It was a muggy, humid morning in July, and I walked over to NYU’s Cochlear Implant Center from Grand Central Station as the people in the City rushed with Starbuck’s containers and attaché cases to arrive at work on time. This would be the day I would be evaluated for a second cochlear implant. I wondered, am I a borderline candidate? Knowing I have some hearing left in that ear, I also wondered if I would be denied and would be forced to continue to struggle with my everyday communications. I wondered if I was doing the right thing to move forward with this as there is a good chance any residual hearing would be lost during the operation.
I sat quietly waiting for my audiologist to call me in. A middle-aged man who was seated next to me seemed to get a bit emotional looking at a small child who evidently recently received a cochlear implant. He sighed and commented to me that if it is hard for us, imagine how hard it is for a child to live in a world of silence.
This man apparently was going through a rough time. He struck up a conversation with me explaining that he had recently been implanted, and this loss was particularly difficult for him because he is a musician. He further explained that he didn’t know anyone else with a cochlear implant, and he was feeling very isolated going through this alone. He asked, “Does anyone know what we go through as we transition to different levels of hearing loss?” It was evident that he was in the early stages of the cochlear implant rehabilitation process, but he seemed to be doing remarkably well from where I was sitting. That’s when my audiologist arrived in the waiting room and called me in.
The two-hour hearing tests are not new to me. I have one cochlear implant, and I was being tested for a second implant. The nationally-acclaimed center where I was tested runs a battery of tests with the processor on, off, hearing aid on and off together and separately.
So here I was in the testing chamber, isolated from any external noise. My audiologist was about to test my left ear, the one that is being tested for implantation. At that moment, I had many fears. What if I AM border line and have to continue struggling to hear store clerks, public announcements, religious sermons and simple conversation? How much hearing do I have left in that ear? I was soon to find out.
On single words, I could hear “noise” but was unable to make out anything intelligible. When it came to full sentences, I sometimes could make out a word or two in the sentence. The most profound moment for me was when I was asked to raise my hand when I heard two beeps. Mostly, it was long gaps of silence for me.
Did I really just miss long stretches of sound in that test? Am I really THAT deaf in my left ear? We never know what we aren’t hearing. Suddenly and unexpectedly I felt a tear run down my cheek in the silence of the chamber. All I could hear was the words of the man in the waiting room vehemently pleading to me, “Does anyone know what this feels like?” I thought of my mother who lived in an era of shame for any disability and denied her own hearing loss for decades. She refused to wear a hearing aid until she was 88 years old. I wished I could have hugged her.
The verdict was in. I am a candidate. That’s good news, right? I have no natural and usable hearing left in either ear. Do I accept myself as a profoundly deaf woman? I bit my lip and swallowed hard. If the audiologist saw my eyes welling up, she was polite enough to pretend she didn’t notice. While there is a sense of mourning we feel whenever we lose any part of a vital sense, there is a feeling of celebration knowing I am lucky enough to live in a time when there are solutions. Helen Keller wasn’t. Neither was Thomas Edison or Beethoven.
Ten years ago, I lamented to a friend that after receiving my first cochlear implant that voices sounded like Darth Vader. Having received bilateral implants himself years before, he told me “Be patient. The next time you see me you will hear better, and the time after that even better.” Blair was a no-nonsense guy, and if he made a claim, you knew he meant it. What he told me was true. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is magnificent. So is listening to Satchmo with my right ear. I never did see my friend again as he and his wife died in a tragic accident, but I never forgot his words of encouragement. I hoped that day as I shared my friend’s words with the man in the waiting room maybe someday he will pass those words on to someone else.
So my struggle is almost over. The simple tasks everyone takes for granted every day will no longer be a struggle. I’m grateful to be alive at such a time that I am not forced to sit in the deafening halt of silence that feels very much like death, but one that is colorful and connects us to people and the world around us.