Today I watched my mother’s world narrow or perhaps I just finally realized how narrow her world had already become.
I took my mother to an audiologist and an ear, nose and throat doctor. Her hearing has been failing for years but today she’s having the first hearing test she’s had in about five years. Unfortunately, the test confirms my fear that her hearing loss has fallen off the proverbial cliff. She’s gone from a moderate hearing loss to a profound hearing loss. It’s a big leap descending into a free fall of hearing deficit.
Seated in the testing booth she’s asked over and over to repeat the words the audiologist says to her. She tries, oh how she tries, but she can’t seem to come up with the correct answers. The audiologist tells her to guess the words, so she guesses and she’s mostly wrong and worse than simply being wrong she knows that her guesses are long shots and that she’s doing badly and her face is a mask of effort, frustration and resigned dejection.
But, she’s a compliant and polite patient so she smiles and she nods pleasantly, but she doesn’t have a clue what they are saying to her. She’s always been a pleaser; she wants you to think that your speaking effort has not gone unrewarded and that she understands what you’re saying. “Look, if I talk to her like this, she’ll understand every word I say,” says the kindly doctor, speaking loudly and slowly, carefully enunciating each word as he squats directly in front of her so that they are face to face. “Why did he talk to me like I’m a dummy?” she asks me later.
I’ve been to a lot of doctors with mom over the years and there’s been bad medical news before, but I haven’t had this much angst in a while. I know she wants to “do well” on this test. It’s important for her to do well, but this time she just can’t because although she hears the sounds, the words have become inaccessible to her. The professionals explain that it’s like tuning a radio, you can raise the volume but if the reception is fuzzy, you still won’t know what the broadcaster is saying. A new hearing aid may help, but not a lot.
Words are who we are. Language is what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have the ability to shape thoughts and sounds in a way that informs, inspires, entertains or motivates others. How much of ourselves do we lose when we can no longer hear and appropriately respond to what someone says to us?
And when the appointment ends, as we walk toward the car she says optimistically, “You don’t need to hear to watch ‘Dancing With The Stars.’” “Yes, that’s true,” I am about to reply but instead I turn, look her full in the face, smile and nod.