By David Feela
“How’s your earring?” an acquaintance at the coffee shop counter asks me. For a minute I’m confused. Of course, I recognize who he is, but I’ve never had either ear pierced. I’m about to say so, that he’s mistaken about my lobes and the ornaments that might hang there when what he’s really asking suddenly dawns on me: he wants to know, since my ear surgery three months ago, how my hearing is doing.
The answer to his question must be obvious without uttering a word. My face – flushed with the embarrassment of having wandered off a straight and well-lit mental path – is a dead giveaway. I want to explain, no, it’s not symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s. I want to shuffle my feet and do that little ta-da! dance step to suggest my stupid look has all been a vaudeville act. But instead I glance at the floor, not sure what to say. He touches my shoulder, grabs his coffee- to-go, then goes.
The learning curve for coming to grips with this gradual dimming of my auditory self has taken a long time. Blame the hearing loss on too many decibels of Def Leppard, working in the company of rackety machinery, or shooting my pneumatic staple gun in the wrong direction. Whatever the cause, the origin of the problem has lost all sense of importance. What I want to figure out now is how to behave so I don’t end up as a reincarnation of my father-in-law, who insisted until the day he vanished from this earth that his hearing problem was simply everyone else’s inability to speak up.
I vividly remember when I first noticed his disconnect with a sound reality. Newlyweds nearly 40 years ago, Pam and I traveled to Chicago for a family visit. He’d mixed gin fizzes and we’d all moved outside to occupy lawn chairs. Sitting directly across from us, he was delivering a lecture about “educated dummies” being left in charge of America’s schools. I had just taken my first teaching job. No doubt he was trying to get on my good side, choosing a topic that held my interest.
Thankfully, O’Hare airport ran a flight path directly over his Arlington Heights residence. One minute I could hear him, the next minute any semblance of what he might be saying had been obliterated by the roar of a jet. The din prompted by the plane’s passing amazed me, but what surprised me even more during its full minute of ascent was that my father-in-law’s lips never stopped moving. He just continued explaining what’s wrong with education, as if the bell jar of the heavens had not been temporarily shattered.
Presbycusis is the word for a gradual hearing loss that occurs as people get older, one in three from the ages of 65- 74, nearly half over the age of 75. Because this kind of loss is gradual, many age-related hearing problems sneak up on us, prompting people like my father-in- law to be stuck in a state of denial.
The most awkward part for me is trying to mask my disability by pretending I know what somebody has said, even when I don’t. I’ll nod my head, or say something neutral like “oh” or “uhhuh”, making sure the huh part doesn’t come off as a question. I should just come clean with everyone I’m talking to, explain how it will require a few more repetitions before the comprehension light bulb goes on in my head.
Background noise creates havoc, and it doesn’t require the interruption of anything as dramatic as a jet. Simple traffic noise from the street if I’m standing outside can undermine my hearing, or the collective conversation of an animated group of people talking together in the same room. Background music does it too, and the sad thing is that I love music, even if singers mash their words.
Once again, I’m sounding like my father-in-law. This struggle with hearing is nearly impossible to explain, how certain sounds begin to merge, like distinguishing between the “s” and the “th”. That moment of uncertainty is always present, when I wonder, for instance, how cutting back on the consumption of ice cream could ever make a person sin, how a drummer’s use of a thimble might prove to be innovative, or how sometimes, just trying to figure out why someone said what I thought I heard them say makes me sink I am thick.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com