Deaf people can get blindsided by sound. Even those of us who truly embrace (yes, even LIKE!) being deaf or hard of hearing have an experience with sound that is not only surprising but truly profound.
Music is something I have always enjoyed, especially when it is played well, I’m familiar with it, it hits the right frequencies, etc. It’s a whole-body experience, and many of us with atypical hearing have the ability to hear different sounds so to say a deaf person wouldn’t have access to it is just not so.
Not long ago, I was in church where a guest musician I had never seen before was singing. She has an amazing voice but a couple notes emerged that I could hear really clearly, much more so than the others. It was beautiful to listen to but also startling because I could also FEEL it. It was as if it was directing a whisper thin beam of light pointed at the space behind my heart making it rise and fall, effectively punctuating an emotion I couldn’t quite identify. All of the sudden, I had a lump in my throat and I found it hard to contain tears in my eyes. Or actually it was just my left eye. That bastard betrays me EVERY time I’m trying hard to keep it in check. I hate that!
I’d try to think about something funny to get it together and her voice would start soaring again and I just couldn’t help it. These notes evoked such a response. I realized I had felt this before.
It reminded me of the first time I heard my daughter’s voice.
I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been a consistent hearing aid wearer since I was 5. I take care of and use them for REALLY long periods of time. My first one lasted 9 years and subsequent ones have had similar lifespans due to my diligence — or perhaps my pigheadedness. And due to the process of getting used to them (why do you sound like a robot?), particularly breaking in new molds (ouch!), getting new ones is rarely on the top of my to-do list.
This was the case when my daughter was born in 2010. My hearing aid was pretty old at that point andI had all kinds of new-mom brain. I was working in an all-signing environment and my husband is also Deaf so I wasn’t very reliant on sound clarity for communication day to day. I could hear with it, but with questionable quality. But it was good enough, it was quasi-serving its purpose.
Fast forward to 2013 when my son was born. Same hearing aid, sound quality probably really iffy by then but again I wasn’t relying on it to have an absolute clarity so it remained at the bottom of my priorities. So when my parents came to visit to meet the new baby, I had an experience that was enough to ker-fluff me out of my little un-sounded nebula.
I was sitting in the courtyard of their hotel nursing my son when all the environmental sounds unceremoniously cut out like a light. The back part of my hearing aid had pathetically dropped off the tubing plopping onto the ground somewhere behind me. Now, this made me feel a bit vulnerable because #1 as much as I didn’t care about the sound quality, I DID need my hearing aid to communicate with my family comfortably during their visit. #2 it was a little embarrassing because I was in a public place BREASTFEEDING! I didn’t exactly feel like I had my shit together. And #3 I felt like I had to sit there and wait for him to be done before starting to look for it because I didn’t feel like my boob hanging out and a screaming baby would help the aforementioned vulnerability issue.
The hearing aid, of course was eventually found and reattached without too much external fuss. Not without a small glare and comment from my Dad that I should “get that taken care of”.
Roger Dodger. Wake up call complete.
So off to the audiologist I went. Beeps, boops, this, that.. wha-la new digital hearing aid (purple back with sparkly mold which my toddler was jealous of! Can’t make this up.) I didn’t have huge expectations of the sound, I was just getting another hearing aid.
Well, apparently in that decade between this purchase and the last they made some large strides in clarity progress(?) I know this because when the audi started talking to me through her stethoscope with a microphone plugged into my hearing aid deal, “Jennifer, how does this sound?” – my mouth fell open.
“Is that you, God?” I asked.
With her elbow propped up on the desk, I got a medical-professional-grade glare in response but this was a legit religious experience. This was the CLEAREST sound quality I had experienced in my lifetime. And THEN came the getting used to fact that everything was so friggin LOUD… well, let’s just say we had to adjust it so as to get me back to an in-body experience before I left so my head didn’t blow off completely, but it was definitely MUCH clearer than I was used to.
My daughter was 3 at the time and our life was pretty crazy hectic with a new baby in the family and two working parents. She was signing fluently and talking (sim-comming the way KODAs – that’s Kids of Deaf Adults – tend to) but it wasn’t often I paid much attention to her actual voice. That night, I was getting her ready for bed and it was dark in the room she was sharing with her brother. He was already asleep and I didn’t want to turn on the light. She was telling me something but I couldn’t see her that clearly. But for the first time…
I heard her voice.
And it was a voice I had never heard before… it sounded brand new. She was telling me about her day and her friends and what she was working on at school. It may as well have been an angel speaking to me. It was so SWEET! And in that moment, it didn’t matter that this SOUND coming from my beautiful girl was coming at me via a piece of machinery I’d long had a love-hate relationship with. I didn’t know where to put this new feeling because I very much cherished this new sound.
While I loved what I heard in her voice, I also felt a little terrified. This pushed me back into a world I thought I had long left behind. Not completely, but my foot was in it. A sound-dominant environment is what had dis-empowered me for a good amount of my formative years. Realizing the power in silence and fully-accessible visual language is truly what raised me up as a human. To go back and forth risks shaking the foundation a bit. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, right? But here was something new in this sound world that I wanted in mine. Leave it to kids to throw monkey wrenches in what you have (supposedly) all-figured-out.
So I spent years just kinda sitting with this pickle of a principle, re-thinking these values and where I wanted to land on the spectrum. People who are completely hearing or completely deaf don’t necessarily experience this like those of us who have had a taste of both worlds – y’know, the Gray Zone. Once again, I started to doubt myself. I started to feel this weird guilt. I started to entertain thoughts that maybe I WAS missing something if I didn’t maximize all mechanical devices that enabled my natural hearing abilities to access each and every sound it could. I really struggled with this because the idea of going there took me back to such a powerless place. Then recently, something extraordinary happened.
My now 6 year old son, the second-kid-reluctant-signer stopped me when we were leaving from a fun dinner out while on vacation. He looked straight up at me and signed: ME. LOVE. YOU. Not the “ILY” handshape or sim-commed or with a wink and a hustle-hip-bump. He was deliberate and he communicated from his heart what every parent wants to hear. And then he put his arms around my waist and held on.
I was as if I heard HIS voice for the first time.
The same whisper-light-beam settled in behind my heart and it began to beat in a rhythmic answer to every uncertainty I was having.
This really isn’t about sound at all. It’s about love.
So many millions of parts that make up our whole beings. We’re DESIGNED that way. What I’ve learned is that I don’t have to try to fit a mold set by someone else or an image you have about what needs to be. You can be uniquely YOU.
Run with that.
I love my daughter’s voice. My son’s too. They’ve told me everything I need to hear.