Story by Jennifer Oliver
When I was five years old, hearing aids were prescribed for me.
I was diagnosed with an incurable, sensory-neural hearing loss and soon thereafter fitted with two hearing aids.
My grief-stricken parents signed up for group counseling sessions.
And quit when they discovered they were the only ones with a child who adapted well to hearing aids.
My mother remembers quite profoundly the moment the ice cream man signaled his routine presence on our street with tinkling music. I perked up and asked, “What’s that sound?”
The novelty of hearing new sounds, however, quickly wore out its welcome. My bulky, flesh-colored hearing aids were simply mini-microphones picking up every…single…obnoxious…sound. The scrape of a chair. High heels clicking on linoleum. Someone snapping their gum. I cringed inwardly but never complained. After all, no one else was whining about it either.
Midway through Kindergarten my teacher called my mother with breathless excitement. I had finally spoken my first intelligible word. It looked like I would be swimming with the general population after all. No deaf education for me.
Feeling like an elephant cowering under a pebble, I quietly began the lifelong dance of sidestepping obstacles of which no one close to me, not even my parents, was aware. Note-taking, before the invention of note-takers, became an occupational hazard of the classroom. Not to mention that insurmountable challenge called peer pressure.
When I was in second grade, my speech therapist mentioned that a girl my age was having difficulty adjusting to hearing aids, embarrassed by this new permanent fixture in her wardrobe.
“Since you don’t seem to mind your hearing aids,” my speech therapist remarked, “could you perhaps have a talk with her?”
Sure, I said.
That night I scribbled down all the fun things about wearing hearing aids. Like pursing my lips and cupping my ears at the same time. Feedback from my hearing aids made it look like I was whistling. This nifty advantage often triggered giggly requests from classmates to try on my hearing aids. Another trick was to flip the switch when I needed to tune out anyone singing off-key behind me in church. Ditto for the little sister who was my shadow during long, empty Saturday afternoons.
The following week, while in speech therapy, I sat across from this girl, who slouched glumly across the round table from me. Timidly, I read the first item on my list out loud, then paused and glanced up.
The grin that spread across her face was like the sun drifting out from behind stubborn rain clouds, spurring me onto the next item. Soon we were all giggling, the therapist included.
A friendship between two shy souls was born.
The season of our friendship though was cut short by the territory that comes with being Army brats. It was inevitable, our separation, but this knowledge wasn’t enough to take the edge off the pain. It never was.
Nonetheless, I traversed other relationships throughout my mainstreamed life with other friends who, out of pure kindness, tried to relate to me by stuffing cotton balls in their ears.
When I was 21, I lost my hearing aids.
For a moment there, I panicked. Then a few tense days passed. Weeks sidled by.
No one noticed.
Inevitably my world began to narrow. But not by much. I was a skilled lip-reader. I was practiced in the art of deception, relying on facial expressions and gestures, if my native language had suddenly gone overseas.
For the first time in my life, I exhaled.
That fact alone precipitated a decision that would make my parents grumble without end.
No more hearing aids.
And so for the next 18 years, I managed just fine.
One day, while planted in a meeting, my eyes jumped from the face of one participant to another. Back and forth. And still nothing registered. Words began to run together like watercolors. Attempting to translate the exchange into meaningful English was becoming an eye-numbing chore. I briefly closed my eyes, frustration gnawing at me. I found that lately it was happening with more frequency than I cared to admit. I swore I would schedule an appointment with an audiologist. Soon.
Several months later, I gingerly stepped outside of the clinic, adjusting the volume on my new hearing aids.
There it was again.
The annoying staccato of my heels on asphalt.
Technology, much to my disappointment, hadn’t changed much in nearly 20 years. At least for my kind of hearing loss, it hadn’t.
I sank into the driver’s seat of my Buick and just stared into space. And on that muggy, summer morning, Eric crept into mind.
In high school, Eric was a slight, blonde boy in Special Ed. I didn’t notice him much until the day I got into my car at the end of a school day and turned the key in the ignition. He leapt out in front of my car, yelling. Then he pressed his cheek against the hood of my car, his eyes glazed with victory.
Then it hit me.
I revved my engine and gave him the thumbs-up signal.
His grin broadened as he returned my signal.
Then he jumped to another car, soaking up music of an idling engine.
Blinking back tears, I rejoiced silently with Eric as he experienced sound for the first time. Just that day he had received new hearing aids. And for an instant there, he reminded me of the little girl who heard the ice cream truck for the first time.
That night after work I drove home, pulled up into the driveway, and as my car door swung open, I was greeted by three boys, crowding around me with fistfuls of wild flowers, grasses, and weeds. I was completely taken aback by the onslaught of their voices through my new mini-microphones.
LOOK! WE PICKED THESE JUST FOR YOU, MOMMY!
HI, MOM! I MISSED YOU!
WILL YOU KISS MY OWIE!
I GOT POO-POO!
My family was loud.
Ah, but a joyful noise it was indeed.