Her brows scrunched together and her hand covered her mouth to hide her feelings. Her eyes said she was saying something important, but I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids and heard nothing. Not a sound. Blank space. Still air. Nothing. Her words disappeared into the 12 foot ceilings of the room. Lost.
A few days later, I describe the disappearing sound to Dr. Matt MacDonald, my audiologist at Hart Hearing Center. He rolls his eyes and arches his brows knowingly. He knows his patients do more than read lips. We read eyebrows and glances, head tilts and lip curls, every gesture and every shrug. He faces me squarely so I can read his lips and gestures clearly like a subtle mime.
“OK, let’s do some testing,” he says. He ushers me into the sound proof booth, leaning toward me as he gently places head phones on my ears. He settles on the other side of a window, places a headset over his cropped head, and covers his mouth so I can’t read his lips.
“Say boy,” he says. “Boy,” I repeat.
“Say stew.” “Stew.”
He calls out the words. I respond.
“Say church.” Hmmm…was that chirp or church. I make my best guess, a technique that can cause confusion in normal conversation. “Church.” The sounds blur when he adds background noise.
“Not bad,” he tells me when the test is finished. “A small loss, about what I would expect in a year.”
“I struggle more than last year,” I complain.
“I’ve been following your hearing since 1999,” he says. “You notice smaller losses now because your hearing is on the edge of the normal decibel range for conversation. A small loss drops you over that edge and makes word comprehension difficult.”
“Do I need new hearing aids?” I ask. If technology will help, I’ll pay the price.
“Soon,” Dr. MacDonald says. “A new generation of hearing aids is coming out this winter. Let’s wait for them, but meanwhile I’ll reprogram your hearing aids.”
“Am I going completely deaf?” I ask, searching his eyes for the truth. I don’t ask if I’m heading toward social isolation, but that’s my fear. I’ve already lost the joy of music and the pleasure of noisy social gatherings. Most social outings are a strain–restaurants, parties, movies–and now that I live alone, it’s tempting to retreat into silent isolation. I do well when one person speaks at a time in the bereavement groups I lead or in writing classes or with a friend, but I fear living in a silent world.
“I doubt you’ll ever become completely deaf,” Dr. MacDonald answers with a reassuring smile. “Your loss is slow enough that hearing aid technology is keeping up with it.” He leans over his desk, intently dissembling my hearing aids and connecting them to computer wires. He listens through his headset, tweaks his dials, readjusts, and tweaks again.
Warm contentment fills my chest as I watch his sensitive hands do their work. I trust the care of this gentle healer and open-hearted listener. When I leave, I have an impulse to hug him, but instead I put my hand over my heart and bow.