This article originally appeared in the Reporter’s Senior Summary, February 11, 1999.
My friend and summertime neighbor for close to 35 years is a tall, handsome woman in her late 70’s. Chris keeps herself lean and supple with two-mile walks, daily swims and weekly golf. Blessed with financial independence, superb health (her mother lived to be 102), five devoted children and nine gifted grandchildren, she appears to have “the golden years” securely in her grasp.
Except for the fact that she has had a profound hearing loss for the past 25 years.
Chris first began to notice the problem in the early 1970s. Her husband would “sneak” up on her and, in the manner of husbands, take some malicious delight in declaring, “You’re getting to be as deaf as a door post.” An audiological exam revealed nerve deafness; an early childhood disease or illness the suspected culprit. She was fitted with two aids, but the older technology was inadequate.
Dinner at her house, which all the grandchildren out of diapers and high chairs were required to attend, was a serious challenge. Guests and family one by one speak-ing slow-ly and more clear-ly to the hostess who, more often than not, would reply, “Say again.”
Even a one-on-one with Chris, without the special problems background chatter created, was demanding. We’d meet occasionally for a late afternoon cocktail on her porch.
Sitting opposite each other with the light of the sinking sun full on my face (Chris could also lip-read), we’d chat about old times and dead husbands.
Heading home, I’d reflect on the patience we both needed just to talk to one another and the mutual affection required to sustain the simplest discourse.
For I have found, as perhaps you have, that the hearing impaired tend to become artful monologists. Consciously or unconsciously, I believe they dominate the conversation as a way of hiding or denying their loss.
Some forms of human communication just don’t work with them. Banter, with its light, easy, swift exchange is impossible. Question and answer substitutes for dialogue. Asides are non-existent and jokes a stilted, witless recital.
This was the summer when Chris’s hearing aids took to disappearing, inadvertently slipped into a pocket or a kitchen drawer. I wondered about this.
When September rolled around, the children and grandchildren departed and the house settled into its customary hollow silence. A seductive, deadly and at the same time comforting silence, because nothing was required. Chris resumed her weeding (her lawn and her hedges are her twin passions) and my singular memory of her that fall was a figure alone and kneeling on a great empty lawn, working the malicious roots with her bare hands, in a silence vast and deep.
Christine’s world, a metaphor, indeed, for the land of terrible isolation inhabited by the deaf — where no clocks tick, leaves rustle, birds sing, frogs croak, refrigerators hum and no alarms ring to wake those who are dead to the world.
One last reflection; at the age of 65, one out of four Americans is hearing impaired. At age 75, one out of two.