Yesterday I was fitted for hearing aids. I’ve known for some time that my hearing is in decline, and the tinnitus in both ears has been driving me crazy, so a couple of weeks ago I drove into town and took advantage of the free hearing test in Sisters. I flunked. I knew that I would flunk, but what astonished me was the extent of my hearing loss. I’ve lost most of the high frequency range in both ears, though the left ear is slightly worse than the right. After the speech portion of the test, I learned that I have difficulty distinguishing consonants, which makes it impossible to hear the difference between words such as death, and desk. I can see many situations where it might be important to hear the difference in those two words in particular, and after consulting with the bespectacled experts, agreed to try a pair of hearing aids.
These were not my grandfather’s hearing aids, which amounted to two cardboard boxes he wore attached to the side of his head. These were funky, high tech, nearly invisible computerized gizmos. When I put them in my ears, I was astonished by the world I have been missing. Truly astonished. For the first time in many years, I was hearing the world with clarity. The definition and sharpness in words and sounds was actually moving on a metaphysical level. I hesitate to say it was like a blind man given sight, because that clearly overstates the case, but I must have been experiencing some degree of that satisfaction because my face was frozen into a kind of perma-grin of wonder and amazement. The tinnitus virtually vanished, which the kind doctor explained to me at some length, explanations that have already escaped my decidedly unscientific mind. My perma-grin was converted into a perma-frown when I learned what they actually cost. The price for admission into the world of good hearing is five thousand bucks. This, my friends, is another First World Problem.
My hearing loss is a direct result of noise exposure. My fault. In the Marine Corps I resisted wearing ear protection–which is to say I didn’t wear it at all, except on the static range. I had what I thought were legitimate reasons, but in retrospect it was a dumb decision. I also never wore ear protection on helicopters, which was an even dumber decision, given that the ass end of a CH-46 is one of the noisiest places on earth. When I discharged from the Marine Corps I refused a disability rating because I thought it would likely haunt me later in life. I wanted to be a pristine human, which is one of the dumber things I have ever come up with. I can distinctly remember the separation counselors advising us all to claim every disability, even those rated zero, because by government magic two zeros become a ten percent rating. I was sure I didn’t want to get involved in any of that bureaucratic weirdness, and didn’t.
My grandfather, who gave me the lifelong nickname of Copas, lost his hearing as a gunner and radioman in Grumman Avengers over such resort locales as Bougainville and Iwo Jima. Fortunately for him, the ear trumpet had been sized down considerably by the time he decided to get his own hearing aids. Without them, he could hear precisely nothing, which he would often use to his advantage when deciding to tune out the world. He also thought it was funny to tell people that he had AIDS, which is not as funny now as it was once. I cut him some slack for this stab at humor, because I can also remember Robin Williams, a funny man by any measure, making a very bad joke about AIDS on stage, in the early years, before the scope of that destruction was widely known. Something about an Iowa farm boy left home alone with the chickens. You get my point.
Recently, my lovely bride was fitted for glasses, and after yesterday I am beginning to see where all of this leads. Minor ailments stacking up like cairns on a desert trail, leading to a place we all know precisely. We live always hoping the trail goes on unending, and of course we are young and have time. Don’t we?
This morning it is raining and where the light breaks through the clouds the ponderosas are gilded in bronze. The bunchgrass on the forest floor, dry at the end of the season, is glowing in greens and yellows. A little higher on the mountain it is snowing, pushing the deer and the elk off the high line ridges. The silence in the forest is its own sound, and so I am reminded of Rilke*,
I would like to sing someone to sleep,
to sit beside someone and be there.
I would like to rock you and sing softly
and go with you to and from sleep.
I would like to be the one in the house
who knew: The night was cold.
And I would like to listen in and listen out
into you, into the world, into the woods.
The clocks shout to one another striking,
and one sees to the bottom of time.
And down below one last, strange man walks by
and rouses a strange dog.
And after that comes silence.
I have laid my eyes upon you wide;
and they hold you gently and let you go
when something stirs in the dark.
These are halcyon days on the Figure 8, friends, and there is always much to do. The turkeys and chickens are waiting for me to feed them. There is wood to chop and stack. The shop is a mess because I let it get that way. The cat wants out. The dogs want everything all at once. I still haven’t sealed the fenceposts with linseed oil. The greenhouse fence needs to come down. Downstairs, my wife is making something delicious and the entire house smells good enough to eat. So my ears are bad and, left untreated, will eventually encase me in silence. Who cares? We have our friends and we have our family, we have our little ranch in the piney woods. We have it made, by God, and I won’t hear anyone who says we don’t.
*From The Book of Images, Rainier Maria Rilke, “To Say Before Going To Sleep”