The Sounds of Silence

by Jessica Dube, RN, MS, Graduate School of Nursing, Class of 2009

Third Prize 2009 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

“Do you heed this slightly sag?” The sales clerk asked, waiving the shampoo bottle in front of me in an abbreviated arc that mimicked the inflection of her question. “Sorry, what was that?” I asked, forcing a smile.

“Do…you…need…this…in…a…bag?” She reiterated, forming each word with annoyed deliberation, as if repeating a naptime directive to a disobedient child. “No, thanks, I’m fine” I said, scooping up the bottle and walking hastily towards the exit. Although at many times in my life I have wished that I could read someone’s mind, this was not one of them. In fact, even with my back turned, I felt like I could sense the thought that was almost shouting through her brain: “What are you, deaf?” Perhaps that was because I felt a quiet voice in my own mind answering: “I just may be.”

It was two months prior that I was first haunted by the ghost of the parabola. A ghost, that is, because it was a shadowy opposite to the intended reality. “This is normal hearing,” the doctor said, pointing to a gently sloping bell curve centered on the page of graph paper. “This,” he said, “is you.” And there was the phantom, unmistakable in its blatant imperfections; pitched down where it should have gone up, right when it should have been left. “It is possible that in time you will go completely deaf. There is just no way to tell.” At that point, I was expecting a burst of dramatic music, the crackle of white noise, or even the crescendo gallop of my racing heart. Instead, there was nothing; me, the doctor, and that sentence hanging in the air, naked and glaring with its honesty. I was twenty-seven years old and just starting my first year of a nurse practitioner program.

Before that day, I never noticed how many sounds that water can produce: A deep gush, a musical swish, a playful gurgle. That night I sat in a bath and savored each separate tone, tapping them out on the gently buoyant surface. With each movement, another question emerged. (Tap) What caused this? (Tap) When will it happen? (Tap) How much will I miss music? (Tap) What if I can’t hear my children cry? (Tap) How will I keep myself safe? (Tap) What if I can’t do my job anywhere? Before long, my hands and feet were shriveled, and the water lukewarm and still. But I had no answers.

“There are so many colors to choose from. You can even pick a tiger print or a golf ball pattern!” The audiologist indicated another photo in a catalogue, grinning with enthusiasm. “So which one do you think that you want?” I pointed to one on the bottom left corner, a peanut-sized plastic triangle colored a gentle champagne. “Are you sure that you want that one? I mean, it’s very plain…But, you know, quite professional,” she said, quickly smiling and punching up an order form. “Yeah,” I replied quietly. “I just want it to be, you know, subtle.”

“I understand,” she said.

My new hearing aids ran out of batteries for the first time in the middle of class. Terrified that someone would hear the series of beeps that marked low power, I quickly yanked the appliance out of my ear, dipping my hair towards the desk surface in any attempt to make the gesture appear natural. I changed the batteries for the first time in the stall of the restroom, my hands fumbling over the impossibly tiny silver circles. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would explain to the audiologist if I needed a new hearing aid because I dropped one in the toilet. That same day, I headed to the drug store to purchase my first pack of hearing aid batteries. As I stood in front of the display thinking “Yellow label, size 11,” I had the strange feeling like I was buying condoms or laxatives; like this was a window into a part of my life that was far too private for public view.

Six months later, my nurse manager stopped in the middle of a conversation and stared at me through the thick lenses of her glasses. “What is that in your ear?” she said, stepping more closely to my side and extending her right index finger. “It’s, um, a hearing aid,” I said, tripping over my words. “Yeah, but how long have you been wearing them?” she asked, still scanning my head with a rapid and deliberate series of movements. “Well, for about six months now. I did tell employee health about it.” “Well, you didn’t tell me”” she said. “Do you need some sort of accommodation? What are you doing about a stethoscope?” She asked, not realizing that her volume was escalating. My co-workers were starting to cast curious glances in the direction of our conversation. “I’m quite fine,” I said. “I have a stethoscope that is digitally enhanced. Besides, my lower range hearing is still fine.” “Well,” she said, “if something changes let me know.” For the first few steps of her retreat, she still faced me, her lips pressed tightly together in a straight line.

In November of 2008, a middle-aged woman came to my clinical site for cough and cold symptoms. As was typical, I waited until I moved around to her back to pull the ends of my hearing aids out of my ear canals, so that I could insert the tips of my stethoscope. After listening to her lungs, I re-inserted the tips and returned to face her. She was staring at me with an odd expression, strangely intent and suspicious. “So your preceptor already knows what’s going on” she said, more of a statement than a question. “Well,” I answered slowly, “I will share my findings with her once we have finished talking.” “But doesn’t she already know?” She insisted. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but how could she know?” She pointed to the right side of my head, where my hair was tucked casually behind my ear. “You have one of those FBI-type of headsets on.”

“Stop fiddling with them,” my husband whispered through the corner of his mouth. “You look like you’re picking your ears.” Picking your ears, I wondered—now how exactly does one do that? I realized, though, that he was right. We were at a dinner party, and someone had made a deaf joke. Unconsciously, my hands reached up to the hearing aids, quietly hidden under the canopy of my hair, and plucked at the plastic tubing. Recently, this had become a habit. “Say something!” A voice inside of my mind screamed. “Let that guy see that he just been really offensive.” And for a moment I considered pulling my hearing aid out of my ear and setting it unceremoniously on the empty dinner roll plate to my left elbow. I pictured the subdued gazes, the awkward apologies. I stared at my soup and said nothing.

Eventually, I talked to a friend of mine who was a social worker. “You need to let yourself grieve,” she said. “This is a big change in your life. It has created a lot of uncertainty.” I nodded in agreement, unable to think of a reply. I wasn’t sure what she meant by grieving. It seemed selfish and counterproductive to sit around and marinate in my problems, my fears. Yet, I had this big darkness ahead of me. No one was able to determine a precise prognosis. And despite the time, I still hadn’t shared this part of my life with many of my friends and co-workers. I had no idea how anyone would react. Most of all, I was afraid that I would not be able to do my job well. That someday, the gentle thump of a heartbeat would only be a memory.

“Well, if you’re looking for inspiring, this may not be it,” my friend said gently, as he read the first pages of this story. “It needs a climax…some great moment of epiphany.” “Yeah it does,” I replied, turning inward. I tried to think of some moment of profound and soulful bravery, where I had finally faced and conquered this hidden insecurity. Nothing came to mind. It was, quite literally, quiet survival; the first steps in a long journey. “Perhaps I should title it ‘A coward’s tale of hearing loss,'” I said, smiling slightly. He studied my face for a long moment, his expression almost unreadable. “No…I don’t think so. More like, ‘A human’s tale of hearing loss.'”