When I was 10 months old, I survived a week-long bout of spinal meningitis that left me with a moderate-to-severe hearing impairment. When I was about three or four years old, I was outfitted with my first hearing aids.
My mother tells a story of the family going for a celebratory lunch on the way home from the fitting. After two or three years of living in a very quiet world, suddenly I could hear dishes and glasses and flatware clanking and the dining room buzzing with conversation. Apparently I found this very upsetting and became annoyed and grumpy. My parents, of course, were never so happy to have a grumpy toddler on their hands, for it meant I was finally hearing the world around me more or less on par with everyone else.
More or less, but not the same.
Yesterday, after nearly 50 years of wearing aids and hearing the world in my own special way, I was fitted with new hearing aids with the latest digital technology, including a Bluetooth interface with my iPhone that allows me to stream phone calls, music and other audio from the phone directly to my ears with incredible clarity. These tiny hearing aids have six circuit boards in them controlling virtually every aspect of how sound can be collected, processed and delivered to the brain.
The digital programming in today’s hearing aids has become so refined and sophisticated that these aids have profoundly changed the way I hear the world and I have had them for less than 24 hours.
I hear my own voice differently, I hear Brian’s voice differently. I hear things I’ve never heard before. Some of them are startling, some annoying. At the moment some may even be dangerous to me. I got behind the wheel of the car yesterday to drive a short distance home and I’m lucky I didn’t have an accident on the way. The sound of the tires on the pavement, the rumble of the diesel engine, every audible stimulus that most of you adapted to during drivers ed was suddenly thrust upon me and I found it quite overwhelming.
Also, I had no idea our refrigerator was so loud! I didn’t know that my keys made quite so much noise dangling from my belt loop, I didn’t know that the home button on the iPhone 5s actually makes a clicking noise when you press it. I could feel all of these noises before, but that’s a completely different experience, and a quieter one at that.
As a child learning to live with a hearing impairment in a hearing world, I had to learn a number of life lessons early and quickly. My parents were incredibly forthright and practical in their approach to these lessons. When I was frustrated because I lived with restrictions that the other kids on the block didn’t have — like running AWAY from a water gun fight — they agreed with me that it wasn’t fair. But, they said, life isn’t fair. “You know what you can be thankful for?” they said. “The spinal meningitis didn’t kill you. You were born at a time in history when we have the technology to help you hear.” They were right, of course.
I don’t remember that luncheon the day I started hearing the world around me again; I was three years old. Right now, however, I can relate to that toddler’s reaction to the new sounds, albeit through the lens of wisdom collected over the succeeding 50 years.
I am grateful.
I am grateful the spinal meningitis did not kill me.
I am grateful for the technology that resides in my ears.
I am grateful for the people in my life who have made it possible for me not to get by, but to thrive in this world of sounds despite my hearing impairment.
I am grateful for my parents who always found the funds to buy the next pair of hearing aids and the next package of batteries, for they have never been covered by insurance and they aren’t cheap. I’m grateful to them and the rest of my family for so many other things too numerous to list here.
I am grateful for Brian who has been my backup set of ears all these years. Also because these new hearing aids are way less cheap than any others I’ve purchased, and he didn’t flinch. He didn’t know that because of them we’ll also have to buy a new refrigerator.
Finally, I’m grateful for my new hearing aid guy, Tim Hagan. He reminds me of my first hearing aid guy so many years ago, Mr. Lenge. Except I’m on a first name basis with Tim and he doesn’t give me a lollipop when I visit his office. But not since Mr. Lenge has a hearing aid professional had such a meaningful impact on my life. I had become accustomed to the way I heard the world, unwittingly complacent, even. But we don’t know what we don’t know, and he knew I didn’t know what was possible for the world to sound like. He convinced me to take the leap.
I’m grateful he did.