An unexpected challenge could have destroyed the relationship. But instead, it strengthened it.
I want to tell you about 10,000 moments. But I’m not sure how.
Each moment by itself would be too small to see, too fleeting, like April snowflakes on the lawn. How could one moment be singled out for description, made more special than the others, emblematic? It wouldn’t do justice to the whole.
But to describe 10,000 moments skims over what each moment meant, the choice that was offered each time and the decision that was made each time, without fail, day after day, year after year.
In the face of my terrible hearing loss over the past five years, my husband made the choice to be kind.
He was kind when he had to repeat himself dozens of times in a day. He was kind when we had to stop having our regular daytime phone conversations. He was kind when I misunderstood what other people said and embarrassed him. He was kind when my frustration blew the top off the house. He was kind when other people would have put their head in their hands and given up.
He took sign language classes with me and then concocted his own sign language just for us. He would sign across the crowded room of a political fundraiser, his made-up language changing every day but his wild facial expressions telling all. He made me laugh and shake my head and not care about being nearly deaf in a room full of important, chattering people. “Do you want to a drink?” he’d sign and point to the bar, using the classic thumb and little finger college frat sign for drinking.
He interpreted for me, restating what people said when their voices were in the wrong range for me to hear. He kept an eye on me all the time to see if I understood what was said. “Did you get that?” his eyes would ask. Sometimes, when I did hear, I’d resent his asking and snap at him. “Yes! I heard that!” I’d bark, exasperated that he just assumed I couldn’t. I hated the presumption that I could never hear. Sometimes, I could.
“It’s not so easy knowing what you can and can’t hear,” my husband would say, shrugging and raising his thick eyebrows just a bit. When he did that, he reminded me just for a second that my hearing situation was a shared burden.
Throughout this long period of my hearing steadily worsening, he insisted that there was no reason I should stop working, no call to close my consulting practice. I’d worked with nonprofit organizations and local government on a wide range of projects for 20 years, my efforts almost always involving working with groups of people in big rooms. Making matters even worse, hearing men was much harder for me than hearing women; sometimes I’d watch men talking to me across a room and hope and pray my lip-reading was accurate. Beards and moustaches, hands held over mouths, men talking while looking down at their papers, all of these little twists made my work as a consultant a growing high wire act.
In the kitchen at night, making dinner, we’d talk about our work days. I’d complain about the increasingly scary difficulty of working with groups, including my terror that I might get something big very wrong in front of a lot of people. It had happened a few times; once a bad hearing aid adjustment had the effect of muting all of the men’s voices in a meeting of 50 people. It became clear when one agency representative was giving me a compliment about a report I’d done. “I’m sorry. My audiologist seems to have turned off all the male voices in my life, so I can’t hear you.” “Can you hear this?” he replied, starting to clap and soon the whole room was clapping. Another kindness I’ve not forgotten.
When I told my husband that I was afraid to keep consulting and was thinking about closing my business, he would act surprised and then dismissive. “Silly talk,” he’d say. “You’ve done fine so far, why quit?” I think he knew that if he agreed with me, it would have been putting the stamp of his approval on my giving up and that would have been terrible. He knew that my work was part of my core. Leaving it would be a big defeat, a terrible loss, the beginning of my disappearance as a fully functioning person in the world.
Once, during one of our very rare arguments about what I had heard and hadn’t heard, I told him that he had no idea how hard it was to deal with hearing loss. “Oh,” he said, “You have no idea how hard it is to be married to someone with hearing loss.” He said this as a fact, not a retort. I didn’t understand how hard it was because I’d never been married to someone with hearing loss. I always believed my frustration and sadness about my hearing loss trumped whatever inconvenience it caused him. But I was wrong.
Now I have a cochlear implant. Every day, my hearing improves. I hear him. I hear other people. I don’t have to ask him to interpret. I’m not dependent on his crazy sign language. I can pretty much maneuver in the world of hearing and speaking people, well, within limits. I’m better but not cured. I see things more clearly now. I see that my husband’s burden, the weight of my hearing loss on him, was so much greater than I ever wanted to think. It was every day, without relief and without much reward.
Looking back over these very long hard years, I know this to be true. I would not have survived the isolation and self-doubt that comes from hearing loss without my husband. It’s that simple.
My husband’s relentless kindness saved me.
At night, in the dark, before I go to sleep, I always tell my husband that I love him. “I love you,” I say, even though without my hearing aid and cochlear implant receiver —all my various pieces of equipment— I cannot really hear myself talk. He can hear me, but instead of answering back, because he knows I can’t hear him, he taps my arm.
Tap tap tap, tap.