profound sense of loss. I hadn't just lost my ability to hear. I was reminded of losing my beloved father, my youth, the world of sound and language I had taken for granted.
I'm also increasingly aware of a loss of patience. Others may lose patience with me as they repeat their questions and statements over and over, and I lose patience with myself, particularly as I fumble to insert tinier batteries into tiny hearing devices, and then clumsily miss my ear canal when I try sneaking the aids into my ears—in full view of everyone in the locker room at the Y.
I chose the most invisible kind of hearing aid I could get, and hope nobody notices the clear, thin tube running down my ear. But for the students who march around campus with loud music piped in through earbuds—some of whom may wear hearing aids by the time they are 40—what a fashion statement hearing aids will be! Just as tattoos have experienced a resurgence in popularity, hearing aids may someday be deliberately visible and bold. Some hearing aids already come in day-glo pink and orange, but I have yet to see someone of my generation sporting something so obvious. In the future—in some odd juxtaposition of fashion and body art—I picture a tattoo with an arrow pointing to one's pinnae, claiming "Hearing Aids Worn Here."
I am very grateful to have experienced my hearing loss in a time when I can have a fairly sophisticated device that adjusts to different sound levels and transmits auditory stimuli with amazing clarity. Thank goodness I do not have to lug around ear trumpets. It would be a little difficult to hide my hearing loss with those!
I've also developed a deep appreciation for the amazing capacity of ears and brain to handle the complexities of auditory input. My hearing aids do struggle with slurred speech, ambient noise and subtle differences between sounds such as "d" and "t." It used to be so effortless. I did not appreciate it when ears and brain were functioning at full capacity.
In thanatology, the grief process involves a person's quest to maintain a connection to his or her deceased loved one. This connection, known as "continuing bonds," is manifested in myriad ways, from memorial websites to wearing a piece of the deceased's jewelry. My hearing loss has brought new connections, too. I now am connected to my audiologist, who has been a saint in answering my many questions or seeing me at nonscheduled times to repair a misbehaving aid. And I find myself looking for the thin, clear tubing in people I meet or know, to see if we're connected in the community of closeted hearing aid wearers.
There are signs that give them away—sometimes the computer peeks out from behind the ear, sometimes I find them fingering their remote (perhaps mistaken for a cell phone by the uninitiated) and sometimes they ask me to repeat myself a little too frequently. We can be a devious lot.
Most important, I think of continuing bonds with my father every time I change my batteries, or find myself not understanding soft or quick speech—and particularly when I bite the bullet and say, "What?" for what must seem like the 600th time.