Can you repeat that?
If you’re around me for longer than 15 minutes, you’ll notice I say “What?” a lot. Also, “Excuse me?” or “Pardon” or “Huh?” As a last resort I say, “I wear two hearing aids and it sounds like you’re asking me to feed your hamster in Fuji.”
I was 38 the first time the world went silent. The gradual muffling of daily life was so subtle that I didn’t realize it was happening until I covered a death penalty trial in St. George. When the defendant began his testimony, I couldn’t hear him. Not one word. He spoke into a large black microphone, which completely hid his mouth.
I had two thoughts: “How long have I been reading lips?” and “This is a game changer.”
And so it was. Two days and a few tests later, an audiologist announced, “You have 40 percent hearing loss in your right ear. The left one isn’t looking so lucky, either.” (Okay, she didn’t use that exact terminology).
There are tones and pitches I don’t hear, consonants I can no longer distinguish. (F and S and “thank and “Frank” sound the same to me. So if you say “Frank was thankful for the soft fabric,” forget it. I’m liable to reply, “My grandma was named Sally, too!”
So I got a hearing aid. Five years later, my left ear decided to shut down so now I have a matching pair. (Actually, they don’t match, but it’s a long story involving a hungry beagle).
What’s it like to be partially deaf? In a word, exhausting.
I comprehend less than 80 percent of what’s being said, even with hearing aids that cost a combined $5,000. I’ve gotten good at lip reading, and paying attention to context helps, too: If we’re discussing meat loaf, you probably didn’t say, “Come with me to Paris.”
Distance matters, also. If you leave my house and yell something while getting into your car, I have no idea if it’s, “We had a great time,” or “Your dog is rabid.” I just don’t know. So I smile and say, “Absolutely!”
That’s my go-to word. When I can’t grasp the utterance, I try to figure out the sentiment and agree with it — so I say, “Absolutely!” or “I know, right?”
If you’re silhouetted with the sun behind you, I can’t understand you. If you speak to me while facing away, I can’t understand you. If we’re in a noisy place—party, mall, henhouse—and I seem distracted and irritable, it’s because I am. So many sounds are happening at once it’s hard to concentrate.
Phone conversations are interesting. One day last week, a woman called asking if we could “recommend someone to babysit.” I paused, my mind working frantically, and finally replied, “You need someone to help with … toilet training?”
“No, he just turned seven,” she replied.
“Who put a child in the oven?” I asked, and it went downhill from there.
According to Katherine Bouton’s excellent first-person account, “Shouting Won’t Help,” 50 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, and the fastest-growing segment is between the ages of 19 and 44. That’s a lot of people going, “Say what?”
I used to be embarrassed about wearing hearing aids, but no longer. If I can’t understand you, I explain why and life goes on.
Everybody has something—some people limp, some people have false teeth, some people wear Coke bottle glasses. I can’t hear 100 percent. Sometimes it’s challenging, and I appreciate the patience that most people show.
There are worse problems to have. You hear me?
Julie R. Smith, who says “Huh?” in her sleep, can be reached at email@example.com.