This is a story about sound, loss and love. Are you listening? When I was ten, I contracted a severe case of the mumps. My mother worked for the State of Maryland matching adoptive parents with available children. My sisters were in school during the day, so I stayed home by myself for two long weeks with a fever, headache, and cheeks as plump as the class hamster’s. I’m sure I was told to rest, but 14 days is a long time to roam a silent house isolated on a country road when you’re in fifth grade. After going through both sisters’ personal belongings, (sorry), and trying on their clothes and makeup, (sorry, sorry), I gave up and got back in bed with a hand mirror, so with an occasional glance at its surface, I could pretend I wasn’t alone. My companion was a restless, moderately resourceful girl with the mumps.
Since getting sick, spring had come to the river. Yellow forsythia ran riot against the fence, flowering dogwood was a lacy understory along Eagle Hill Road, and the breeze from the south carried the faint scent of Georgia peach blossoms. The world was coming back to life, and I was finally returning to school. But the night before I was to catch the bus in the morning, a wave of dizziness hit so violently and unexpectedly, I was literally knocked to the floor from where I perched on a stool talking on the phone to my friend Sally. Unable to stand from the cascading waves of vertigo, I inched my way up the stairs on my hands and knees and into bed where I was found hours later in a darkened room. The mumps had been followed by a viral inner ear infection which blazed through, as they often do, without medical intervention.
In the humid heat of a Maryland July, my mother would ask the audiologist as they conferred in his exam room, whether things might have been different if she’d brought me in earlier. He wore a white lab coat, she, a flowered blouse, and a pastel skirt. I watched him say no as he touched my anxious, pretty mother on the arm.
We had been referred to a Baltimore specialist because since my recovery, my left ear felt weird, numb, different from the right. And I was aware of a constant ringing in it. From a soundproof booth behind a glass window and wearing earphones, I was instructed to raise my hand every time I heard a tone. Highly motivated to please, I wanted to pass this test and most of it was quite easy. Then, not so much.
The doctor’s assistant and I locked eyes as she manipulated the audiometer and I strained to obey her instructions. But the ringing in my left ear was making it impossible to distinguish the machine-generated tones from the sound already there. Confused, then panicked, I must have raised my hand when she wasn’t producing a sound, and that must have looked like I was lying, messing around, wasting her time. All I know is she narrowed her eyes through the window, opened the channel between us and said, “Do I have to get your mother in here?” I certainly heard that, and the unspoken second half of that sentence as well, “to straighten you out?” I sat there mortified to have been disciplined by a stranger.
Classmates, teachers, friends couldn’t tell, and no one can tell now, but I had been compensating with exceptional hearing on my right side for some now-verified loss on the left. Tests demonstrated that I could hear the low tones of male voices but women’s less well on that side, it being primarily higher frequencies that had been compromised. And from the time I was 10, this has been an invisible burden I’ve unconsciously mitigated. I read lips without realizing it. At cocktail parties when many people are chatting at once and standing very close, I might find myself gazing intently at the lips of strangers on my left–a form of paying attention which may look like flirting.
And I hold the phone to my right ear although sometimes when you’re talking, I shift it to my left just to confirm to myself that I can hear from that side, it just requires some concentration. But it is tricky to distinguish the direction of sound. Friends call to me in a parking lot, and I turn in the opposite direction like a puzzled pup. Or I hear, but incorrectly, sometimes answering questions that weren’t asked, or commenting inanely on what I think you said. Yesterday a client on speaker phone told me her husband Matt had just had surgery. I thought she said cat and asked if he had to wear a cone on his head to protect his incision.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve been brought to my knees in gratitude for this loss. I could have lost so much more. An invisible virus, rampaging through a child, could have stolen my life as I know it. Could have left me unable to hear an obstetrician sing out, “It’s a girl!”, to hear the receding hiss of waves racing back down the beach to the ocean. Or distant fog horns on the Chesapeake. I could have been left unable to detect danger: the sound of the ice on Gray’s Creek cracking beneath my skates, footsteps accelerating behind me on a darkened street. All of these abilities are easily still there.
So perhaps loss gave more than it took. The gifts she brought are subtle but profound. Because when you speak, I am fully present and being fully present fosters an intensity, an intimacy, a connection that feels like love. And without thinking about it, because it’s become part of me, when I listen to you tell your stories, I’m also reading your face, and decoding your tone of voice–which I’ve learned is a far better indicator of what you feel than your words.
When you lose something no one can see, you learn that some deficits are invisible, actually most of them are, don’t you think? When spared by a stroke of luck, you say thank you to the power that threw the dice, knowing loss is an intimacy that seldom comes to call empty-handed.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.