My Wake-Up Call

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Glen Island Park, New Rochelle, NY – Mary Grace Whalen

 

It was a busy time for me at my job. During the day, I was a full-time employee at our local College, and by night I was teaching three undergraduate courses to adult learners. In between, I was a contracted employee helping out with student advisement.

I’ve always been reluctant to take time off during a busy period, but I was coughing, losing my voice and wished I could just crawl into bed with a box of tissues. Being a stickler for attendance, I have gone as long as two years without taking a sick day. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was always a good thing.

But I rationalized that it would be just a few more days until I would go on vacation with my daughters, Valerie and Melissa. It was Valerie’s 30th birthday, and we planned a trip to Puerto Rico. I imagined myself sitting under a palm tree, with bright sunshine and perhaps a pina colada with a tiny umbrella in hand. I was certain the warm sunshine and a little rest would remedy this bad cold I couldn’t seem to shake.

Upon landing, I noticed I felt a little heady. It was a feeling similar to being underwater. My first thought was that it was a temporary result of the cabin pressure.

My right ear has always been my good ear, even though otosclerosis has permeated both of my ears. My left ear received a stapedectomy years ago, and it temporarily gave me back some of my hearing. Otosclerosis is an abnormal growth of the middle ear bones which causes them to become fixated and reduces the transmission of sound. Because of the otosclerosis, I have a mixed loss in both ears. Despite all of this, with hearing aids my loss was diagnosed as moderate to severe until 2005.

Shortly after we arrived in our beautiful hotel room in San Juan overlooking plush greenery and a pool with sapphire water, I noticed the red light in the hotel room phone was flashing. I placed the phone to my right ear to listen to messages. I thought it was odd that there was no dial tone, but I assumed my hearing aid battery just died. After changing the battery, still no dial tone. The message was beginning to register, but I was still in shock. I placed the receiver up to my left ear, which I never used for phone conversations, and I heard a faint dial tone. I sat there for a minute in disbelief.

My family members have always been my greatest advocates, and although they did everything they could to try to help me communicate, I was grouchy, touchy, depressed and yes scared. It rained every day while we were there, and it seemed fitting.

Upon returning to New York, I visited an ENT doctor who went the usual route in giving me Prednisone with the hope that the loss was temporary. But he did warn me that it was probably permanent because with this drug you must act fast.

I visited my local audiologist and she tested my hearing over a period of weeks. I remember feeling a strong vibration that was painful when she was testing my residual hearing. But no sound. I did see a look of horror on her face and saw her look at me and exclaim, “Mary!” She then came around to where I was seated and hugged me. I was now profoundly deaf in that ear. A hearing aid only provided hissing that only interfered with my ability to hear on the other side.

So this would be my new normal. I had difficulty following in meetings at work. Trying to continue with heavy phone use was a real stressor. I had trouble functioning in a classroom of 30 students. I resented I could not participate in social activities with friends. At family dinners I focused on eating because I could not hear what was going on. Food became a form of instant gratification and I found myself retreating more and more. I found a comfort zone in isolation. Realizing this, well that was my wake-up call.

www.cochlear.com/us/wakeupcall

After anger, denial and a lot of other emotions, I went into the City and visited a few doctors asking for their opinion on how to go forward. That’s when I started searching for peer-reviewed research articles on otosclerosis and cochlear implantation, and I learned many others had been successfully implanted. When I met Dr. J. Thomas Roland, I knew he would be the one to operate on me for my implant. He had operated on others with this condition, and I liked how he explained to me how Cochlear Americas had different arrays for difficult situations, and all options would be ready and available in the operating room. Despite all this, my surgery was uncomplicated and a standard array was used.

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A view of the drawbridge at Glen Island Park     Mary Grace Whalen

One day, after being activated, I took a walk down by the water in my hometown, New Rochelle, NY. Glen Island Park is a pretty shore area with a drawbridge, gazebos, a sandy beach, grassy slopes, hills, tiny sailboats and larger ones passing through when the guard lifts the gate. One of the rites of summer was to hear the ding, ding ding warning for the bridge to rise, and to see the guard wave to those crossing under the bridge. I have many coming-of-age warm memories of Glen Island, — the smell of Coppertone tanning lotion, transistor radios playing doo wop, cute boys with winning smiles and lifeguards in dark sunglasses.

So, there I was just walking across the drawbridge with my 3G, the first behind-the-ear (BTE) processor Cochlear Americas marketed. I stopped midway. I was in awe. I heard the waves rippling for the first time in years! I heard ducks quacking as the waves rippled below. There I was, hanging my arms over the bridge, my face looking down as tears streamed from my eyes. These were the sounds I missed so much from summers past. I felt like someone just gave me oxygen and I was breathing for the first time in a very long time.

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Glen Island Park, New Rochelle NY just as beautiful in winter.  Mary Grace Whalen

Then I became aware of a car slowly crossing the bridge, looking towards me. Perhaps he saw how emotional I got and thought I was going to jump? Then I felt myself laugh at the irony of it all and continued to exit the bridge.

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A view from the gazebo- Glen Island Park-Mary Grace Whalen

 

Since then, I have lost the hearing in my left ear and opted to go bilateral. Two ears are better than one because they help to localize sound. So much has changed since I received that 3G processor years ago. With new accessories I can once again watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music and participate in a conversation with my grandson. While these may seem like simple pleasures, it’s been a long time and I’m feeling very grateful to be experiencing life again in living color.

Views expressed here are my own. Consult your hearing health provider to determine if you are a candidate for Cochlear technology. Outcomes and results may vary.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2017. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are from my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta.

www.marygracewhalen.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Father’s Day, — from Francavilla, Italy to New Rochelle, NY

If anyone ever asked someone what they remember most about my father, they would probably say his love for his garden. From late March he would be digging up the soil on those balmy spring days to late October when his flower garden displayed the last show of summer and there were a few plants that survived before the first frost. His garden was his first love.

There’s so much I remember about my father. I adored him growing up. A father is a girl’s first love, and his attitude and example sets a tone for what she should expect from a man in the future. My father was strict. He had five daughters and two sons, and he was protective of us.

He had great expectations from any guy that dated us. They had to pick us up at the house, speak with respect and show they were deserving of releasing his daughter to this stranger for the night, entrusting him in his care. They had to meet him. If he felt the potential date was someone he didn’t want his daughter out with, he would go in the kitchen and consult my mother about it. He was usually spot on.

In the early days, he was a shoemaker with a store on Mechanic Street in downtown New Rochelle. I remember him putting taps on our shoes when the heals wore down. In the 1960s, wearing taps made you cool. Later on when the shoemaker business became obsolete, he went to work in a factory. He worked long hours, his hands were always chapped and he arrived home with the scent of machine oil on his clothes. He wore khaki pants and flannel shirts and put his kids first.

There are random things I remember about my father. I remember him rocking me in his lap and singing an Italian lullaby to me. I remember him trying to teach me to tie my shoes and becoming frustrated because his left-handed daughter was not good at reversing it. I remember doing homework and my pencil point breaking, and him pulling out a pocket knife and shaving it down to get a point. I remember him giving me an old silver dollar on every birthday, and signing the card, “from your papa.” I remember the way he looked at me when he saw me in my prom gown and my wedding dress. I remember him handling me a frayed prayer card he carried across the Atlantic Ocean in his pocket on his way to the United States  when I was in my forties and first went deaf in my left ear. He told me to always have faith. I remember how he came and kneeled next to me at my husband’s wake and the consoling words he offered.  Although he wasn’t someone who talked on the phone, I remember he called me frequently when my husband died just to ask me, “Mary are you alright?” And I remember the look on his face when he took his last breath after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Most of what we knew about him was about his life once he reached the United States. I never saw any pictures of him as a child or adolescent. But who was he as a little boy? A young man? I knew his mother raised him and he always spoke fondly of the people in Francavilla who helped shape his values. Did his mother sing him that Italian lullaby when he was a toddler? When he became a young man, did he fall in love? Did a girl break his heart? Did he have dreams about the future? Did it take courage for him to leave his homeland and come to America at 19 years old, never to return except for a few visits many years later?

That was “my papa.”   Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there living and those who have passed. And God bless all the moms who assumed both roles.

Thanksgiving Italian Style: Early Lessons In Diversity and Sharing in West New Rochelle, NY

“Lasagna?” replied my daughter’s second grade teacher.  This was in response to hearing her answer to the question, “What do we eat on Thanksgiving Day?”  Well, this is partly true, at least in my family.  We ate lasagna AND turkey.  But lasagna was always the superstar of the day.  As it might first appear, food is a huge part of Thanksgiving for all of us.  But it has taken me decades to decipher and realize what the day was really about and the lessons my parents taught us.

The day before Thanksgiving, my father would journey out from our home in West New Rochelle, NY to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to hand pick huge tins brimming with fresh ricotta cheese, mozzarella, soppressata, anchovies, pecorino cheese, kalamata olives, stuffed green olives, chestnuts, figs, hazelnuts, filberts, loaves of warm Italian bread and other delectable yummies for the upcoming festivities.

It was the 1950s, and Santa Claus would arrive via helicopter shortly before Thanksgiving, landing in the parking lot of Arnold Constable, a local department store in my hometown.  The night before Thanksgiving, our mothers would take a break from their baking, ditch their aprons, and prepare to stand out in the freezing cold in their house dresses bundled up with their families to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Children would be lifted above their parents’ shoulders to watch the marching bands and floats.  Finally, the man in the red suit himself would ride his “sleigh” on a float down Main Street, past the Mayflower Dress Shop, F.W. Woolworth’s, Bloomingdale’s and the thriving downtown amid waving and cheering children.

Thanksgiving morning, the aroma of all my mother’s baked goods would permeate the house.  The dining room table would display her labor of love, –mincemeat, pumpkin and apple pies, Italian ricotta cheesecake, strufoli (honey balls) and Italian cookies.  The local football game between New Rochelle High School and Iona Prep would be televised in the living room, family members switching channels intermittently to catch a bit of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Miracle on 34th Street.

For this was the official beginning of the Christmas season in my family.  My mother would pull out her poinsettia or “Christmas Bells” tablecloth.  Candy dishes would be filled with ribbon candy, candy canes and foil-wrapped red and green chocolates.  What I didn’t get until years later was that it wasn’t about the food at all.

My mother was orphaned at 12 years old.  My father was raised by a single parent in Francavilla, Italy.  They understood about bringing everyone to their table, celebrating life every chance they could and sharing.  Often we would have so many people at our table, my mother would need to extend the table by rolling the kitchen table into the dining room to accommodate everyone.  We were a family of seven children, but there was always room for more neighbors, friends and family.

Otto, a jovial German-born man with a Humpty-Dumpty frame and a penchant for astrology and numerology would often celebrate with us.  He was a co-worker of my father’s.  My father’s boss, Ernie, a Hungarian Jew and his wife were often invited.  In the 1950s we had many Italian relatives who arrived from Italy knowing few people.  They were often guests at our table.  My father knew a few German phrases he learned from his long-time friendship with Otto.  He also knew a little Yiddish learned from working with Ernie.  it was interesting to hear the dialogue being exchanged in four languages in simple phrases or a native tongue across the table on Thanksgiving.

We always knew when the festivities were about to begin.  We would hear our mother say, “Scram! Everyone out of my kitchen now!”  Amid pots bubbling with vegetables preserved from my father’s garden, stuffing perfectly timed, a lasagna to die for, a turkey so huge it would put your back out for a week to lift and every inch of the oven occupied, you had better clear the pathway from the oven to the table because my mother meant business when she was ready to serve.  She would trek back and forth on the maroon and gray paisley linoleum from the oven to the table proudly displaying each of her own personal creations.

As we gathered, the simple unadorned chandelier would be lit.  My father uncorked a bottle of his homemade wine.  My mother’s “good” china with etchings of colonial women in long dresses promenading with men in powdered wigs was set.  We had glasses and silverware from S&H Green Stamps.  The feast was about to begin.  I thought we were rich. Maybe we were.

Plates would be filled, and if a guest cleaned their plate without asking for seconds, my father would ask, “What, you gave up?”  Before the guest could even respond, my mother would be scooping more food on their plate.  That’s Italian!  If my sisters and brothers or I left anything on our plates, my father would quickly remind us that there is someone in the world who was starving.  My sister Lucille always wanted the wishbone and loved to challenge someone to splitting it.  She always seemed to know how to win the challenge.

So, you might ask, how about an attitude of gratitude and giving thanks?  Our faith was the core of our values.  Sure, we gave cans of food at Thanksgiving.  We went to church and prayed.  We offered thanks for all we had, but my parents always had a soft spot for someone alone or who may have fallen on hard times ANY day of the year.

I remember in grade school, an African-American family that lived around the corner from us lost everything in a house fire.  The children in the family were approximately the same ages as my siblings and I.  When my mother heard of the fire, she woke us up early and instructed us to look through our clothes and give her anything that didn’t fit us anymore.  The clothes were quickly placed in boxes for the family.  So she got a message to the family, and they quickly accepted the offer.  My mother grew up during the depression era.  She often spoke of not owning a winter coat in her adolescent years.  I remember seeing one of the children that was a victim of the house fire on the playground wearing a gray and turquoise tweed dress coat that had been mine.  It never hit me until years later how that act of kindness must have impacted that family.

So when my father retired from his factory job, after 35 years and their children were grown and out of the house, my parents would go to the supermarket once a week and shop for groceries.  They would do one round of shopping for themselves and another round of dry and canned goods for a local soup kitchen.

This is what I remember about Thanksgiving, and I am grateful for these early lessons.  Happy Thanksgiving to you as you gather with your circle of family and friends who are family.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2014. All Rights Reserved.