On losing one’s hearing

Saturday, March 3, 2018

It never occurred to me to write about losing my hearing until I read the column by one of my favorite columnists, Frank Bruni, called “Am I Going Blind?” My heart certainly goes out to him, as to anyone who is stricken with blindness in later years (arguably, it may actually be easier for someone blinded when young…learning Braille etc. is more difficult for an older person).

I don’t in the least want to write “poor poor pitiful me” and I feel that I am coping with my new deafness quite well, all things considered. But I was struck by something that a friend of mine said when, in his 70s, he lost most of his hearing and all of his sight.  He said something to this effect:  “Deaf people get no sympathy. When you’re blind, everyone offers help, everyone seems to understand what it’s like, everyone responds to you, nobody shrugs it off, nobody presumes to tell you how you should deal with it. But when you’re deaf, people just say impatiently, ‘Why don’t you get hearing aids?’ when you are standing right there wearing them.” A woman I met last week said that when people say that to her, she replies, “I can only wear two at a time.” It makes her feel better to retort that way, but apparently it makes no impression on the insensitive person.

My mother became extremely deaf in her later years and I made a concerted effort to make sure she could always hear me. I spoke distinctly, articulating every syllable, and always tried to remember to face her directly. I’m trying not to praise myself in this overmuch, but it is hard for me to be patient with people who don’t try to make an effort. I sometimes ask people who mumble at me, “Don’t you have an elderly grandparent?” It makes no impression.

I have met some people whose hearing aids seem to work fairly well. Mine do not. I am on my second top-of-the-line pair, and I work with an audiologist, but no matter what I do, I cannot hear certain people at all (only a few, a blessed few, are really easy to hear). I cannot hear anyone who is not directly facing me, cannot hear lectures or panel discussions, cannot hear the questions people ask me after my presentations, cannot hear in restaurants, cannot participate in meetings. One of the things people don’t understand is that it is wearisome to try to hear. You have to work very hard at deciphering a sentence. Typically you will be able to hear everything except the key word, and when you tell people that you missed the key word they almost invariably repeat the entire sentence, sometimes at length. After a few minutes of listening intently to a conversation and attempting to decipher what is being said, one becomes worn out and gives up. It is embarrassing to keep asking people to repeat, and most people get irritated after one or two times of asking. It’s particularly distressing to try to speak to young children, which as I get older is more and more important to me. (It is a blessing that my two great-nieces enunciate beautifully and for the most part I can hear them.)

Over the past five years, I have had to resign from committees that I really valued and felt that I could contribute to. I have had to turn down invitations to meetings/colloquies/seminars because I can’t participate in the discussions. I used to love gatherings at meetings of colleagues and friends, but now I rather dread them unless they are very small groups in very quiet rooms.

My beloved grandmother, Lily Dabney, became very hard of hearing in her later years. She was the most sociable person that the Lord ever made and adored nothing more than going to parties. I think of her all the time, being very sociable myself, and wondering how she did it. I think she was successful in faking it; she would give every appearance of listening intently, and then she would make some charming witticism or observation which might or might not be related to what was being said to her.  She was such a gifted conversationalist that I think she got by with it and continued to be invited to parties into her early 90s. Her manifest love of company carried her through, even though she couldn’t hear.

I’m not able to do that, although I have tried, because for me the content of a discussion is paramount.  I am miserable if I can’t participate in the currents of conversation. Therefore my life as a travelling preacher and lecturer/speaker is becoming exceedingly difficult. It’s often been said that being hard of hearing is worse than being blind because it cuts off human connections. I feel a kinship with Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII; she lost most of her hearing at an early age and became isolated, though much loved at a distance by the English people. I myself knew a woman who, when she developed severe hearing loss, announced to her church that she would not come any more and did not want any visits. I wouldn’t go that far, but I can entirely understand how someone might wish to opt out of the exhausting struggle to hear and withdraw into a world of books, closed captions, and private consolations.

One of the reasons I like to go to St Thomas Fifth Avenue is that they have a phenomenal system of headsets which I pick up before the service. It’s such a professional setup that it’s like having one’s hearing completely restored. This is only true, however, for the spoken parts of the service. Listening to classical music with intense pleasure–particularly the choral repertoire–is apparently gone for ever for me in this life. I can no longer listen to any of my hundreds of recordings of beloved operas and oratorios–can never hear Kathleen Battle or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau again–not because I can’t turn up the volume, but because the music is shriekingly distorted and painful to hear (this happened to my mother also).

Why am I writing this? I guess it helps me to write it…but also, I am hoping that others might be motivated to be more understanding of those who have lost their hearing, and to try harder to be audible. When you come across hard-of-hearing people, you will find that nothing makes them more grateful than to be able to hear you talk to them. It might be one of your spiritual gifts!

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