Walking around the valley on a spring day used to be so peaceful. A bird chirped, a car idled past me, and occasionally the faint muffled cry of a baby drifted through the air. Most often I was lost in thought and these thirty minutes were my favorite time of day.
But recently I became the owner of two shiny beige hearing aids and my world has been rocked. My head now pounds to the rhythm of every bass I never heard. The number of babies astounds me as the shrill cry of children pierce my ears at regular intervals. There is no dog park in our valley but that seems impossible due to the sheer volume of yelping. And where the fuck did all these cars come from? My neck is sore from whipping back and forth as they whiz past.
I want my peaceful walks back and yet, I should have known this was coming.
“Hmm….what?” was the music of my childhood. My dad’s hearing loss was genetic and cumulative from years working around heavy farm machinery. Much of my youth was spent yelling at him out of necessity rather than anger. And always he would do the same thing. He would turn toward the noise, lift his right eye brow in question, and that would be the speaker’s cue to kick it up a notch. Or two. When the message was effectively received, he would offer up his standard apology.
“Oh, ok. Sorry, hon. I just didn’t hear you.”
My mother’s interactions with him were less forgiving. Head shaking from side to side, hands flailing in some weird mime, and finally, stomping right up to his face. Looking him squarely in the eye, she’d shout, “I said...”
His head bobbed up and down to indicate the message was received.
My dad didn’t seem particularly bothered, but for us he did try. We didn’t have a lot of money so his hearing aids were imperfect at best and frequently dead due to the cost of battery replacement. His type of hearing loss did not qualify him for surgery so we limped along as best we could. We were under the false illusion that if he could just afford a decent hearing aid, all would be better. His sister, my aunt, had hearing aids in both ears. We still had to make sure we looked at her when she was speaking, but it seemed more manageable and less shouty.
Having been identified with a small but progressive hearing loss in my fourth grade year, I can see now the writing was on the wall. But what I didn’t know, quite frankly, was what I didn’t know.
One perk from this hearing loss was a grant I received for college because my hearing loss falls in “conversational tones”. I was skilled at reading faces and mouths and asking questions in a way that helped me get information I had missed without letting anyone know I just didn’t hear them. I looked curious! But when I started a family in my thirties, I felt like I was missing things. When I hit my forties, the head shaking doubled so I began to do what my dad did. I turned toward the speaker, studied their mouth, and cocked my eyebrow. Inevitably, the speaker adjusted their volume.
“Thanks," I found myself saying. " I just didn’t hear you.”
But my family grew tired of this and I grew wearing of my own shortcomings.
I caved and researched and tried out hearing aids. I backed out twice, caved again, and finally, permanently take the plunge.
I took for granted what I didn’t have, which was noise. As much as I didn’t like not hearing people, receiving mutinous looks, having to position myself just so in a room, or speak up to ask yet again for someone to repeat themselves, none of that prepared me for how much I would not like hearing all I had been missing.
Background noise has never been my friend. As a kid, I could spend hours in my room with absolutely nothing but a book. As a college student, music did not accompany me during the late hours. As a young teacher I did not blast the tv as I stayed up grading papers. Silence has always been my preferred companion.
The hearing aids have changed my walks from pockets of solitude to an auditory minefield. I still get headaches from all the stimulation. The world has been amplified and whatever nuance I used to experience is lost. The shuffling of a paper competes with the speaker I am leaning toward. The clanking of silverware is on par with dinner conversation. My “auditory specialist” tells me it can take my brain months to adjust, to learn to filter. It has been eleven months and eighteen days.