A sound realization

It’s no big deal to get glasses or treat anosmia. Why was it so hard to face my hearing loss?

5 minute read
A shiny, large old brass phonograph trumpet with floral designs pressed into the metal.

What I love about my ENT—because I am in the chapter of my life when body parts demand their own specialists—is her candor. When, after years of not smelling the coffee (or the cumin, or the Pinot Noir), I agreed to let her excavate my sinuses, she told me later that she’d scraped out 10 years’ worth of “gunk.”

During recovery, she advised, there would be some bleeding—“kind of like having a period out of your nose.” Ewww. But thanks, Doc; good to be prepared.

Still, I wasn’t interested in Dr. Honesty’s assessment of my ears, even after an audiogram that plainly graphed—see where that line dives into the “moderate hearing loss” zone?—what I already knew: I often missed what people said to me, especially if those people were women or children (who tend to speak at higher frequencies) or if they were whispering or crying or mumbling or masked or trying to snag my attention from the other room.

Attitude or anatomy?

I thought my hearing loss was an attitudinal problem, not an anatomical one. If only I could listen harder, focus more, quiet the distractions in my monkey mind … If only the water wasn’t burbling so noisily into the sink. If only the walls were thinner. If everyone would just freaking enunciate!

I did things the hard-of-hearing do when in denial: I asked people to repeat themselves, I pretended my phone had static, I guessed from context, then responded with non-sequiturs. But my tricks weren’t fooling anyone.

“Ama, did you hear what I said?” my daughter demanded this summer as we trudged up a mountain in Pisco Elqui, a town seven hours north of Santiago, Chile.

“Yes,” I lied. “Well, not all of it. Not exactly. Actually … no.”

Sasha turned on the dusty trail. “Do you need hearing aids?”

Why the shame about hearing loss?

Since surgery, I’m the poster girl for sinus maintenance, dutifully squirting a medicinal rinse into my nostrils every morning and night, and I’ll gladly chat about anosmia to anyone who’s curious.

I’m not ashamed—in fact, I’m proud—of the lumpy topography of my left knee, the scar that shows where the patella shattered and got jigsaw-ed together a few years back.

I don’t color my hair or have Botox pumped into my worry lines. I’ve never been tempted to lie about my age. So why—in a cringe of meta-irony—was I so unwilling to listen to what loved ones were saying about my hearing?

Here’s why: images of ear-trumpets the size of Victrolas. Doddering, clueless old people talking too loudly and screeching “What?” all the time. The fifth-grade teacher, one semester from retirement, whom we tormented by whispering, “Can I sharpen my pencil?” only to hear her thunder, “No, you may not go to the bathroom!!”

Black & white photo of an old woman with glasses and white hair with a long black trumpet held to her ear.
An elderly woman uses an ear trumpet in Amsterdam in 1961. (Photo by Joop van Bilsen, via Wikimedia Commons.)

In television shows, cartoons, and picture books, people with glasses could be nerds, intellectuals, or sexpots. But those who needed auditory help were the butt of facile jokes. It made no sense, but there it was: the prospect of hearing aids felt like a neon-bright announcement of decrepitude.

Looking back at the hearing I missed

Still, I promised my daughter that I would book an appointment just after my return from Santiago. The audiologist explained hearing loss with two images of a cross-sectioned cochlea—one with a shag of healthy cilia, the other with cilia tamped by age and use. I walked out with a trial pair of hearing aids, so small and sleek and silver-peachy colored that my best friend thought they were some new brand of Bluetooth device.

If I’d waited a few months—until this month, in fact—I could have bought hearing aids over the counter, without a doctor visit or prescription (and for a few thousand dollars less than what I paid), thanks to a new FDA rule.

But I’m glad I acted when I did. Suddenly, I could hear the pine trees croon a woodsy dirge. The ancient, flinty click of rocks beneath my boots when my love and I went hiking in the Catskills. I didn’t know our refrigerator made such a racket, or that the Ventnor bay wet-kissed the pilings in a day-long, cyclic slurp.

I’m realizing only now, in retrospect, the cost of my vanity and denial.

“There were times,” a friend said gently, “when I’d tell you something, and you’d get this kind of blank smile on your face, and I knew you hadn’t really heard … or you’d ask me something, and I’d think, ‘But I just told you that.’”

The frailties we share

While teaching a class in creative non-fiction, I invited participants to say one thing about themselves that wasn’t apparent by looking. I came out about my hearing aids, prompting two others in the group to say they wore aids, too. One participant was due to get a hip replaced. Someone had bad knees. One wore a compression sleeve to ease the painful swelling of lymphedema. Another, who’d permanently lost her hair from chemo, had a wig.

If the body’s breakdown is the one sure thing we share—we are mortal and our time is limited; no one is exempt—why is that frailty such a source of shame? There are susceptibilities corked deep into our DNA, and injuries our world inflicts: jackhammers and toxic slew. Not all our wounds have fixes. But I’m grateful that some do.

I lived for years without a sense of smell, and it was a thinner, grayer life, absent the bright scents of basil, cinnamon, and rain. I don’t know what I’ve missed hearing these past years, and I’ll never recover that lost soundscape, but I don’t want to miss any more of it.

Each night, before I remove my contacts, then my hearing aids, uncoupling from the sensory world, I pause and listen: the cat meowing plaintively, the house’s creaky bones, my love murmuring my name—“Are you coming to bed already?”—right here, right now, the tattered middle of our lives, where the light fades a few instants earlier each day.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation