“You’re between a rock and a hard place.”
I’ve traveled to this hearing center for 30 years. A two hour drive, a walk up wide stairs, a well-lit room often filled with little kids and old people with hearing aids, but nearly empty for today’s late afternoon appointment. A little girl signs with her mother, obviously bickering
“Is your information the same?” the woman behind the desk asks. I nod.
“Have a seat. Dr. Orlando will be right with you.”
Dr. Orlando is Director of Research at Strong Audiology in Rochester. He ought to know how to help me, right? But each time I show up with my begging bowl, he has less to give. Same is true wherever I search. Meniere’s Disease is busy destroying my inner ear and no one knows how to stop it.
The doctor enters the waiting room with his student Mai and smiles. I follow them into an acoustically perfect room and take a chair.
“Let’s start with a hearing test,” he says, but I’m overflowing with fear and hopelessness that won’t be stuffed. My feelings insist on being first.
“I’ve lost all hearing in my left ear and developed an echo and more distortion in the right ear. I’m afraid that ear is going, too. I’m scared. I don’t want to be a hermit. I need help.”
Dr. Orlando nods. He glances down at his folded hands while I speak and drip, his shoulders hunched with the weight of my grief. If it wasn’t unprofessional, I think he’d hug me as I wipe tears with my sleeve. Instead he hands me a Kleenex. Mai picks up the box and holds it on her lap, assisting like an altar boy with the priest.
“We have to do the hearing test to know if we can help,” he says after listening carefully. Mai tenderly places headphones over my ears and follows him out the door. In seconds, they show up through the window to the adjoining room filled with testing equipment. I listen for beeps and words, hoping it isn’t as bad as I think.
“Your left ear has no word recognition and little sound recognition at any pitch. A hearing aid won’t help it now. Your right ear is only a little worse than last year in terms of sound and word recognition. You do well with word recognition in perfect conditions.” (Life rarely offers perfect hearing conditions.)
“Medicare and Excellus won’t pay for a cochlear implant with one-sided deafness,” he says. “You could pay for it, but it’s expensive and I don’t think it will help much. Meniere’s distortion and dizziness usually continue. I’m sorry. ‘You’re between a rock and a hard place.’”
“How about a new hearing aid in the right ear?” I ask.
“I don’t think it will help, but we can try. It won’t stop distortion but might make words a little crisper. There’s a 45 day warranty, so if it fails, you’ll get your $3000 back.”
I make an appointment for his next opening. Later, I’ll text my sons to ask if they can help me switch from my Android to the iPhone needed for the latest hearing aid technology.
I keep my feelings jailed until I get to the car and close door. Then I sob, not because I don’t expect suffering in life or because I feel singled out or persecuted, but because I want to call Vic.
After every audiology appointment before 2008, I called Vic from the parking lot to share the news. My hearing held steady for years, so our calls were small celebrations. Today, I’m crushed. As I cry, I remember Pema Chodron’s “Tonglen on the Spot.” Notice the suffering around me, including my own, and send comfort to others and myself. Breathe in suffering. Breathe out solace. It’s that simple.
My heart opens to the suffering of those who can’t hear, read lips, or afford hearing aids. My heart opens wider to those burned out by fire, children separated from their parents at our borders, those with fatal illnesses and those who suffer in ways I can’t imagine. My heart opens to myself and my struggling ears. I practice tonglen all the way home, holding my suffering and the suffering of all beings. That’s everyone.
On this Planet of Joy and Sorrow, sooner or later, we’re all stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Where do you turn when you’re stuck without a fix? Along with prayer and meditation, I watched for beauty on the drive home. A few days later, my son helped me buy the iPhone needed for my newly ordered hearing aid. The echo diminished.
I’m scheduled to lead a workshop on Aging, Loss, and Grief in Columbus, Ohio in October. Organizers understand my situation, but trust me and my material. Hearing loss doesn’t stop me from giving a lecture and leading a workshop, especially when the topic is loss and grief. With good microphones, my lip-reading skills and remaining hearing, and organizers who will help lead small group discussions, all will be well. “You’re stubborn,” a friend said. Yes, I am. I’ll keep doing my work until I can’t. If that happens, I’ll still keep writing.
For other articles about keeping life going with hearing loss, see I Want to Understand You: Hearing Loss, Grit, & Grief. For a short video about a simple practice to relieve suffering, see Pema Chodron: Tonglen Practice.