You know that ringing in your ears after a loud Springsteen concert? The one where he sang every song you love and covered a few others. The one where you sang along to every word and let his voice flow over you like waterfall. Yeah, that one. All I can hear is the ringing, but I always hum Springsteen to myself when it bothers me, or for some odd mysterious reason, I am reminded that the ringing is there. The driver had been passing in a no passing zone. The road was a bit wet from the unseasonable summer rains from the night before. They came around a bend in tandem simultaneously in slow motion and at somewhere the sheriff guessed at 40 miles an hour. In other words, I’m lucky to be writing to you at any case.
My bicycle tire struck the front and I flipped over the cab of his pickup and into the empty bed behind. My right ear struck the cab and my left ear collided with the bed. Then I was thrown around as he slammed on his breaks. The photographs show me contorted, one leg still clipped into the bike almost like I’d magically gone through the accident and decided to nap. The pictures.
“Oh Jesus…” were the last words I ever heard.
They were from the driver of the other car. He had a soft southern accent, the type you hear in a comedy like Sordid Lives, only his voice was deadly serious. Considering I’m a Buddhist there is a fair amount of humor involved with that the end of sound in my life.
As with many accidents of this type there were a few weeks that were just a blur of pain management and couple of surgeries. It was explained through texting to my iPad that it was doubtful that I would ever hear again, but that the rest of me would heal and I would make a relatively full recovery. You know in those dinner party conversations that go like this, “what if you HAD to lose one of your senses, which one it would be and why?” I would always laugh and say I loved food too much to lose taste, loved my beautiful wife too much to lose sight, loved music too much to lose my hearing so perhaps touch.
My wife always thought that was a weird answer and we’d spend drunken evenings cleaning up supper dishes trying to decide what kind of catastrophe would have to happen to leave all your senses intact but your touch. After the accident such idle chatter stopped cold. I tried to make this joke to her when I first came home and she burst into tears and walked from the room.
I couldn’t hear her being upset, but oh my god could I see it.
The accident brought out this Edgar Allen Poe-ish dark sense of humor that hardly, if anyone but me, appreciated. I think it was because it was my way of not being angry, but dark humor always has a touch of anger, of undiluted truth to it - - that out of context, or suddenly in a conversation or a moment, it made a lot of people uncomfortable. Many people figure of all your senses, losing your hearing is not all that big a deal. Hey why don’t you just learn sign language? Hey, thanks for the advice but do YOU know sign language? Thought not.
A lot of people that reached out to help got a wall of ‘you can’t possibly understand.’ I tried going back to work but found the inability to socialize with coworkers embarrassing and difficult. They’d come up to my cube and start talking to me, completely forget that I could no longer hear them. Once my injuries healed I wasn’t visibly changed, but soon my boss ushered me into his office - and texting to each other, he suggested that maybe I could work at home and Skype into the team. That way everyone would be more comfortable.
So - without heading into the office, I became even more isolated. You learn quickly - that the body uses hearing as an important part of balance and in combination with your inner ear is responsible for the awareness of where you are relative to everything around you. I started having these intense waves of complete disconnectedness. Followed by worries about ‘what if she was injured and I couldn’t hear her? what if I had to call 911? as if!” If I would go swimming and go under water and close my eyes I would lose all sense of up and down or any positioning for that matter. It was at once curious, frightening and rather bazaar. And in trying to deal with all of it, the other senses (sight, muscle positioning, and tactile feedback) are heightened but are not a substitute for hearing. It took so much energy just to exist through a day!
Tired from trying to navigate my new world, I’d be left laying on the bed, the tin ringing reasserting itself. Always reminding me that nothing was the same. I missed what a violin and an oboe sounded like much more than a bus or a car horn. My wife and I were regulars at the symphony. After the accident I’d attended with her a few times. I tried to be brave and pretend it was still a special way to get out together. I apparently fell asleep hard in the second movement. She woke me and wrote on the program that I was snoring and we left at intermission.
She was doing her best to understand. She was trying to find some answers on how to make our new situation work. She said that I’d always hummed in my sleep, but that in the months since the accident I was losing pitch and it was just heartbreaking to listen to. I’d woken up a couple of times to find her sleeping in the guest room. I wondered for a long while whether in losing my hearing, I’d lose her as well.
I found myself one day tracing my wife’s face in a photo, like she was no longer my wife, and I grieved. I spent a whole day alone in my beautiful home crying - - crying is some weird ass shit when you can’t hear. You can FEEL it - but you can’t sense it. I could scream as loud as my lungs would let me - and I could feel the pressure leaving my body - I could feel the sobs move through me like an earthquake. She came home one day and I was playing Shostakovich so loudly it was probably vibrating the foundation on the house, and she recalls watching. I was on the floor, legs wrapped around the speaker, leaned against it gently stroking the fabric on the front of it with my eyes shut.
She can describe coming up me and realizing that I was trying reach out to the sound. She stood in the doorway for two full movements before letting me know she was there. She said recently that watching me in that moment was when she understood and when she fell in love with me again. We went to counseling soon after - armed with iPads so we could text. I agreed to take lip reading and we’d take sign language courses together at the local college. We had assumed this was how we’d live out our lives. Working together we became all the more determined to find solutions - a relentless search for answers – a lot of Facebook chat, voice to text for voice mail, and so many other little helpers to try to stay connected to my life.
The doctor emailed and said that he’d recently read a paper where a cochlear implant might be able to restore at least a little of my hearing. A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.
It was like a “bionic ear” replacement. Insurance frowned about the idea, but paid for it reluctantly - along with some of the accident settlement money. He reviewed the nuts and bolts of what would be happening, “The cochlea hears bass at its center and treble at its opening. All the frequencies lie in between. A healthy human ear can hear up to 20,000 separate frequencies. The implant spreads its pulses across only 20 electrodes but algorithms spread sound amongst electrodes to manufacture many frequencies.” There is so much information and honestly, we just wanted to know if I’d hear again.
“You’ll hear but not the same, you’ll learn sounds and voices over again, but with most people they are hearing and understanding in the new way within four to six months.” My wife hovered over me as they came to get me from the ward to go in for the procedure. She looked at me, simultaneously worried and excited. I remember being wheeled away. We had to wait six weeks for my surgery to heal before they could do any testing. I usually pride myself on being a patient man, but Jesus this was the longest six weeks of my life. Our best friends and my kids flew in for the “day.” I hated being doted over and treated special. I tolerated everyone’s nervous excitement.
I remember the night before - sleeping next to my wife and laying awake. I watched the shadow of the evergreens from outside the window dance in the wind and make shadows on the ceiling with the streetlamp. I found myself thinking to myself, two years of silence had taught me so many things, what if I didn’t want the sound back.
What if I’d become a better person as a result of the silence, of the ringing?
What if I’d revert back to the kind of man I was before the accident?
I went into the exam room - and the technician connected the receivers that would become part of me. It certainly reinforced the bionic notions and jokes I’d been sharing with friends. Three years to the day since I’d done a bicycle pirouette, I sat across from a young hearing aid specialist. I was so nervous; but the click and the first faint recognizable tone was marvelous. Everything sounded very distant and like an AM station just on the verge of being tuned in. My impatient brain kept moving the dial too fast. Even though I was warned, I was disappointed but hopeful.
So lots of practice reading e-books while listening to the audio version, watching the closed captioned shows on TV - waiting for it to all start to become clear again. My entire life became that moment with the speaker, learning to feel and hear my world again. Everything became a daily joy as I could hear more and more - I could hear my dogs bark and growl and the tap of their claws on the wood floor. I could hear the turn signal clicking. Birds, wind, rustling of leaves. Conversations were still the hardest - because well, people speak so fast. Like I used to I supposed. I told people to keep talking and my doctors told me I’d eventually retrain myself to follow conversations.
I was singing to myself in the shower one day when I realized that the voice I could hear in my head was actually singing. I must have stayed in the shower for half an hour, singing every stupid song I could think of. My wife got my attention through the shower and held up her iPad, “You are still going to lose the karaoke competition.” As I started guffawing, she took her robe off and joined me in the shower, both of singing like school kids. I gross out my kids by telling this story of making love to their mother in the guest shower that afternoon, and they are all probably holding this story out at a distance and making “eeew, Dad, really?” face.
She had to deal with me all through the bad years and we are closer than ever. Hearing is the only sense that can be effectively replaced with technology. I am a fortunate man. Because I can hear again. I can enjoy Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, The Eagles, Steppenwolf and Styx. We can dress up and return to our seats at the Symphony. I look forward to hanging with my 3 boys. I enjoy my life again and am deeply grateful for the technology that has returned my life to me but with a more profound sense of how life can be without hearing. Helen Keller says “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” I’ll say that my adventure in silence taught me a great many things about the hidden places in your soul it reveals. I look forward to holding my grandchildren soon and being able to hear their first words. To be able to counsel on them importance of treasuring each and every one. I can remember hearing my wife again - distinctly - for the first time after the implant.
She was making dinner and talking to her sister on the phone. “Yeah Mike has started with audio books. He’s working really hard. He’s trying hard not to be disappointed but I think he’s just…,” she said, pausing, looking over at me because she realized I was listening to the conversation. She hung-up and knelt at my feet and snuggled in close saying my name over and over and over and over. Over her shoulder, the irremovable smile across my face that appeared from hearing her voice again has never gone away.