A couple of years ago, my husband, Joel, started to mumble, running his words together willy-nilly; all my grandchildren seemed to need speech therapy; and waiters whispered the night’s specials as if revealing classified information.
I knew I’d begun to miss words and phrases during conversations, but blamed the mutter-mouths surrounding me. Then I telephoned a niece who habitually spoke crisply and clearly and realized the deficiency might be mine.
Pauline answered the phone cautiously — when elderly relatives call, it’s usually to report illness, death, or befuddlement.
I punched up the volume on my phone — the pesky thing hadn’t been working well — and assured Pauline none of her old folks had broken a hip.
I then asked for her address so Joel and I could visit when we drove through Wyoming on vacation.
It took three repetitions, the dear girl increasing her volume each time, before I understood her house number.
We then embarked on the street name: I concentrated. Pauline yelled.
“Hail Mary,” I said when I finally understood her, “that’s an unusual name for a street.”
“No!” Pauline bellowed, “No!! It’s Kilmarie: K as in kitten, I as in idiot … ”
After I hung up, I told my husband I had a hearing problem.
He hid his surprise.
Many of my ancestors over-used “What? What’d you say?” and wrestled with hearing aids.
Aunt Vivian continually groped about her ample bust line for the box that powered her aid, needing to “change the damn batteries again.”
Grandma Hall resorted to a hearing trumpet from a garage sale, preferring it to gadgets that magnified the sound of her chewing so much she thought she was dining with King Kong.
Though slightly deaf, Mom wore no aid. Instead, in her practical way, she asked others to “Come closer or talk louder so I can hear you.”
Dad sported an aid that sometimes fell out of his ear during church and rolled two pews over, squealing like a stuck pig, causing fellow worshippers to convulse with suppressed laughter.
Knowing my heritage, I made an appointment to have my hearing tested.
As John, a kind-eyed audiologist, explained the testing he would do, I listened so hard my skull trembled: if I followed his directions exactly, perhaps my hearing would get an A, and I’d live happily every after.
I donned headphones, gripped an electronic buzzer, focused on a dead fly, and listened for random tones. To my relief, I heard one, then another, and another. My thumb bounced on the buzzer as rapidly as Louis Armstrong pressed the valves on his trumpet, then I grew worried.
Was I imagining the sounds?
Surely John wouldn’t transmit continual tones; perhaps he was tricking me. Craftily, I let my thumb rest, but there — a pitch so soft it might have been a sick gnat.
My thumb flew into action again.
It was exhausting.
Next, John pronounced words at different volumes into my headset and I repeated them: easy words like overcome and red. Or was that overdone and head?
John gave me the verdict gently: enough loss in both ears to warrant hearing aids.
He then showed me a small device sprouting wires and explained it could help me return to a nuanced life. But the little gizmo carried an impressive price tag, times two, that
Medicare and most private insurers don’t cover.
Maybe I could just hang a sign around my neck: “Moderate hearing loss. Please yell.”
I laugh about my hearing problem because joking is more socially acceptable than wailing. But I’ve learned that any degree of deafness can cause embarrassment, inhibit interactions, damage one’s dignity.
I purchased two hearing aids, and they’ve made a difference for me.
But, what about those for whom the expense is prohibitive? If they can’t afford assisted hearing, we could slowly lose them, their personalities, their contributions. Some may fade into isolation and loneliness.
And if that happens, we all lose.
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