I thought I had hidden it quite well—at least, I believed I was compensating for it. I rationalized that it wasn’t a lie when I said, “Yes, of course I hear you.” After all, I did hear the sounds, even though they were greatly muffled. But it took years before I realized I didn’t understand the words being spoken, unless I was lip reading.
Some years ago, Katrina and I were on one of our first dates. I had flown up to New York to visit her and we were driving to a restaurant when she said, “I think you may need to have your hearing tested. You’re not hearing me.” I have to admit that I was resistant to her suggestion. I tried to cover it up by saying I wasn’t used to the traffic noise, but in the restaurant it was equally as difficult, except for the fact that I was close enough to kiss her. At that range, it was mostly body language that spoke loudest.
Yet, I began to suspect I actually might have a problem with my hearing.
“Why don’t people just speak up?” I used to ask myself, never realizing how loudly I projected my voice. Interesting how I was blaming others for my inability to hear or understand them. Little did I realize that a part of my brain had been slowly shutting down.
It all began back in the ‘70s, when I was an ironworker. I still recall it as if it were yesterday. The structure was a huge power plant under construction. Siding had been partially erected on the building, and the elevator shaft had been closed in all the way to 300 feet. Somehow gas had been leaking and filling the enclosed shaft. I was sitting on a six-inch beam working with two other men about 100 feet above the concrete when it happened: a spark from a man welding, caught by the wind, landed in the shaft and ignited the gas. The explosion rocked the 900-foot smokestack and blew out the windows in the nearby town. Suddenly everything was in slow motion, as if I were dreaming. The building was blown apart, yet my two companions and I were miraculously not blown off the beam by the blast.
As the years passed and the event faded into memory, I brushed away any thought of ear damage. Eventually, the ringing in my ears went away and life took me on new adventures. Katrina and I got married, and she convinced me to see a hearing specialist. I was shocked to learn that I had lost 80 percent of my hearing and had been pretty much faking it by lip reading. I would concentrate on deciphering the speaker’s intent and unspoken thoughts. Pretty cool, I thought! You know, an “if life hands you a lemon, you make lemonade” kind of thing.
I did get hearing aids in 2011, which helped some. The technology was still improving, but not yet to the level that I required. When you don’t hear what’s being said, even if you can correctly guess the content, the part of the brain that’s responsible for organizing the sound and connecting it with the meaning atrophies. In other words, hearing a word doesn’t mean you instantly understand the content. It’s like knowing how to do a push-up, but since you haven’t done any in years, the muscles aren’t there to enable it. It’s the same way with the brain. If that portion of the brain has not been used for a while, you’ll think that everyone is speaking a foreign language.
Just last week, I got what I call my “bionic ears.” All of a sudden, with the aid of modern technology and top-of-the-line hearing aids, I was able to hear perfectly. It was as if my memory and recall increased a thousandfold instantly. I never realized how connected mental acuity and hearing were. The bottom line is that one can’t remember anything that one hasn’t first heard, and it isn’t just about hearing sound: it’s also listening. But you have to hear it before you can listen. Listening is the art of conscious attention that must then be focused on the audible sounds called language.
My big takeaway was that the more clearly I heard, the more brain cells I engaged and the sharper my perceptions became. The sharper perceptions occurred immediately with the restoration of hearing. There is a great joy in hearing what others have to say and in human interactions, especially in relationships. These are some of the pleasures our sensory organs provide.
“It really is so nice to hear you,” I said to Katrina. I’m so thankful to my wife, who loved me enough to get me to hear all the beautiful things she shares with me daily. Life is a gift and meant for living fully and richly. Tend the flesh as if you’re cultivating a garden for the spirit, for in it we plant our expressions of love. “Yes, it’s so nice to hear you!”
Reflections from Turtle Lake,