Photo by Heide Weidner

Hear, Hear

by Miriam Mandel Levi

The graph of my hearing ability sloped like the neck of a giraffe. I’m a speech language pathologist and I’d seen enough audiograms in my career to know what that meant. I could hear the low frequencies but not the high ones. In other words, I could hear my husband snoring but not, at the end of a fitful night’s sleep, the ring of the alarm clock. In order for me to hear the alarm, it had to ring at 80 decibels, the volume of a lawn mower. I had what’s called a high frequency sensorineural loss commonly associated with aging.
The audiologist asked if I had been exposed to loud noise in the past. I thought back to the many rock concerts I had enjoyed in my youth: Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who. “Tommy can you hear me?” These days I doubted Tommy or I could.
She said my loss was not severe and that most people with my hearing profile do not opt for hearing aids.
“Unless you’re the kind of person who wants to hear everything,” she added.
I had to think – was I that kind of person? I didn’t want to hear commercials, traffic sounds, whining, platitudes, worn jokes, kids asking me what’s for dinner. I didn’t want to hear a lot of the conversation that came my ears’ way. But I did want to decide what I heard. I didn’t want my hearing dictated by the dying fibers of my vestibulocochlear nerve.
For some time I hadn’t been able to make out what my family members said when they called from rooms upstairs. When a student asked me a question in class, I couldn’t decipher her question nor localize, from the sound of her voice, where she was seated. On the phone I had to ask for an embarrassing number of repetitions until I was certain I had heard correctly. I was working altogether too hard to follow a stream of conversation.
On the job I had trouble hearing the nuances of my patients’ speech. Was his voice hoarse or harsh? Were her sibilants precise or distorted?
I had once laughed at old ladies who signaled as they left their neighborhood street then drove fifty kilometers down the highway with the turn signal flashing because they couldn’t hear the ticking. Now I was one of those ladies.
The audiologist asked whether I would be interested in trying hearing aids, and I thought of the people I knew who had them. Just a small percentage wore them. Most of the aids lounged in bedside table drawers, clothing cupboards and purses. My mother-in-law was a case in point. “They’re not like glasses,” she says. “It’s hard to get used to them.” I wondered why she hadn’t persevered; she missed so much.
I told the audiologist I’d like to try them.
Later that day, I shared my newly diagnosed presbycusis with my neighbor.
“And I’m only fifty-six,” I said.
“Fifty-six is the new eighty-six,” he said.
A week later I was fitted with aids. The casings were small and flesh-colored and sat above my ears. They were attached to thin, clear tubes with small nibs that inserted into the ear canal.
My ears formed a busy intersection with hearing aids, earrings, the arms of my glasses and the fabric of my headscarf converging there. I didn’t like the scratchy, plugged sensation of the nibs in my ears. But everything changed when the audiologist turned on the amplification.
Though we were seated in what I had thought was a quiet office, I suddenly heard the little boy in the waiting room ask his mother for pretzels. I heard birds chirping outside the window (there were birds out there?) and the clickety-clack of the audiologist’s fingers on the keyboard.
When I stepped out of her office to use the bathroom and flushed the toilet, Victoria Falls thundered down the bowl. Walking through the corridors back to her office, a muffled, muted world filled with hissing and cracking, crinkling and swooshing. Running shoes squeaked. Bangles jangled. Plastic bags crackled. A cleaner sweeping nearby brought tears to my eyes. I had forgotten that broom bristles make a rustling sound as they brush against the floor.
I was giddy. “The world is a noisy place,” I wrote my family on WhatsApp.
“Get used to them slowly, an hour or two a day in quiet settings,” the audiologist told me. “Your brain has to get used to the new sounds.”
Disregarding her advice, hearing aids in place, I headed to the gym. The receptionist shrieked hello. The turnstile crashed. The treadmills and cross-trainers grinded and whirred. Someone had turned up the treble on the music blasting through the speakers. Soon I had a headache. I headed home, sat in the silence of my kitchen and helped myself to a rice cracker—CRUNCH. A glacier cracked in my mouth. I put the hearing aids in a drawer.
I tried them again the next day. When I set a plate on the marble counter, a pair of cymbals crashed. The click of my heels on the tile floor sounded like horses’ hooves clopping on cobblestone. Crickets in the bushes sounded like tree swallows roosting, and tree swallows sounded like angry chimpanzees. When people spoke they sounded like this:
SHould we CHange the caSH here or uSe the CHecks? I dreaded plurals.
As it was, I didn’t want to hear most of what I heard; now I heard everything at high volume. I couldn’t believe people heard the way I did – how could they stand it? Maybe the audiologist had made a mistake with the volume setting. I checked my perception of sound with others. “Is the radio blaring?” I asked. “Are you shouting? Am I shouting? What’s that hissing sound? Are we near the sea?”
I began to regret the choice. After all, my whole life I had loved silence. I had a lower tolerance than most for noise and empty conversation. Now, not only could I hear every word anyone said to me, I could hear every word anyone said to anybody. At a lunch date with a friend in a café, I was privy to two entire conversations at adjacent tables.
Like Horton, I could hear a Who.
I began to dream about hearing aids that would dampen all irrelevant conversation and noise and amplify only meaningful and poetic utterances. It would be quiet most of the time; you might hear a sentence or two a day. If I’d had aids like that, then at the funeral I attended the other day, the eulogies would have been quiet except for “We thought we had more time.”
Despite the discomfort, I was determined to adjust. I wore the aids dutifully, extending the number of hours per day and venturing into progressively noisier environments. I started to be able to identify the source of sounds more easily; they startled me less.
Two weeks later, I went to a follow up appointment with the audiologist. She had a bowl of candies on her desk wrapped in crinkly paper. I hoped she wouldn’t unwrap one, the rustle would be unbearable. She asked me how I was managing.
“I feel like I’m living in a bag of corn chips.”
She told me I hadn’t heard high frequencies for a long time and had to get used to them again. To help me along, she adjusted the amplification. I breathed a sigh of relief. My hearing would no longer be on par with a bat’s, I wouldn’t be able to echolocate my prey, but I could stop the Tylenol.
The days and weeks passed. I could sit next to a person at dinner without the sound of the cutlery on the plate sending me into a frenzy. I stopped asking people to turn pages more quietly. The jingle of coins and keys didn’t make me cower. I felt proud of my adjustment. It had taken less than a month.
It turned out the batteries in my aids were waning. The one day I felt completely at ease in the world, they were dead.
I understand why hearing aids find themselves in drawers and purses instead of ears, where they’re meant to be. It’s not just the imperfect technology or the wearers’ inability to adjust to new sounds.
When you get to the age when your hearing declines, the muting of noise comes as a relief. You’re glad to be able to retreat into your thoughts. You’ve heard enough. Possibly even heard it all. Silence is a welcome companion. There is a great temptation to let the tiny bones in your middle ear grind to a halt, let the fluid waves in your cochlea subside.
But, at the same time, you don’t want to be that unhearing person at the table, nodding and smiling when it’s obvious you haven’t heard a word anyone has said. You don’t want young people shouting “DO YOU WANT A DRINK?” and sniggering behind your back because you didn’t hear them the first three times they asked. You don’t want the strain of trying to understand. Or worse, conversational partners who feel that communication with you is a burden.
Yes, I like quiet, but there’ll be plenty of it in the grave.
In the meantime, I’ll replace the batteries in my hearing aids and open the portal to the hissing, crackling, clinking, clicking, rustling, ringing sounds of life.