Being hearing impaired is not something I share with a lot of people. In fact, many of my friends and co-workers probably do not know this about me. It’s hard to say. I am not totally deaf; I just struggle to hear out of one of my perfectly normal-looking ears. The right one. And my hearing is not totally gone—it’s like I have a thumb jammed in there or maybe a big toe. I can hear sound, mumbles, tones. If you stood on my right side and spoke to me, and we were in a quiet place, I would have no trouble at all. But if we were in a restaurant and you sat to my right and asked me how my day was, I could hear your voice, but I would struggle to make sense of the words.
Sometimes, I can fake this moment. Guess at what I should say. Take context clues and answer appropriately. This is how I navigate many of my non-hearing moments. But if I cannot do this, I might smile at you and hope the moment passes—that maybe our waiter will ask if we’re ready to order. Mostly though I just listen to the noise—and see what sense I can make of it all. The clatter of plates, the murmur of fuzzy conversations nearby, a song overhead that I can almost hear the pitch of a note here and there.
Believe it or not, it is a hard thing to tell people, especially people who I have known for quite some time. First, there is the occasion. I feel like the right time never comes up. Hey, Vicki. How are the kids? Hey you, I might reply, maybe even give a hug depending on the nature of our relationship. By the way, I can’t hear you. Oh, I’m. . uh. . . well, I’m hearing impaired. How long? Um, jeez, since birth, I guess. . . I didn’t tell you because uh. . . uh. . .
Second, there are the questions. Why can’t I hear? I don’t know. Have I been tested? Yes, a couple dozen times. Is there anything the doctors can do? Yes, if I want a hearing aid. Why don’t I get one? Oh, because it’s $5,000, and then there’s the thing about being too young and pretty or prideful or whatever.
Sometimes I wish there were greeting cards for this kind of announcement.
Ever wonder why I look at off into space when you are talking? No, really—it’s me. Surprise! I’m hearing impaired!
Sometimes I wish there was a T-shirt that announced such things to the general, unsuspecting public. A disclaimer so that I didn’t have to explain what I thought I heard. Something so that I didn’t have to feel like I needed to justify my actions and/or lack thereof.
Take, for example, the grocery store last week when a hollowed out, dusty man approached me while I was pitching my goods into my car. I could sense him approaching. (Sadly, there are far too many older, dried-up desert men floating around the Stater Bros’ parking lot. Most of them want money. Some of them want rides or food for their animals or food for their families.) And then, he started to talk. At first, I continued with the task of chucking the heavy bags into the trunk. Because I can’t hear well, I often approach the world in this manner—ignore. But then he spoke again, this time, closer. I could hear his voice, but the words were gravelly. I could hear the tone—a question, so I turned and said, Sorry. I don’t have any cash.
Of course, this was not what he had asked, as evidenced by his souring grin. I had guessed wrong and this angered him. Then I noticed the squeegee.
“I didn’t ask you for a handout,” he shouted; the squeegee pumped up and down with the spit in his words. “I asked you if you wanted your windows cleaned! I ain’t no charity case!”
What was I to say? Sorry, I didn’t hear you and I just assumed. . . It didn’t matter. I was a jerk either way. The man stormed off, shouting to the resting of the parking lot how he wasn’t asking for no charity—he was asking for work, goddamnit.
My mother-in-law recently got a hearing aid. She hears everything now—right down to the cat drinking water from the toilet two rooms away. But in exchange, whenever she talks, she hears her own voice blast across the room. As a corrective measure, she has taken to mumbling. But sadly, where she now hears, I can’t hear her. I sat across her at dinner a few weeks ago and never once realized she was talking to me until my husband drove an elbow into my ribs. I had been staring into space, taking in the architecture, the patrons, the closeness of one red-haired waitress and the bar tender with too much gel in his hair.
And that’s the other thing not hearing has done for me. Oh sure, it gets me out of conversations I don’t want to hear, but it has allowed for a lifetime of retreat. Growing up, when friends were hard to come by, I could always sit behind a tree and watch lips move, mouths burst open with laughter. I filled the vacuum of their words and noises with my own. I made up their lies and their jokes, their playground alliances and betrayals.
So when I think about hearing—really hearing the world—for all its nuance and crackle, I can’t help but to stick to my understanding of it. So I can’t sing a song off the radio without mis-hearing most of the lyrics, but who cares if “sunset” isn’t actually “bun lift”? (You’d be surprised how many songs containing “sunset” that “bun lift” is a surprising contextual equivalent.) So what if I can’t hear my kids shouting across the house that so-and-so ruined their Lego House of Awesomeness? So what if I can’t hear my husband calling me from the next room to hurry up they’re felling another tree on Ax Men? There are some things not worth hearing. The rest—well, the rest I’ll just have to make-do. Or make-up.