All is silent except for a subtle, “chug, ta, ta,” a faraway sound like the wheels of a train quietly rolling within me. Next there’s a high-pitched humming like a chorus of midsummer insects.
And nothing else.
No traffic. No voices. No thunk-thunk of the elevator rising and descending outside my apartment. No whine of the front door opening, not even the sound of my husband’s voice saying, “Anybody home?”
Overnight, searing pain and pops in my ears silenced all earthly sounds. Now there’s only the internal and steady voice of my heart beating and blood cycling through me: “Chug, ta, ta, chug ta, ta.”
In the doctor’s office, I tell the nurse about the overseas flight, my cold, the pain in my ears. It’s obvious she’s heard this story many times. She’s skilled at shouting to be understood by the hearing challenged as she carefully and slowly mouths her directions. Her words reach me as if from across an ocean.
A ruptured eardrum. A burst blood vessel in the other. Lost hearing. The doctor inserts something into my ear that whirrs and vibrates. When he finishes, I make out the word “severe,” and am handed prescriptions for drops, steroids, antibiotics and sent home to heal. It will take four weeks.
I am suddenly one of the hearing impaired. No dogs barking, no wind howling, no rain pattering on my air conditioner. When I leave the medical complex, I sense the heavy traffic lumbering up the avenue in my feet, feel the icy wind on my cheeks, but don’t hear it. I walk about New York City in a bubble, oblivious to the woman approaching behind me, the garbage truck’s groan as it backs down a side street, my cell phone ringing. I rely on my eyes to do the work for my ears and scan the roadway to spot the truck’s brightening tail lights. I glance to the right and notice high-heels striding by.
Mornings are the worst. By afternoon, some partial hearing returns but then leaves with the sun. My evenings are silent. On Election Night, I cannot hear the television. I watch the results come in at the bottom of the screen. My morning shower is a muffled, muted event. When a cab driver asks me a question, I lean towards him, cup a hand behind my ear and say, “I’m temporarily hearing impaired, can you say that again?” He looks at me, shakes his head, and turns away.
Most people are kind when I tell them. Or curious about how it happened. Usually, there’s a look of surprise, then concern, and the person starts their sentence again, this time speaking slow-ly. I’m sure I have missed whole sections of conversation, of feelings, of life. I’m separated from the natural chit-chat of weather and traffic and news headlines, the give and take that we all take for granted, the touchstones and punctuation of day-to-day life. In the evening, I turn up the television to see if I can hear it. My husband looks at me. “Is it really, really loud?” I ask the man who I usually implore to keep the volume down a notch. He smiles. “It’s really loud,” he shouts. I lower the volume and then move my head to the screen, place my ear in front of the speaker, and still only detect faint voices in high registers.
At first this altered state feels novel. I like experimenting with the way that I tell people. Or choose not to. A simple, “I’m hearing impaired.” Or, “I’m suffering from temporary hearing loss,” or “I’m partially deaf.” Usually, kindness fills their eyes. A desire to help. I fall in love with humanity all over again.
One afternoon two weeks into this saga, I attend a business meeting, hoping I can wing it with just partial hearing. Women’s higher voices reach me but the lower male ones are inaudible. I interrupt my client and ask him to speak louder. He is a busy person. Doesn’t like wasting time.
“Your interruption made me forget the point I was making,” he says with a harsh look. I hear and see enough to know he is not pleased with me, and I feel scolded for my infirmity. Later, I wonder how often this treatment is a fact of life for the almost sixty million Americans who are hearing or visually impaired, or the millions of individuals facing other physical challenges.
As the days continue, I retreat into this quiet world. I have always been someone who is acutely aware of sound, often far more than many of my friends and colleagues. I notice the quiet hum of a refrigerator, stop always to locate the direction of a lone siren, savor such pleasure when a running motor expires, or when a barking dog on the next block is finally quieted. Loud parties and restaurants, subway train clatter, the wails of airplanes can unsettle me. I often seek out the quiet of three a.m. when my family is asleep, or the hush of dawn after a nighttime storm has left a muffling blanket of fresh snow. The noise of life often pulls me away from the soothing velvety depths of thought, which can feel as unpleasant as being roused from a sound sleep.
With the loss of my hearing, all this has changed. I’m suddenly enveloped in a peaceful world, cradled by quiet. Because I believe it is a time-limited state, it feels novel and precious and a part of me cherishes it, because it comes on the heels of two demanding months of listening to students, conducting interviews, talking to clients, and several long overseas airplane flights.
Herman Melville wrote, “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.” Science supports this. The journal Heart reported the results of an investigation that showed two minutes of silence were more relaxing than two minutes of music. In 2013, Brain, Structure, Function shared the findings of a study exposing mice to two hours of silence daily: Those sequestered in quiet, as compared to the control group, developed new brain cells that appeared to be functioning neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory, emotions and learning.
My attraction to silence appears to have more than a matter of taste. Perhaps I sensed a need to regenerate. Other research reveals that noise can have pronounced physical effects on the brain and cause elevated levels of stress hormones. Sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to such signals even when sleeping and releases stress hormones.
As I relax into my silent state, part of me never quite quiets. I worry that I may not get well and, as I count down the days to four weeks, I look for signs of recovery. But there aren’t any. I tell myself to be patient and to trust the specialist. At the end of week three, with almost no improvement, I begin to think that I’m one of the exceptions. One of those people who will need to watch TV with captions and learn to sign. Someone who will never hear the gentle sound of a wave lapping the shore or a baby’s laugh or my husband’s steady breathing as he sleeps. I tell myself no. I will recover. But the doubt lingers.
One evening, I am hanging up a jacket and I hear chords of an organ playing in my closet. I look around, tilt my head, and search for the source. I glance at the ceiling, wondering if it is a neighbor blasting music. I hold my ear to the wall to sense if it’s coming from above, below, next door, or outside. Finally, I realize the chords are playing inside my head, next to the insect hum, the “Chug, ta, ta.”
I wonder if this is a sign.
In the morning, there’s a loud pop and a door opens. Sound pours in like morning sun. A whistle on the street, the creak of floorboards from my neighbors above, a television droning in the kitchen. “I can hear you,” I tell my husband. “I can hear almost everything,” I say.
By noon, the organ chords have vanished, then the “Chug ta ta” and the internal hum, along with my silent world. As my range grows stronger, I’m relieved to know that I am almost healed. And despite missing my quiet, uninterrupted state, I am soon seduced by the vibrant sounds of the city as it calls me back into life.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/v4w.enko