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Edith Iglauer

Hearing aids have a life of their own

Considering that the combined age of me and my friend Frank (now my husband, Frank) is 185 years, it’s no surprise that hearing aids play a dominant role in our daily lives.

We both wear them; I in both ears, and Frank in the ear that works. That one has forty percent hearing, and still does its job better than my two. Long before I knew Frank, a renegade nerve in his face that causes suicidal pain, known as tic douloureux, required surgery. On the first try the surgeon severed the wrong nerve, and when Frank woke up from the operation he was deaf in his right ear.

Deafness is congenital in my family. In her later life my mother became “stone deaf,” which she described by saying, “I can’t even hear the sound of my own voice.” Lip-reading lessons enabled her to tell us what a person sitting at the next table in a restaurant was saying, a marginally interesting exercise not worth the sin of eavesdropping. We communicated with her mostly by writing on a lined note pad that she carried around; for example (during a visit to a zoo): “Does this camel look like Aunt Belle?” She thought it did.

At that time, the 197s, hearing aids had a nasty habit of buzzing unexpectedly. After my father died my mother, urged along by the rest of the family, continued timidly to attend the Thursday night performances of the symphony orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio, as she and my father had done since it was founded in 1918. Whoever sat next to her in what had been my father’s seat was instructed to tell her right away if her hearing aid was buzzing so she could turn it off. In the middle of a performance I attended with her, it buzzed while the music was playing, and I had just tapped her elbow and pointed to her hearing aid when she received an anonymous note, delivered hand over hand from several rows forward, which read: “Your hearing aid is making so much noise that it is ruining our enjoyment of the music. Please turn it off.” She had done that already, at my signal. She felt so humiliated that she never went to another concert.

The hearing aids available now are much better, even though the racket of my automobile tires rolling on the road and the background music in restaurants are so mind-boggling that Frank leaves his one hearing aid at home with suspicious frequency.

At home Frank and I are mutually sympathetic to the obligation to face one another and speak loudly; or, when we are away, to supply each other with new batteries when we forget them; but we have no defence against the independent wandering behaviour of our hearing aids. They are always someplace else. I probably have spent one percent of my life, close to a whole year, looking for the damned things.

First comes the chilling revelation that we don’t know where they are. All other activities are put on hold until we find them. When we are about to go out and I suddenly say, “I can’t leave until I find my hearing aid,” I am touched by the way Frank immediately joins my search; tearing the bed apart or getting down on the floor to look, an act of supreme nobility since neither of us can be sure of getting up again without calling 911.

For those fortunate enough never to have seen hearing aids, they are roughly the size of a small thumb, ranging from less than one inch to almost two inches, depending on the style. Some are so small that they fit neatly into the ear cavity, while others, like mine, consist of machinery in a small curved container behind the ear, connected by a plastic tube to a custom-designed mould in the ear. The moulds are thoughtfully skin-coloured, which makes them even more difficult to locate once they have escaped.

Three cheers for the batteries that make the whole thing work, but they are untrustworthy. Their slippery round quarter-inch size invites trouble. Putting them in and taking them out of the tiny receptacles in the hearing aid requires delicate finger work and furious concentration. Once the battery has made its getaway to the floor, usually among the dust bunnies under the bed, or into the netherworld under a car seat, forget it.

My first encounter with vanishing hearing aids was sinister. I went innocently to bed, turned out the light as usual and, as I laid my head down on the pillow, I removed my hearing aids. I reached over in the dark toward the familiar small table by my bed and dropped them there.

The following morning I could not find them anyplace. The search ranged throughout the house: under seats and couch cushions, over and under rugs, on desks and tables, in the laundry basket, in the refrigerator, stove, garbage. Frank and I were both exhausted and I was in tears. Where oh where had they gone?

I went back to the bedside table to get a Kleenex and shrieked, “Here they are!” My hearing aids were just where I had dropped them in the dark—in the glass of water that I kept by my bed. Goodbye hearing aids.

Much too soon after that, I bade farewell to another hearing aid that made an unfortunate laundry trip in the pocket of a skirt. It met its end either in the washer or in the dryer; I will never know which.

I do not leave liquid by my bed any more, and I check all pockets at the washing machine, but it has taken me years to stop dropping my hearing aid in my lap when I use my cell phone in the car. That phone is an old instrument, without frills, on which I hear better than any other telephone I have; but first I have to remove my hearing aid and press the phone to my ear.

I am absent-minded, so I was not too surprised one afternoon when I put my hand up to my right ear and found it empty, after I had been sitting in my doctor’s waiting room for an hour. I ran down to the street, saying a small prayer in the elevator that my hearing aid was still in one piece wherever it had fallen from my lap when I got out of the car.

Was I ever lucky! The hearing aid had been sitting for an hour about two feet from my car on the open street, and nobody had driven over it or stepped on it! After I did the same thing on a ferry boat, I decided not to push my luck further. I have made a firm rule that when I use my cell phone, I never take my hearing aid out of my ear without dropping it into my open purse. I would like to say that I have kept to that rule, but I am trying.

At least that’s better than what I heard in the locker room at the swimming pool from a friend whose fisherman husband is as deaf as I am. “Ray was tying up our boat the other day,” she said, “and both hearing aids fell out of his pocket overboard.”

Another friend described an anguished search of her mother’s apartment for a lost hearing aid. “It was suspected that Mum’s Boston terrier had eaten it,” she said, “and in the end, it turned out to be true.”

Frank’s one hearing aid is as crafty as my two. One of his grandsons got married last summer, and as we left the house with plenty of time to arrive for a 3:3 p.m. ceremony, I said, “Have you got your hearing aid?”

“No I haven’t,” he said, and the frantic search began. A dear friend had been supervising our preparations for the great event and all three of us began looking through every inch of the house.

When the clock hands reached 3:3 p.m., I said in a low voice to our friend, “I haven’t got the nerve. We’ve looked everyplace else. Find Frank, wherever he is. Don’t ask him. Just look in his ear.”

And that’s where it was. When we arrived at the wedding, both of Frank’s sons were standing in the driveway with their arms outstretched as if to catch us as we flew in. This was a large outdoor wedding and the guests were seated on the grassy hillside beside the road, with all heads turned toward us. We were literally lifted from the car into our seats, and the ceremony began.

The most eccentric and, yes, fearsome confrontation with my free-spirited aids occurred when one of them took advantage of me on a hospital operating table last summer to leave while I was having surgery, a total hip replacement. I needed to talk to the anaesthetist, a shadowy creature I had met only once, and the operating table was my last chance. After a satisfactory conversation, I curled up on my right side on the table and took a snooze while the surgeon did his work. I woke up still on the table and touched my right ear.

Empty!

As the attendants were preparing to remove me, I said as loudly as I could, “One of my hearing aids is gone.”

One of the nurses patted my hand gently. “Too late,” she said. “It must have been swept away. There’s no way to find it.”

My son Jay came to see me in the recovery room. “Run, don’t walk to the Hearing Centre where I bought my hearing aid,” I said. “I think it’s still under the warranty but there’s no time to be lost.” I was right. It had one more week to run.

Recently, Frank and I were sitting in a restaurant in Vancouver on a rainy day and I casually said to him, “I don’t see your hearing aid. Did you forget it?”

He clapped his hand to his ear. “Oh! I left it at home,” he said.

“Do you know where?”

He looked a little funny. “As a matter of fact, I do. I left it on the deck on a rose bush.”

“What’s it doing there?” I said. I looked out the window. “It’s raining here. I wonder if it’s raining at the house. Might I ask why you left your hearing aid on a rose bush?”

“I forgot to take it off when I went in the pool this morning at Aquafit. So when we got home I thought I’d better give it a chance to dry out. I put it on a rose bush in the sun. When we left, I forgot all about it.”

“Which rose bush?”

“The one in the big pot on the deck, just under the living room window.”

I took out my hearing aid, carefully dropped it in my purse and pulled out my cell phone. I called my wonderful neighbour. “Hello Vera,” I said, “Is it raining up there?”

“It was such a beautiful day,” she replied. “But it’s raining now.”

“I have a rather odd favour to ask,” I said. “Frank thinks he left his hearing aid on a rose bush under the living room window.” I could hear Vera laughing. “Please, would you mind running over and taking it out of the rain?”

“I watched Frank do that,” Vera said. “I saw him put his hearing aid carefully on the rose bush, so I know which one it is. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m leaving it there to dry.’”

Vera still laughs whenever she tells about how she found the little hearing aid on the rose bush, innocently swinging from a branch. It was quite dry, in spite of the rain.

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Edith Iglauer

Edith Iglauer is the author of five books, including Inuit Journey and The Strangers Next Door, and many articles in The New Yorker and other publications.

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