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September 7, 2010

On My Deafness

Roy Meachum

“On His Blindness” was written by John Milton, an English poet surpassed only by William Shakespeare. Too bad Ludwig van Beethoven was only a great composer; but he spoke another language.


Under the title, Mr. Milton began:


“When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless…”


The poem’s last line is much more famous, although most who quote it have no idea of the source:


“They also serve who only stand and wait.”


Blindness is a demonstrably visible physical disease, proclaimed wisely by those afflicted, through dark glasses and canes; seeing service dogs advertise their owners’ affliction for anyone with working eyes except those who can never see. Since 12, I wore glasses that were governmentally demanded later on driving licenses; but I went for my last MVA examination, the woman asked: “Do you wear glasses because they help you to see more things?” A subtle way of her informing me that my unmagnified vision was very acceptable for the state of Maryland.


But my other major social faculty is not home free. Herr Beethoven could not luxuriate in his splendid compositions as others do, more than several generations since he died.


The tragedy of not being able to understand everything said in classes and on the training field was the reason I withdrew from Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School. A particular lecture warned the life expectancy of a platoon leader in combat was approximately 48 seconds. Proceeding with the course put fellow soldiers, my wife and very small child under that threat, although none of them was told it even existed.


I left Columbus, Georgia, having fortunately, by the way, been diagnosed with flat feet, which I certainly have; but they’re rarely a hindrance. I kept open the option I might return; flat-out resignation would clamp tightly doors on all wannabe officers’ training courses. After OCS, however, I grew increasingly isolated as other voices and sounds receded for me.


A doctor (otolaryngologist) diagnosed my fading hearing as otosclerosis, a condition created by bone (oto) silting into the ear channel, much as sand clogs up the Suez Canal. He performed surgery comparable to the Canal’s de-sanding operations. (Zula Meachum blamed the same ailment on blowing her nose too hard while suffering a cold. Medical auditory science was breathtakingly rushed to treat head wounds during World War II, after grandma’s time.)


Deciding opening the right ear would prove more effective, the surgeon proceeded to sliver bone away, on that side, so that the stapes might do its job, fluttering to differentiate among sounds, for example, so that I could actually recognize individual words. The operation restored a world I had not known since early adulthood. I could actually hear the music I danced to.


But the reconstruction in brief years collapsed, leaving the right ear nearly totally deaf; its left brother took up the burden for them both. Not without help.


A series of disguised aids followed the first I received; the microphone hidden in my eyeglass frame, the amplifier-mould rendered flesh-colored to hide, mostly out of sight. Over the ensuing years, it was replaced by models smaller, eventually turning into an inconspicuous object concealed completely in my ear.


The cosmetic obfuscation brought on misunderstandings, some comic; let me cite the most common and embarrassing, for me and the well-meaning: Spotting my hearing aid in the left, various people talked, sometimes whispering, pointedly to my right ear. Inevitably they were startled when I told them I could hear nothing on that side. Completely misunderstanding, and doubtless embarrassed, some pitched their voices higher and much louder, thinking to penetrate my handicap. These times were embarrassing for both parties.


If after nearly 50 years I have accepted a situation I cannot change, friends and acquaintances express increasing irritation; since I can carry on conversations under most circumstances, they do not grasp why I stay away from crowded rooms: overbearing sound can be like a torture chamber for me, literally. A well-known tactic of breaking a victim down consists of turning up the volume to blatantly deafening, and holding it there, waiting for him to crack.


In some situations, I have not been able to escape, lest I cause a scene for people who have absolutely no idea what I am being submitted to. When I know the ear-drum busting will end at a specified time, it seems wiser to take the oral bludgeoning than complain. I’ve done that a lot.


As the years march by the dilemma occurs with greater frequency, only decreased by my staying away from large gatherings. Miracle Ear’s Doug Shepard alerted me that age attacks the nerves in ears, which is why so many seniors ask younger types to speak up. Over years, audio nerves sag along with bellies.


Having accepted responsibility for the specific problem years ago, Doug provides input both professional and personal, in an effort to avoid disasters. Initially, the veteran pro took exceptional care to hang on my ear the electronic contraption that might work for me under most circumstances; in this age of miracle gadgets, the best of them go bonkers now and then. We all know that.


Let me urgently stress, I do not belong among the severely hearing impaired; they have totally different needs and crises. And face much more horrendous problems.


A very good friend recently learned the true miracle of good aids; he swears by my hearing counselor; I cannot disagree. In trying to pursue “normalcy” day-to-day, we two, along with other “deafies,” become quasi-experts in bluffing and pretending; to cope with events that are more than “normal” for our invisibly crippling deficiency. Some pretend very well. In my Washington years I knew distinguished statesmen, U. S. Senators and a president who relied on hearing aids, at least now and then; rarely were they suspected of the handicap.


We “deafies” all bluff through occasional situations – out of politeness or misunderstanding. But when we stand up and confess we do not know what’s on, please, listen through your good ears.


Thank you.


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