I rely on my wife to do the talking as well as the listening whenever the background noise makes it hard for me to hear, especially when we’re traveling. On a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, she stayed in an airport waiting room while I went to exchange some currency. I didn’t realize that I had left the secure area until I tried to return and was stopped by guards. I couldn’t show them my ticket or boarding pass because my wife had them.
I was escorted to a small office where I told my story through a hole in a window to a man and woman who spoke English with accents so thick they would have been hard to understand even for people with supernormal hearing. For me, the predicament could easily have become a nightmare. I feared that my attempts to rejoin my wife in time for our next flight would be doomed by my inability to hear instructions clearly. Fortunately, I still had my passport, and that enabled me to get another boarding pass with only minutes to spare.
My hearing is impaired by a genetic flaw that was shared by my father and now by one of my sons. In medical school, I abandoned cardiology because I couldn’t hear the distinctive high-pitched swishing sound made by a damaged heart valve. At first, I thought something was wrong with my stethoscope, but as the years passed, I was forced to accept the fact that I was losing my hearing and that changing stethoscopes was not going to help. To my wife, patients, and colleagues, I’ll bet I’ve said, "What?" tens of thousands of times in the course of my medical career.
_ _ill, _ _ere are many _ _ _ets to hearing _ _ _ _. That’s what it sounds like with half the consonants lost, especially the sibilants. In group conversations, filling in the gaps leaves me two sentences behind. When everybody roars at a punch line, I’m often still working on the setup. By the time I’ve solved the puzzle and can say, "I got it," it’s too late for a shared laugh.
There is a subtle withdrawal from interactions that require good hearing—parties, plays, lectures, people who talk too fast or too softly, people with accents—common knowledge among people with poor hearing. Helen Keller, blind and deaf from infancy, said, "When you lose your vision, you lose contact with things. When you lose your hearing, you lose contact with people."
I now wear bilateral hearing aids. The neurosensory loss has stabilized, and I work in the quietest surroundings I can find.
My wife and I spent our first evening in Barcelona on the crowded Ramblas, a wide pedestrian mall several miles long, famous for the color and variety of its stores, sidewalk stalls, restaurants, fire-eaters, jugglers, exhibitionists, and miscellaneous hawkers of exotic animals. Anything you can imagine you can see or buy on the Ramblas. We saw ancient men sitting on benches gazing straight ahead, impervious to the circus swirling around them. Mimes are the stars of the show.
We watched an immobile Roman legionnaire with a shield and sword who looked as though he belonged on a pedestal on Appian Way; we tired of watching him before he tired of his immobility. There was a King Kong snarling and gesturing threateningly, there were two tigers lying on a blanket playfully curling around each other and a Statue of Liberty holding a torch on high (I felt a tremor of patriotism), and there was a World War I doughboy wearing a metal helmet and olive drab knee breeches and canvas leggings. An old woman stared with concern at a spread of tarot cards. Trumpeters, drummers, and accordion players nodded their thanks when coins were dropped at their feet.
As we walked along, I drew several paces ahead of my wife, and when I glanced back at her, I saw a white-faced mime following me at a distance of no more than a foot, imitating my walk, imitating my over-the-shoulder glance. My wife was close by, smiling at the playlet in which I was suddenly a supporting actor. We paraded in front of our audience, the mime and I. I swayed from side to side. I raised my arms. I stepped high like a drum major. From the laughter, I could tell that he was doing his job well.
Then the epiphany. As we moved past the sight lines of the cafe patrons who were watching us, he patted me twice on the shoulder as if to say, "Well done." In the tradition of mimes throughout the centuries, he said nothing.
Fifteen seconds had passed. Fifteen seconds of silent therapy for my disconnected soul. I hadn’t turned to watch my imitator, but my wife verified that he had mimicked my movements beautifully and amusingly. I imagine that he received some good donations from the audience.
I got more out of the performance than he did, even though I didn’t see it. By his approving touch, he left me feeling intimately connected, delighted in a Kellerian sense, and reassured that for once I had "gotten it" as soon as everybody else had.
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