What Was Lost

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.”

No shit.

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.

I get why my dad was unperturbed. He was happy in his own little world. And, thankfully, I can get a reprieve when I find myself alone. I take out my hearing aids and briefly slip back into my life “before”, and I won’t lie.  I love it.

When Jerry Met Sally

Despite many things to celebrate (my mom is turning 69 today and we are celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday), I am thinking mostly about my beloved high school teacher and speech coach, Mr. Hyler, who passed away yesterday morning. 

I am also thinking about Sally, his wife, who was with him in those final moments. I am remembering an earlier time. Let's call it "When Jerry Met Sally". They were both speech coaches and got to know one another from meetings and tournaments. I was a major speech geek and spent lots of spare time bugging Mr. Hyler so I witnessed the spring in Mr. Hyler's step when he knew he would be seeing her. I saw physical evidence of him wanting to get this right. I found many yellow legal pads on his desk or on the floor of whatever room we might be practicing in with failed attempts at correspondence on them. Each page contained a different heading. Dear Sally, Hi Sally, Greetings!, Hey Sal, Hi Sally! Obviously this initial stall-out didn't last and progress was made. They married and enjoyed a rich and full life together.

Of course this is the simple version. But what I am really thinking about is how it felt to be with them. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." No matter how much time I spent with them or when it occurred, I always felt afterwards that I had been in the presence of an active love. I felt it in their first meetings and sporadic visits over the years. That feeling never changed. The love and adoration Jerry and Sally had for each other was apparent in words and gestures. Their eyes sparkled for each other...it was clear to everyone.

I recently read an article about the secret to long and happy marriages and it comes down to this: kindness. And kindness comes from showing up. Do you turn toward your partner in even the smallest of exchanges? Is their interest, inquiry, concern, excitement about something enough to initiate a response of affirmation from you?  It seems so small and yet I get it. Too many times I have been in a room where someone says something and it is greeted with silence, or worse, a look of derision. Sometimes in the busyness of life, even polite dinner conversation becomes abrupt and unsatisfying because we are all lost in our own worries of what we have to do next and it takes work to come back to the moment, to be present and participate. And it made me realize that on all occasions and in every situation, Jerry and Sally turned toward each other.

But there is more to it, I know. I think you have to be aware, be present enough to make the conscious choice to turn toward someone. 

Big Man and I are working a bit on this. We are trying hard to be a bit more mindful and present in general. Recently, we were helping my daughter through a stressful time and it was clear she was working herself up. Big Man stopped her and said these words, "Can you feel mom's hand on your back? Can you feel the soft blanket on your lap? Can you feel my warm leg against your cool one? Be here, Lucy."

Her breathing slowed as she started paying attention to what he was asking. As her attention shifted to each sensation he called out, she visibly relaxed and eventually we were able to have thoughtful and more reasonable conversation.

I have practiced this myself....in driving and getting lost, in hearing bad news and struggling to maintain my composure, in trying to usher (yet again!) Thing 2 through his latest emotional lament. I have to say it is hard because it is not my normal, but I am working on it.

On a recent trip I was a bit worried about lack of planning. I gathered all sorts of free literature in an attempt to make a haphazard plan and headed toward the beach. My head was buried when I caught the glimpse of a seagull and I am proud to say I looked up. 

Be here now, I thought. 

The sky was a brilliant blue, the crashing waves of the ocean were hypnotic, and my son was taking on the ocean with the unflagging spirit of a ten year old boy. I watched him jump and roll with the waves oblivious to everything but the bracing feel of the water on his skin and the roll of the tide. He wasn't planning anything. He was in the moment so completely that I wondered how life might feel if I could take it on in just that way every single minute.

Because isn't that all that we have? The gift of the minute we are in? Be with your kid, be with your beloved, be with the person right in front of you, be with your pet, be with a book, be in this piece of writing. It is the very essence of kindness to yourself. Showing up and being present. And offering that kindness to the one you've vowed to make a life with seems the most logical conclusion. It seems foolish to do otherwise.

What a gift Sally gave to Jerry, staying with him until his last breath. I am not surprised because they have always turned toward each other, and it gives me hope and comfort to know this did not change.

I am taking notes.

Be here now. 
Pay attention. 
Show up. 
Turn toward each other.
Don't hide the sparkle.

It's all mixed up, my wedding anniversary and Jerry's passing. It's circular and interwoven and a gift to my marriage. This reminder that love endures and grows and pulses through the gentle kindness of simply showing up.

In Bloom

I wonder if this happens to every parent...you pause midstream and look up and think, "Oh, this. This is why I wanted to be a parent." I can't really explain it and I will sound like a scary mommy when I admit that some phases of parenting for me were just plain ick. Babies and toddlers were not my game. Sure, I loved a good rock in the chair, story time, and inhaling the precious new baby smell but after that...it really did feel like living in the trenches. Toddlers make you question your sanity every single day yet I know some moms who loved that stuff and still go weak when they encounter a newborn and become wistful whenever they pass the toddler section of Target. Mostly I think, "I am glad it is not me." These are hard thoughts to admit to and definitely not popular because who can diss a baby? But it is true for me.

In the chauffeur phase, I find I am hitting my stride. I have glimpses of who my kids will be, and I feel like I am at my own Gladwellian Tipping Point...a moment in my parenting life that will shape and shift and somehow direct their futures. I am not naive enough to believe I have a ton of power, but I certainly have influence and so I am running with it. 

The closer it seems that I could fly out of the home a bit more, the more I want to stay around. I like being the chauffeur, I like making a plan to bake a cake with my son after school and knowing he likes it as much as me. I like knowing my daughter's friends and forcing myself upon their parents. I like knowing it's me running my girl to see doctors and counselors and dance and checking her lunches and taking her mental temperature. I find these little moments of a chat here and there between park play and bike rides and activities pack a powerful punch for all of us. Dinner conversations are livelier and more thoughtful and sincere. While I am not dining with adults yet, I am enjoying some time with curious and free thinking individuals. 

This phase is important because it is one my kids will remember. If the impressions I make are meaningful enough to them, my kids will want to fly as well as return now and again.

I like my kids. I don't know if every parent can say this about the little people they are raising. Personalities are quirky and different and not everyone mixes and fits well together. Liking them doesn't mean I think they are perfect or without fault. It just means at this time, I find my kids funny and sweet and infuriating and typical and easy to be around and so special I can't stand it. 

It has taken me ten years to get to this day, and I am soaking it up.