14 May 2006

4 the adventures of deafOline

“A deaf person is always more or less a tax upon the
kindness and forbearance of friends.”
— Hawksley Catalogue of Otacoustical Instruments, 1895

i'm going to go out on a limb here and admit that i probably haven't heard about 50% of what you* have said. so all apologies if ever there was a moment where you looked deep into my eyes with wonder as i responded in an entirely out-of-character, shockingly, sexily unexpected way- perhaps supporting your stance on communism or the fig eater or julia roberts with a girlish giggle or a vigorous nod of the head followed by an exclamation of "oh yeah! I KNOW!" i didn't exactly know. that was just my wry, hipster way of avoiding the question of grandmothers the world over: "honey, could you repeat that?"

the "i am a deafo" epiphany is a vivid memory. it was this sweltering memphis summer morning around the age of 6. mr. rogers was on in the background, my babysitter was scrambling eggs in the kitchen, and the collie of my childhood was rubbing against my bare legs. i was twisting the phone cord in my fingers and shouting at my grandfather over the line. i couldn't hear anything he said. he suggested switching ears. i did, and that other one- the right, the so-called "bad" ear- has been pretty much useless ever since.

we're a family with dysfunctional ears so this didn't come as an incredible shock. there were a bazillion ear infections, tubes were put in, tubes were taken out. one left a hole in my ear drum that would be patched up repeatedly, leaving a mess that prompts a sharp intake of breath in every doctor who has peered in ever after. in hushed tones they delicately inquire, "have you ever had an ear infection?" i always wonder if they've actually been to medical school.

school mandated hearing tests created similar awkwardness. i was the one kid who always failed. a concerned nurse with a furrowed brow and dusty white sneakers would usher me into a brightly lit room with wall-to-wall reading rainbow posters and break the news (always in the most booming of tones) that i couldn't hear. my lack of shock, no doubt, unnerved them.

for the sake of complete confession, there was occasional cheating on the very many audiology exams i took. particularly as i got older and particularly after surgery, when my family and the doctor would be so hopeful and excited and the nurses would lead me into the sound-proof booth with enthusiastic smiles. after all the hoopla, a poor performance just seemed like ingratitude. and there was a naive part of me that figured my cochlea just had low self-esteem. that a good showing would provide it with a much-needed jump-start.

so i cheated, casually observing the nurse's movements out of the corner of my eye and, based on that, pressing the button at appropriate intervals. there were entire ranges of tones i couldn't hear so this was by no means a fool-proof method and it never did lead to phantom full recoveries. but there was the occasional encouraging 3% increase that kept us all hanging in there. sometimes 3% seems miraculous.

the problems created by hearing loss are similar to the problems that arise from going by one's middle name. my mother tried to withhold my first name from the school system but they tracked her down and made her fess up. still, i didn't know i was "faith" until first grade, when my name was called over the intercom and the teacher said, "caroline, that's you." it so was not me. my official name would morph throughout my academic career, in an effort to eliminate the embarrassment of having a name that wasn't mine and having to speak up on the first day of every class and admit that. even in graduate school i was faith "caroline"- which made it seem artificial, as though i were a faith trying to pass as a caroline and doing a not very convincing job. as a deafo, you try to pass as someone who can hear what's going on. it's a tough act.

the goal is to blend in. but much as my mum's "f. caroline" request created bureacratic drama, so too did her dear discreet "caroline has a hard time hearing but please don't treat her differently" notes. though i needed to be at the front of the class with all the blind and smart kids, it was mortifying nonetheless. the supreme example being miss higgins, my 5th grade mathematics teacher, who interpreted the "caroline has a hard time hearing" note as "caroline is stone deaf and can only read lips." thus, my hatred of math was born after a year of unsettlingly intense eye contact and pointed, deafening repetition: "CARE-OOOO-LIIIIINE, WEEE ARE ON PAAAAGE TOOOO.....HUUUUN..DRED....AAAAND....THIRTEEEEE....TOOOO... DOOOOING LOOOONG DEEE-VISIOOON." there was nothing to do but turn to page 232 and laugh.

growing up, i learned ways to hide the deafo stuff: always walking/sitting to the right of people so they get the "good ear," avoiding games of "telephone" or whispering of any kind (it requires a tricky turn of the head that could easily result in an accidental kiss on the lips situation), perfecting interested facial expressions in loud environments, and nodding like i really meant it. deafoness is something that can be hidden from general acquaintances though i know, at times, i appear fantastically vapid as a result. but it's so temptingly easy to slide into conversations on the strength of a sentence's last three words and never have a clue what is being discussed. much easier than stopping the conversation, asking what was said, running the risk of missing it again and then being forced to actively participate because you thrust yourself into the conversation by asking in the first place.

my mum has always believed that my quietness and deafoness are inextricably linked. i'm the queen of one-on-one, and admittedly rather inept in groups. but still i've never known why people struggle to hear me because the truth is, i'm crazy loud in my head. perhaps the noise is insulated and bottled up so it's amplified. she wants me to try some sort of auditory assistance device (a fancy name for a plain old hearing aid). but after a childhood spent making fun of belltone commercials, i just can't quite do it. part of the problem is a fear of how truly loud the real world must be. i've had glimpses- the queens of the stone age concert, for one. i have enough irrational fears- birds, electrocution, etc. to add loud noises to the list just seems masochistic.

but despite the inconveniences of deafodom (chief among them, never being able to distinguish from what direction a sound is coming), it is comforting in a way. if you wear contacts or glasses and aren't completely blind, you have an idea of what i mean. without contacts, the world is a little scary but it's also softer, slower and everybody has perfect skin. bad hearing is like that in a way. it's not like i can't hear the wind or raindrops or my creaky floorboards. i can. it's more like my little everyday world has a pillow over its head. i live in mono sound. and it becomes easier to shut things out but also to feel more deeply the things you do let in.

yet, there are little moments when i hear what i'm missing. for months, i couldn't understand why miss vieve never purred. she would sleep in the sun, roll all over the bed, play with my hair, walk over my work and generally look like the happiest cat that ever lived. but she never purred and, because i'm a silly girl who's madly in love with my cat, that made me kind of sad. then the other day, when it was very quiet and she was napping in my lap, i leaned down to kiss her silly, clammy head. she was purring up a storm. she had been all along.

*PLEASE NOTE: you (yes, YOU) may ONLY reference this post in the most-lighthearted, mocking, "ha! ha! you can't hear!"/"belltonesoline!" way. any earnest blubbering of "you're so brave!," teasing of "can you hear me over here?" serious "oline you don't have to be a deafo" convos, sudden volume escalations, insinuations of lipreading, miracle ear interventions or anything vaguely of the sort will result in immediate banishment from movie night and termination of all witty oline correspondence. marlee matlin is not my hero. i didn't cry when the hearing impaired miss america won. i didn't consider that a triumph for "my people." i do not belong in the church's deaf congregation. and i will claw you if you suggest otherwise!


Bombsy said...

OMGOline! I ALSO have bad hearing. Put that in our lengthy commonalities column, under having people, diet soda, only childness and lucky #8.
But my deafoness more often takes the form of mis-hearing people. My brain fills in blanks, and usually with very innappropriate things. I once had a boyfriend whisper "Try me greasy" in my ear. After 3 days of intense awkwardness, it turned out he said "You drive me crazy." See, being a deafo can make the world more funny, huh? I never knew you had a bad ear! I'll proceed accordingly.

Clark "not so effen hardcore" Price said...

my comment was lost in the ether. :(

Clark "not so effen hardcore" Price said...

Ok here goes. Something to the extent of you being a deafo is like George on Seinfeld when he dated the deafo and he couldn't make a move because her good ear being on the wrong side. (that was a long sentence, most assuredly butchered the english language)
Probably finished with that you most likely didn't have any problems hearing me because I am so loud. I like to think that I project.

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