Eyes closed, head bent forward, mildly sonorous, he sat on the lanai as the sun faded into the western skies. No beach, here, he and his wife of over 50 years live in a modest, but very nice retirement condo in West Central Florida. Because of his fair skin and a few basal cell skin cancers, he avoids direct sunlight, but the screened-in lanai affords him some opportunity for fresh air, sun warmth, and quiet contemplation. Well, not quite quiet. His ears are constantly noisy, seashell noises from time to time, a mix of discordant tones at others, buzzing static, insect noises, and at times very intense non-descript noise.
Ever since that ill fated trip to Detroit over 20 years ago, he has had tinnitus. He contracted a viral heart infection that interrupted an academic conference with an admission to the local teaching hospital. At first, fever and severe malaise dominated. Alternating between excessive drowsiness, brief wakefulness, and extreme fatigue, he remembers feeling a bit dizzy and for the first time in his life, hearing tinnitus. He didn’t remember quite enough to describe the specifics; nevertheless, that was the beginning of ear problems.
Beyond eyelids too heavy to open, he heard a rumbling, speech-like noise that became quite intrusive, bringing back other memories. As the noise chattered incomprehensibly in the background, he remembered the old compressor in the pathology lab. Its cacophonous tones often intruded into his preparations for the board certification examinations in pathology, and doing his daily work as a pathologist-in-training. The drone of the compressor, though, drowned out intrusions from laboratory staff and the din of other nearby equipment.
During his daily stealth-like sorties out of the pathology department for lunch, a perky young nurse always seemed to find him. Though he paid her little mind, initially, she introduced herself to him and he obliged by offering his own name. As he moseyed through the lunch line, she sashayed with effervescent prattle. Her eyes flashed and her face grinned as she vivaciously described her encounters with patients, other nurses, and even her volunteer work. Just out of training herself, she was so excited to be working at the big teaching hospital. She always seemed to stroll with him to a table where the one-sided conversations continued until he excused himself and returned to his disharmonic compressor motor and pathologist’s microscope.
When she proposed marriage, he realized how much he enjoyed her company. Relieved that she always seemed to carry the conversation, he agreed that he would love to spend his life with her. So many years ago, he mused with a certain pleasure and gratitude. She was there through it all, nursing him through the heart ailment and its sequelae. And, when the Meniere’s disease later wracked his body with paroxysms of vertigo, nausea, and vomiting, accompanied by the most intense tinnitus, she had wetted his brow with washcloths, administered the nausea suppositories, and eased his discomfort.
After a few months of the unpredictable and unwelcome vertiginous episodes, he learned that intense humming seashell noise in the left ear portended another moira of Meniere’s. Heralded by ear pressure and depressed hearing, vertigo erupted in short order followed by hour upon hour of whirling, only overwhelmed by eructations of nausea and emesis. And, that gawd-awful tinnitus, variably humming, ringing, katydids, shrill, as if his head would burst. When the attacks became frequent, surgery to cut the left balance nerve resolved the vertigo. Initially, usable hearing was preserved in the operated ear, but in time it became severely impaired. Years later, when the other ear hearing began to fluctuate ominously, he feared the Meniere’s would send him once again into dervish fits of vertigo and disable his only hearing ear. With medication, he avoided the vertigo, but the hearing declined so that listening required utmost concentration, exhausting effort.
Even with hearing aids in both ears, the hearing became so bad that almost all high frequency hearing was unusable. Hearing aids seemed to assist only low to mid frequencies and unless he could see lips, he understood almost nothing complex. Speech sounded like mumble, warbling low frequencies not unlike that old lab compressor. Comprehending speech required close attention to lip reading, watching the speaker’s face, and asking the speaker to slow down. Repeatedly, he had to find the speaker’s face and, then, ask the speaker to start over, speaking more slowly. Any background noise made communication impossible.
In his graying malaise, he was grateful that he had heard his love chatter so endlessly that he knew her every inflection, intonation, and idiom, able in most contexts to finish every sentence and complete every thought. In their early years, he didn’t need to watch her to know what she was saying. Face buried in his journals, study always his passion, just a few syllables from her conjured the full picture. He still knows all of her phrases, but her first few syllables are now discordant stammer to his duplicitous ears. Rather, with what little hearing remains, her rumbling mumble is only interpretable if he scrutinizes her face intently. But, that is not his habit, not his practiced effort, and, now, new predilections are hard to develop.
She complains that he is isolated and depressed. He denies depression, but admits, “it’s so hard to hear, it’s too much effort to bother.” And, thus, he reads in the mornings and drifts into sonorous naps in the late afternoons, with the sun in his face, and tinnitus as his unwelcome companion, until that rumbling becomes a familiar figure shading the sun in front of him.
He lifts his head, wrinkling forehead and bushy eyebrows tugging the heavy eyelids upwards. A distant look forewarns her that he has understood nothing of what she has been saying. Saddened by his isolation, she wants so much to know that he is hearing, hearing her, the adult children, and the grandchildren. “Honey, isn’t it time to get that bionic inner ear implant?”