Okay, to be perfectly honest, I may not actually be going deaf, but sometimes it feels that way. I have cousins who were born with profound hearing impairments and they manage quite well, and often excel, in life with courage, determination, sign language and cochlear implants. While I know them, this was always a sort of alien world to me. I always had decent hearing, not like my wife who can hear every conversation anywhere in the house, but at least good, average hearing. At least it was until about eight or ten years ago. At first I noticed that when I went to the barn each morning to care for our animals and to do my chores, instead of the quiet that I normally enjoyed I could hear a quiet ringing in my ears. Not long after, I was diagnosed with tinnitus and a very mild hearing loss was considered to be the likely cause.
Sometime later, my tinnitus was considerably worse and so was my hearing loss which led to my first hearing aid (only one at first because our insurance would only pay for one every two years). That helped, but in less than two years I needed the other hearing aid and we paid for it out of pocket. At that point my audiologist wondered why a guy who was barely over forty had hearing loss that looked like he was sixty or seventy. To answer that question he referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who saw me, had an MRI taken of my head and then referred me to another specialist who was even more specialized (a special, specialist, I guess) and who only did ears or something. I want to be clear, I never really liked to listen to loud music, I was in the Army Reserve but I was never in the artillery or subjected to a huge amount of noise other than our annual rifle qualification. I never worked in a factory where I was around loud noises (on a regular basis) and although I mowed the lawn and used power tools, I don’t think that I used them any more than most people. Ultimately, the special specialist’s determination was basically, “We just don’t know.” And that’s where I am today. I wear two hearing aids but each year I can notice my hearing getting worse than the year before and there is nothing that I can do about it.
Two weeks ago, along with hundreds of my colleagues, I attended our Annual Conference, a gathering of clergy and laity representatives from United Methodist churches from across East Ohio. In settings like that, in a huge auditorium with lots of background noise, my hearing is practically useless. Hearing aids amplify every noise and, unlike normal hearing, you are utterly unable to distinguish one conversation from another so what I hear is often just a muddle. I could generally hear the speakers who were wearing, or who were in front of, microphones but when questions came from the floor or from someone on stage without a microphone, forget it. I also miss many things that are said when a speaker lowers their voice for effect. Often I can figure out parts of what was said, but not always and as a result I generally miss jokes and funny stories because I can’t hear the punch-line even if I could hear the joke.
Last week, we picked up our son from a week at church camp. He had spent a week playing in a small band and the band was playing the music for a group of teens who had written their own musical. Because the acoustics in the barn where the production was held were like many large auditoriums, even though there were two stage microphones, I understood almost none of the dialog nor any of the words of the songs. I was glad that my son played in the band and it wasn’t his hard work that I missed out on.
In the next few weeks I will see my audiologist for my annual checkup. I will get another hearing test and he will send the results to the special specialist just in case there is anything that can be done (but there never is), and I will have him turn up the volume on my hearing aids… again. I know that soon my hearing aids won’t be able to get any louder and I will have to buy new, bigger and uglier hearing aids but it can’t be helped. I work in a job where hearing other people is pretty important. For now, with my hearing aids, things are not perfect. I miss a lot but with the patience of my family and the people of my parish, I get along fine. My experience with hearing loss does have one benefit I suppose. My understanding, empathy and patience toward persons with hearing loss and all disabilities is growing and I see how much that those who are not disabled often just don’t get it. I do worry about the future. If I have the hearing of a sixty or seventy year old at forty six, then where will I be when I reach sixty or seventy? I suspect that I may be having some serious conversations with my cousins about what it’s like to live in their world.