The art of hearing: He said

 (Graphic by Molly Quinn)
(Graphic by Molly Quinn)

“Huh?” I ask my wife, Becky, for the third time.

She stomps her foot, rolls her eyes in frustration, and utters a short irritated growl, “Urrgh! Didn’t you hear me?”

I’ve suffered significant hearing loss over the past 16 years. I was fitted with my first hearing aids in 1998.

I knew I had to get them if I wanted to continue discussing literature with students in my college classes at Gonzaga University. In my last four years of teaching – I retired in 2005 – even with improved devices, I became increasingly frustrated by my inability to dialogue with students. I couldn’t expect them to defend their interpretations if I couldn’t hear them. “Huh?” stifles participation.

I likely inherited the condition from my father, though he attributed his early hearing loss to “those damn trench mortars” he commanded in World War I. He disliked wearing his early hearing aid, about the size of a smartphone, clipped to his tie.

When it began to squeal and squeak as it often did, he would turn it off. I kidded that he was more likely picking up Nome, Alaska, than his son’s request to borrow the car.

The consequences of hearing loss are serious. I’ve experienced many feelings associated with the handicap – irritation, anger, depression, loss of confidence, and gradual withdrawal.

Finding an excellent audiologist, getting my hearing checked, and equipping myself with the best hearing aids I could afford was my first smart move. Regular checkups and new and more expensive devices continue to help.

However, improved amplification doesn’t solve the problems raised by living in a noisy culture, where ambient sound in the street, movies, restaurants, classrooms – even family gatherings – make hearing impossible at times.

Less noise is not necessarily better. Soft speakers, whisperers, mumblers and low talkers elicit continuous “huhs?”

The first audiologist I saw told me that one of God’s little jokes is that the first frequencies lost to most men are the higher ones used more often by women and children. So I missed a lot from my women students in my last years of teaching. And since retirement I’ve missed even more from my family and friends, and recently, most sadly, from my grandchildren.

It helps greatly when wife and kids follow the recommendations of hearing professionals. Look at me when you’re talking to me and speak distinctly. Besides hearing you better, I am picking up additional meaning from your lip movements, facial expressions, and gestures.

However, it’s hard for people to adjust to my handicap. My kids might prefer what I call the “Wemmick solution.”

Mr. Wemmick is a character from Dickens’ “Great Expectations” who has a seriously hearing-impaired father he calls The Aged Parent or Aged P.

Wemmick expresses his affection for the Aged P by giving him a sound he can hear. He enacts a “great nightly ceremony” with his father by firing off a cannon that’s loud enough to blow him out of his armchair.

“He’s fired. I heerd him,” shouts the Aged P “exultingly.”

Becky and I engage in our own daily ritual of having coffee between 5 and 6 each morning, sitting near to one another, face-to-face, in order to “talk about our relationship,” as she jokingly puts it. As important as this ritual has become to our marriage, I occasionally forget to wear my hearing aids. These instances sharply remind me that “huh?” silences intimacy.

On many other occasions, Becky ignores my hearing loss. Do I get irritated? When she insists on speaking to me across our great room with the TV on, I mouth words silently while making appropriate facial expressions and gestures.

When she persists in speaking to me from an adjoining room, I respond with clearly inflected nonsense phrases. Both responses elicit “huhs?” from her. She almost always catches on and laughs at herself. I hear this laugh as the sound of a good relationship.

My hearing will likely continue to fail, though I hope that new technology will compensate for the loss. The best I can do now is to stay engaged with others, wear my hearing aids, carry spare batteries, put myself in the best position to hear in social gatherings, avoid noisy restaurants and concerts, and continue to work through my feelings of resentment and rejection.

Wemmick’s cannon is no substitute for discourse with those I love, its thunder no match for the timbre of my grandchildren’s voices.

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